Hull v Sheffield United: Nigel Clough’s collective spirit sharpens Blades for FA Cup clash


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The past will never let go of Nigel Clough. His name sees to that. The past does not care much for Sheffield United’s visits to Wembley either. Between them the Cloughs and the Blades cannot find much comfort in history for the stiff task that lies ahead against Hull City.

Brian Clough never won the FA Cup. Nigel was in the Nottingham Forest team for his father’s sole final in 1991, one which ended in controversial defeat after Paul Gascoigne was carried off instead of being sent off and Tottenham came from a goal down to win 2-1.

“We have a better referee this time, that’s for sure,” said Clough and then he swept away the memory. The past, his or the club’s, with a string of defeats at Wembley, has no play on the outcome of tomorrow’s semi-final. “I won’t use it as a motivation.

“It’s largely irrelevant what [winning the FA Cup] would mean to me on a personal level. I am looking forward to leading a team out. That will be special, although I wish I was two or three places back and playing.”

Clough enjoyed his own playing successes at Wembley, collecting two League Cup winners medals with Forest and scoring twice in the 1989 victory over Luton. This will be his first visit as a manager for a game he is not expected to win. United lie mid-table in League One and it is only over the last couple of months they have surged away from the relegation zone. Yet to get here they have gone to Villa Park and won, either side of league defeats at Walsall and Notts County, and gone to Fulham and won off the back of defeat at Crewe.

Clough arrived at Bramall Lane in October. David Weir had been dismissed following a run in which the club failed to win after the opening day of the season. The turnaround was not immediate but over the last couple of months the improvement has been dramatic, including a run of nine straight wins. Clough’s time at Derby County, where he arrived after a lengthy apprenticeship at Burton Albion, ended in September after a poor start to his fifth season at Pride Park. The evidence from his time there is inconclusive. There was progress but there were also several bust-ups with players.

His new players have nothing but praise for him, and the manner in which he has revitalised United. “The biggest thing is the team spirit has just been fantastic,” said Neil Collins, a key figure at centre-half. “He’s fostered a great group mentality, that we’re all in it together. He’s quite low-key in a lot of respects. He tells you what he wants and he lets you go and express yourself and that’s a real positive. He’s not too forceful – he trusts his players.”

Ryan Flynn, twice a former FA Youth Cup winner with Liverpool, believes Clough has restored smiles to the club. “He’s a right joy for us,” said Flynn, who scored the winner at Villa Park. “Everyone is really enjoying their football, coming in day-in, day-out and enjoying training. That speaks volumes really.”

When he spoke on Thursday, Clough was still pondering how much advice to offer his squad via his own Wembley experiences. He thought his players were nervous in the opening stages of the quarter-final against Charlton and worries that might strike again tomorrow.

“We’ve got concerns about quite a few things on Sunday,” said Clough. “We will try and put them to the back of our minds, concentrate on the game and enjoy it. I can’t do too much to help them. We can give them a little bit of advice about what it’s like.

“If you look at it in the cold light of day, a good Premier League side against a League One side, there is no betting really. But the Cup does funny things and we have players who on their day are capable of doing something.”