Nigel Clough doesn't recall making the comment that Steve Evans, the Crawley Town manager, has been invoking to stoke up tension ahead of the non-League side's FA Cup tie against Derby County tomorrow. Evans claims that when he left Burton Albion to take charge at Pride Park, Clough said he would relish "never having to go to places like Crawley again". Describing the third-round draw as "poetic justice", Evans barked: "It is on public record what he said, but now he has to come back."
Clough greets this information with a blank look. "I don't remember saying that," he says. However, he has not forgotten Evans, in his Boston United days, calling Burton "a pub team". One suspects their reunion at the Blue Square Premier club's Broadfield Stadium will not be noticeably cordial. Neither has Clough forgotten that his father would rib him, not completely in jest, for settling for what he perceived as "an easy life" looking after Burton's part-timers rather than seeking to test himself at a higher level. He stayed with the Staffordshire club for more than 10 years but insists it was timing, rather than lack of ambition, that lay behind his reluctance to move on. Sadly, by the time the opportunity had come to be the second Clough to manage Derby, Brian was no longer around to bask in parental pride.
"My father had no experience of managing in the Unibond or the Conference so he didn't know what it was like," he says, being purely matter-of-fact. "It is different at Derby but I would not say it was harder. Whatever the level, you have the same sort of problem trying to find players who will go through a brick wall for the club. I did not want to leave Burton and it is unlikely I would have if it had not been for Derby. But it was not about being in a comfort zone.
He says "there probably would have come a point" when he wanted to test himself at a higher level. "But it would have had to have been right for the family. The kids were settled in school and I didn't want to give up a good job at Burton and move 250 miles to the other end of the country." He could argue, too, that if he craved an undemanding appointment he would not have entertained taking on Derby, particularly when the task assigned was to slash an unsustainable wage bill on behalf of owners – United States-based General Sports and Entertainment group – who burned their fingers funding previous managers and wished to rein in.
"I did not know it would be quite so severe as it has been but I knew it would be hard. The owners have put a lot of money into this club and at the moment have seen no return for it. This is the way they want to go forward and we have to work within that. When they came in – before we arrived – perhaps they had bigger ambitions. But when you are a successful businessman, you don't just keep investing and investing if you are getting no return."
Clough has reduced the annual wage bill from £15.5 million to less than £10m. Of the players he inherited – assembled by Billy Davies and successor Paul Jewell at a cost of more than £15m in transfer fees – less than a quarter remain. It may dismay supporters that they now have a middling Championship side to cheer on, but it could be worse.
"It is extremely difficult to rebuild the team in those circumstances," Clough says. "While other teams are buying established Championship players, we are having to pick ones who haven't quite proved themselves."
The "we" now includes Simon Clough – Nigel's brother – whom he has made his chief scout, adding another dimension to the Clough dynasty. Family appointments in football have not always been greeted positively, but Nigel insists his older sibling's credentials are sound. "Simon and I have watched football together for 40 years, from European Cup finals to the Unibond North. He has been around football clubs for as long as I have and you can only benefit from that experience and knowledge of the game."
They have been canny, picking up bargains from Exeter (Dean Moxey) and Crewe (James Bailey and John Brayford) and going back to Burton for Jake Buxton, while plugging gaps left by injuries through judicious use of the loan market, from where Shefki Kuqi (Swansea) and Luke Moore (West Bromwich Albion) have served them well.
"We are having to back our judgement and pick players who might come good in the next year or two, so it is a gamble. You are going to have the kind of inconsistency we are finding at the moment, where we have a great run but then we lose five in a row."
The fifth – painfully – was at the other Clough stamping ground, Nottingham Forest, where the last game of 2010 resulted in a 5-2 humiliation. Clough (left), Forest's second-highest scorer of all time, was so disgusted that he broke with normal etiquette and named the players he felt had most let him down. "It was nothing to do with how I felt personally. I don't really look at it on a personal level because for me as a professional it is about my job as Derby's manager.
"I look at it more from the point of view of the 4,500 supporters who travelled. To lose to your local rivals is unsatisfactory at any time but to lose in the manner in which we did, to give goals away as we did, was extremely hurtful to everyone at Derby. I don't regret naming players. I more regret playing them. A local derby is about who wants to put his head in, put his foot in where it hurts, who wants to do everything he can not to concede a goal. Two or three people did not do that and we named them."
As a player, Clough's bravery was never questioned. His thick skin as a manager – which he may need again tomorrow, by his own admission – should not be either. Derby's fragile form goes on the line against a team whose goal of winning promotion to the Football League has been underpinned by heavy investment in players, including a reported Conference record fee of £275,500 for ex-York striker Richard Brodie.
"When you have a non-League team who can spend close to half a million pounds on new players you have to take them seriously. They probably have more money to spend than us. We have got a few who have played in the Conference and they will know what it is like. They will know how hard Crawley will work to stop us playing. At Burton we played Manchester United in the Cup, played with nothing to lose and took them to a replay. There will be one or two shocks over the weekend. We don't want to be one of them. But we are not in a mood to go anywhere with confidence at the moment. I don't think we'd be that confident even at home."
Thick-skinned. Brutally honest, too. With his softer looks, they used to say Nigel took after his mother more than his father. Perhaps not any more.
Crawley Town v Derby County is tomorrow on ESPN, kick-off 8pm
Life and times
Name Nigel Howard Clough.
Born 19 March 1966, Sunderland.
Height 5 ft 9in.
Clubs Nottingham Forest, Liverpool, Manchester City, Sheffield Wednesday (loan), Burton Albion and England (14 caps)
Manager Burton Albion (1998–2009) and Derby County (2009-current).
Family Coached at Forest by his father Brian, who publicly referred to him as "the No 9". Made 403 appearances at the club and is their second-highest goalscorer with 131. His father also managed Derby.
Honours Two League Cups (1989 and 1990), scoring twice in '89 final victory over Luton. Burton were also promoted to the Conference as Northern Premier League champions.
Controversy During Derby's 1–0 win over rivals Nottingham Forest, was accused by Billy Davies of kicking him in the knee during a pitchside altercation. Clough denied the claim and nothing came of Davies's official complaint. Was also sent to the stands during Derby's 3–1 home defeat to Ipswich – he was fined £1,000 and given a one-match ban.
Fascinating facts Football-mad Irish band The Sultans of Ping FC wrote a song about Clough. Given away free with a Forest fanzine, it was entitled 'Give Him a Ball and a Yard of Grass'; the lyric was a quote by his father about ex-Forest winger John Robertson. In the 2009 film The Damned United, a young Nigel Clough was played by Oliver Stokes.