Could there conceivably have been a finer way of preparing for the arduous task of stepping past the European champions and reaching Wembley? On the eve of Manchester United's arrival in the east Midlands for the Carling Cup semi-final first leg, Derby County yesterday confirmed the appointment of Nigel Clough as their new manager.
After a precipitous slide to a position five points above the Championship relegation zone, the club have persuaded the 42-year-old to follow in his father's footsteps, making his appointment a long-term one for the struggling side. "He's got a presence about him and he commands respect," the Derby chairman, Adam Pearson, said last night. "He's firm but fair and I think he'll bring a considered approach to managing this set of players. He is very much his own man but he does want to create his own dynasty at the club. We think he can make an immediate difference."
The cold realities will soon become clear to Clough, who leaves Burton Albion 13 points clear at the top of the Blue Square Premier, as there will be little money to spend this month. "I want him to work with this set of players," Pearson said.
But first, United. Though Clough will be present tonight, academy manager David Lowe will take charge of the team, Paul Jewell's assistant Chris Hutchings having followed him out of the door after Clough's appointment. Quite what Clough's father would have made of Derby being under American ownership – Detroit-based investment group General Sports and Entertainment bought the club in 2007 – is anyone's guess but the proprietor Andy Appleby is applying US principles to the match. Derby's first cup semi-final since 1976, will be accompanied by free matchday magazines and club scarves coupled with a "pre-game ritual to add some topspin" - as the chief executive and marketing guru Tom Glick put it.
Appleby said yesterday that GSE's global network of backers remain loyal to the Derby project, despite facing other challenges in the current economic downturn and dismissed reports that a Saudi Arabian group is exploring a takeover bid for the club.
The Derby striker Rob Hulse said that all the pressure is on United ahead of tonight. "Derby are not used to being in this position," he said. "We haven't reached a semi-final for many years but it is commonplace for United," he said. "We are the underdogs and we have got nothing to lose, whereas United are expected to win, so we can just go out and play our game and enjoy ourselves and enjoy pitting our wits against some of the best players in the world.
"Being the favourites and being expected to win brings with it an added pressure. We have got to try and take advantage of that and make it difficult for them and if we can play and get the crowd behind us, we can give anyone a game."