Since the summer before last, Birtles has been on not so much the breadline as the stale-crust management game with Gresley Rovers. The Derbyshire village club, the pride of Church Gresley, were left with few crumbs of comfort when they emerged from the 1996-97 season as the Premier Division champions of the Dr Martens League - the Southern League before corporate patronage stuck the boot in, as it were. Their Moat Ground was not good enough for the Football Conference. And their finances, it transpired, were not good enough for their contractual obligations. Their championship- winning team disbanded, with two members of the squad, Brian Horseman and Gareth Jennings, appealing to the Football Association to claim money owed to them.
Amid the wreckage, Paul Futcher left for Southport and Birtles, his former central defensive partner at Grimsby, agreed to step up from assistant to launch his managerial career. "It has been a baptism of fire," Birtles reflected, surrounded by the latter-day silverware at the City Ground - the pots in the tea-room. "We can't sign anyone on contract until we've paid the ex-players who took us to the FA. We didn't have a penny to pay the current players in the final 14 weeks of last season but they got us out of relegation trouble. We're still in debt to people but we're on a more level footing now. Manchester United came down to play us in February and that got us right out of the financial mire. Alex Ferguson was unbelievable. The players have been paid every week this season. And things have been going well."
They certainly have. Birtles' boys matched Walsall, Second Division promotion rivals of Brian Little's Stoke and Kevin Keegan's Fulham, for 79 minutes before bowing out of the FA Cup with a 1-0 first-round defeat at the Bescot Stadium last month. And, against all odds, Gresley are challenging for the Dr Martens title once again. They started yesterday third in the table, behind Nuneaton Borough and Bath City, and the little villagers will start favourites for the traditional festive-time tussles with their big-town neighbours Burton Albion. Burton need the points from the Boxing Day derby at Eton Park and from the New Year's Day return at the Moat Ground as much as Gresley, but for rather different reasons. They are struggling in the relegation zone. They are also, as it happens, managed by Nigel Clough.
Clough Junior, of course, was a striking partner of Birtles at the City Ground. And it was his father who bought Birtles for pounds 2,000 from Long Eaton and made the one-time carpet-fitter into an England international valued at pounds 1.25m by Manchester United. "Nigel's the nicest guy I could have ever wished to meet in football," Birtles said. "He was just a young lad when I first saw him. He used to come down here with his brother, Simon, and kick a ball against the wall of the players' car park outside. Watching him come through from there, into the Forest team and then into the England squad, was pretty special.
"I was lucky enough to play up front with him in my second spell here and how he's still not playing league football I don't know. But I'm delighted to see him just down the road with Burton. He has played a few games for them, as a centre-half and sweeper. We both did that here actually. His dad put me at the back and he put Nigel in defence too.
"Of course his dad has been an influence on me. I'm sure if you ask any of the ex-Forest players who are in management they'll say the same. If you haven't taken in some of the points Brian Clough put across then you don't deserve to be in the game, because he was the best club manager, without doubt, this country has seen. Obviously you don't want to try to carbon copy him because no one could do that. But you can't help asking yourself: 'Well, how would he have done this?'
"I look back at the way he did things off the field as well, how he relaxed players and how he took the sting out of situations. This was always a happy place to come to work and I'm sure that's one reason why Leicester are doing so well under Martin O'Neill and John Robertson. They're two fabulous blokes, two witty people. The atmosphere around Filbert Street must be one of hilarity at times."
Birtles is his own manager. He can be seen in jacket and tie rather than green sweatshirt on match-day bench duty. At 42, though, he is ambitious to follow in the managerial footsteps of his old boss - and of his old Forest team-mate. "I look at what Martin O'Neill has done," he said. "He started at Grantham and has steadily worked his way up. We can't all be Bryan Robsons, Kevin Keegans and Kenny Dalglishes who get into top jobs straight away. Some of us have to start at non-league level and it's a good grounding for ex-players. It is like one of Brian Clough's favourite sayings: 'Learn your trade.' And that is what I'm doing."