Bywater's mission is to keep the red tide at bay

As baptisms into the world of League management go, Nigel Clough conceded with a wry smile last week, facing the best club team in the world three times in your first eight games can reasonably be described as being of the fiery variety. And yet, as Clough pointed out while his Derby County squad completed their preparations for today's FA Cup fifth-round tie at home to Manchester United, it has probably been no bad thing.

"First, the pressure on the players is less than usual because there are no points at stake and people don't expect them to win; and secondly, they're measuring themselves against the best, which usually means they lift their game to the sort of levels you want to see them playing at in every match," Clough said.

Derby's results since they lost the second leg of their Carling Cup semi-final 4-2 at Old Trafford last month bear this out. A draw at home to Nottingham Forest in the Cup was followed by an unfortunate defeat at Birmingham, then there were successive victories over Coventry, at Forestin the replay and away to Plymouth last week. The banter level has risen accordingly at County's impressive training complex.

"It's amazing how three wins changes everyone's perceptions," said Clough. "You wouldn't have heard them a few weeks ago, but they're looking forward to coming in to work again.

"Of course United could dent that, they can put four or five past any team. There's no point worrying about individuals when they have 25 world-class players. You could get murdered whether you sit back or go for them, so you might as well be positive."

Having seen his team score eight goals in those three successive wins, Clough's intention may be understandable, but he acknowledges County's defence will have to provide a solid platform if they are to have any hope of success. In that respect, the clean sheet at Plymouth pleased him almost as much as the three goals scored, although as Derby's goalkeeper Stephen Bywater said, the United examination will be somewhat more severe.

Asked, inevitably, how long he has ever gone without conceding a goal compared to his United counterpart Edwin van der Sar's current record of 1,212 minutes unbeaten in the League, Bywater laughed. "Over the past 18 months, probably about three minutes.What he's done is magnificent, but for me the priority is wins. Someone said to me, the season we got promoted to the Premier League, that Preston goalie Carlo Nash had the most clean sheets. Did they get promoted? No."

At 27, Bywater, a Lancastrian by birth who was signed by West Ham from Rochdale when he was a teenager, has not enjoyed the sort of career many predicted when he, Paul Robinson and Chris Kirkland were in the England Under-21 squad. Injuries, including broken bones in his wrist, have not helped, but Clough's decision to bring him back into the Derby first team at the expense of Roy Carroll has been rewarded with some impressive displays – and a new three-year contract.

"My aim is to play consistently, and be in a similar situation to Robert Green when he was at Norwich, when he played well for a few years and then got a move into the Premier League. I'm still young for a keeper, and I hope to do the same with Derby. Realistically it's going to be tough to reach the play-offs this year, but next season we'll start with a clean sheet."

In the meantime, United await. "We've not really been thinking about the likes of Ronaldo and Rooney, it's a chance to express ourselves," said Bywater. "It's exciting – and you never know in football."

Today's games

Everton v Aston Villa (2.30pm, Setanta Sports 1)

One for old-timers here: a tie between British managers and mainly English players from two clubs with 12 Cup wins. Villa have outstanding away form but the game is less crucial to their season than Everton's.

Derby County v Manchester United (4.30pm, ITV 1)

In Brian Clough's day, Derby would have been favourites. Nigel has it harder, despite the shock of a Carling Cup semi-final first-leg victory the day after he took over. At least they will not have to get past Edwin van der Sar once again, as he will be rested. (The draw for the quarter-finals of the FA Cup will follow this match.)

Steve Tongue

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'