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."
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.)
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