TUESDAY, March 1 is an intriguing date for your diary. The return of Nigel Clough to Bramall Lane with his beloved Burton Albion.
Will it be a top-of-the-table clash between two sides heading for promotion? Is it going to be a night when Clough is able to say ‘I told you so’ as his high-flyers take on United still lost in mid-table? Or will Burton have fallen from grace, United recovered and it’s Blades fans who will be gloating?
The permutations are exhausting and it is not inconceivable that Clough will be given a polite reception. Anyone, however, who still doubts Sheffield United’s bold decision to sack Nigel Clough at the end of May should have been at the Press conference announcing his return to football earlier this week.
They would have seen two sides to the former Blades manager, one of which fans at Bramall Lane never witnessed. The smiling, wise-cracking Clough happy to share a few jokes with the local media and his boss alike. It wasn’t Saturday Night Live at the Apollo but it was a dramatic departure from the man who cut a sullen figure in Sheffield.
There was also the familiar. The stubborn, painfully cautious Clough whose ambition is tempered by a need to avoid risk at all cost. In his mind, not unreasonably, you start with a draw and build on it.
How it is executed is the key. In reality, as Blades fans are only too well aware, Clough’s method means sitting back, squeezing the life out of creativity and entertainment and relying on the counter attack.
Don’t forget either that this is a man who has spent almost 18 years in football management with all the benefits and contacts his surname provides and he has one Northern Premier League title to show for it. With all due respect to Burton, Clough has chosen to avoid challenge and return to his comfort zone at a club that is more than happy just to maintain its League One status.
His negativity, between witty asides, was already evident as Burton Albion, with a three-point lead at the top of League One and where Clough spent 10 years before moving to Derby, was reintroduced to the waiting media by chairman and personal friend Ben Robinson.
That lead was increased to five points on Saturday evening after Clough’s new team, in his absence due to a prior commitment before he accepted the job, won 3-0 at promotion rivals Gillingham, an outstanding result. To be fair – and even the three former amigos from the Lane, Clough, Andy Garner and Gary Crosby, would surely agree – owed more to the influence of former boss Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.
'EASIER IF WE WERE TOP 10'
Back to Monday’s Press conference. “If you drop off from that position (top of the table) then it is perceived as failure," said Clough. "It is brilliant in lots of ways, far better than fighting relegation, but in a lot of ways it would be easier if they were top 10 and looking to improve.” I doubt Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink who won promotion with Burton last season and propelled them to the top of the table again in this campaign would have viewed it that way.
Clough, a rapid replacement for Hasselbaink who joined QPR in the Championship, pointed out that his managerial credentials had been enhanced since leaving Burton Albion, then a Conference club, in January 2009. “Experience improves you as a manager,” he said. Judging from the comments that followed Clough clearly didn’t learn much in his 18 months at the Lane other than he was right and everyone else was wrong.
Burton fans heard this week that in Clough’s view the “players are over-achieving.” That “the second-half of the season will be much more difficult than the first”. He told reporters: “I remember the first time many years ago when Ben said to me ‘we’re going to get promoted this year’ and I said ‘what happens if we don’t? He said ‘we’ll have a go next year’. That’s a lovely way to look at it.”
Not unlike his outrageous view prior to United’s play-off semi-finals against Swindon when he said: “People ask ‘is it a failure if we don’t go up’. We don’t think it is. Other people might judge it differently.” They did and rightly so.
What about this weekend’s trip to Gillingham just three points behind leaders Burton. “The important thing is to not give anything away.” said Clough who pointed out that he went to Gillingham with United last season operating the same game plan. “We were doing alright,” he explained, “until the goalkeeper made a mistake and we ended up losing 2-0.” Well that’s OK, then.
JEKYLL AND HYDE
Events at the Priestfield on Saturday afternoon, a clean sheet and three goals, would appear to prove him right, but you get my drift. At this early stage It surely only serves to prove that Hasselbaink’s team was capable of carrying out instructions and Clough’s United wasn’t.
And that counter-attack? “At Sheffield United I kept telling them just give the ball to Jamie Murphy.” Murphy scored 12 goals in 58 appearances last season, a ratio of almost one in four. He managed only two goals in United’s crucial last 16 fixtures which ended in bitter disappointment and Clough’s departure.
Clough is a Jekyll and Hyde character. An honest man who deceives himself. A decent man but whose stubbornness is devisive which led to disunity in the dressing room at the Lane, in the stands and in the Boardroom.
He often refers to how he helped to dramatically cut the wage bill at Derby and still build a strong team. How in 18 months at United, he transformed a team looking at relegation to finish seventh and reach the FA Cup semi-finals. That was, indeed, outstanding.
What followed was hollow. Yes, United reach the play-off semi-finals and the Capital One Cup semi-finals. It sounds impressive. In truth the cup run was a fortunate sideshow which distracted from United’s inconsistency, negativity and disunity for which Clough was wholly responsible.
Good luck to him and Burton Albion who under Hasselbaink performed something close to a football miracle. Clough’s new career got off to a flyer even if he wasn't there, but I’m glad he will be in the visiting dug-out on his next visit to Bramall Lane.