STEVE McClaren says he would have walked to Derby when the opportunity arose to manage the Rams.
McClaren started the season as part of the coaching staff at Queen’s Park Rangers, the Rams’ opponents in today’s Championship play-off final at Wembley.
Rangers boss Harry Redknapp handed McClaren a route back into English football – and now the former England boss stands one win away from taking Derby to the Premier League.
“I had three great months at QPR,” said McClaren.
“They were fantastic to me, and for me at that time but I always had one eye on getting back into management and once this opportunity came up at Derby I didn’t have to drive here, I’d have walked here.”
McClaren was appointed head coach following Nigel Clough’s sacking at the end of September.
Derby sat 14th at the time and went on to finish third.
They saw off Brighton convincingly in a two-legged play-off semi-final to set up today’s Wembley date with Redknapp’s Rangers.
Derby’s climb has thrilled supporters.
“We are pleased for the club, for the likes of (chief executive) Sam Rush, for the supporters, and for the city as a whole,” said McClaren.
“We have developed very quickly going to the play-offs and finishing the season third with a record number of points for the club and as top scorers.
“You can say we deserve to be in the final.
“As I have said, Sam Rush showed a lot of courage to change managers.
“Nigel Clough, I’ve always said it, had done a very good job here because Derby County were in a lot of trouble financially and he had to work with that, and work with it for five years.
“He did a tremendous job and left a very good squad of players.
“We were so lucky myself, Paul Simpson and Eric Steele coming in, that we had good players.
“When I was working at QPR, I was keeping my eye on Derby, watching the kind of football they play.
“I thought ‘that’s a good football team’, full of youngsters.”
And McClaren is delighted that the buzz around Derby County is back.
More than 38,000 Rams fans will roar the team on at the national stadium and the feel-good factor is what pleases the head coach most.
“It wasn’t about setting targets – play-offs or the Premier League – when we arrived,” he said.
“It was about bringing the buzz back to Derby County, getting everybody talking about Derby County and wanting to come through the turnstiles.
“It was about full houses, great atmospheres, and a team the city is proud of.
“What pleases me is we have done that very quickly.
“So yes, today is a big game and yes, we might be going back to the Premier League – but we’ve actually brought the buzz back and Derby is where it should be, at the forefront.”
McClaren recalled the atmosphere at the iPro Stadium for the victory over rivals Nottingham Forest and in the play-off semi-final second leg against Brighton.
“Those occasions were fantastic, and are what this football club is all about,” said McClaren, who likens the current feeling around the club to the days when Jim Smith and Arthur Cox were in charge.
Smith guided Derby to promotion in 1995-96 and also to successive top-10 finishes in the Premiership.
Cox won back-to-back promotions in the mid-Eighties and took the Rams to fifth in the top flight.
“It is the buzz we had with Jim Smith, and with Arthur Cox when I was here as a player,” said McClaren.
“I think we were near third bottom and then went on a remarkable 32-game run.
“We got into the top two and we were holding on in the last six games.
“They were great days with Jim. I knew then what Derby County was all about, I knew it as a player.
“I kind of knew what this city was all about, and coming back we (McClaren, Paul Simpson and Eric Steele) just want to create those times again.”
Asked if he still speaks to Jim Smith, McClaren replied: “Yeah, he rings every game and wishes us luck.”
Any words of wisdom?
“Jim? Words of wisdom? Words of wisdom all the time!”