During his final years, whenever Brian Clough was asked if he was the finest manager ever, tongue would tickle cheek. "I couldn't possibly say that," he said, "but I was in the top one." So when Nigel Clough was pressed yesterday to decree whether he regarded Sir Alex Ferguson as the greatest, it was incumbent on Derby County's manager of five weeks to uphold his late father's honour.
"It's difficult for me to say that – family connections," he said, as if envisaging "Fergie's not in Dad's class" headlines. Looking to the heavens, or perhaps at the fluorescent bulbs in the Premier Lounge at Pride Park, where Derby, 16th in the Championship, face Ferguson's Manchester United, the world and European champions, in a fifth-round FA Cup tie tomorrow, Clough Jnr added: "If I said Sir Alex was the best, a light might come down and hit me on the head.
"He is certainly up there, and the length of time he's been at the top is the most staggering thing in modern football. I suppose it's easier being at Manchester United, the biggest club in the world, although in other ways it's harder, because you have to maintain that standard."
Clough Snr won his two European Cups in successive seasons with a provincial club, Nottingham Forest, without the funding or fan-base on which Ferguson draws. "Winning a European trophy with a small, unfashionable club, as he did at Aberdeen (beating Real Madrid to lift the Cup-Winners' Cup in 1983), stands comparison a bit better," he said diplomatically.
Ferguson famously described the elder Clough as "the rudest man in football". Nigel, who presides over his second confrontation with the Scot in a month after Derby lost 4-2 at Old Trafford in the second leg of the Carling Cup semi-final, is renowned for a polite, soft-spoken manner reputedly inherited from his mother, Barbara. However, his years as "the number nine" at Forest have inevitably seen Nigel absorb some of Old Big 'Ead's sporting principles. Paramount amongst them is an insistence on bringing the ball down and playing, rather than hitting it long and hoping, which has brought Derby three wins in as many games. Moreover, while Nigel has not yet taken to walking the dog as his players practise set-pieces, he has a similar disdain for sending players out full of tactics and trepidation.
"When I was at Burton Albion and we played United in the Cup in 2006, another manager phoned and said: 'Have you spoken to your players about their fears?' I said no. He replied: 'Well I think you should.' I said: 'If you start talking to them about fear, they'll have some'. That's the last thing you want to do. If you ran through United's strengths, the lads would be petrified. We've prepared this week exactly the same, relaxed way we did for Conference games at Burton."
The Staffordshire part-timers took United to a replay. Derby should be even less apprehensive, having won the first leg of their Carling Cup tie 1-0 on the evening Clough was appointed (when he took a watching brief while academy coach David Lowe took charge of the team).
"Lightning can strike twice," he said, "although the confidence we took may be counter-balanced by their determination to put things right." According to Clough, the very fact that Derby scored three times against United – at a time when the Premier League leaders are amassing enough clean sheets to stock a Holiday Inn – should fuel the underdogs' self-belief and plant "a little doubt in their players' minds".
Ironically, Clough, along with his No 2, Gary Crosby, could have rendered the debate over the respective merits of his father and Ferguson a non-starter had Forest beaten United in the third round 19 years ago, when the Old Trafford board's patience with the latter was reportedly exhausted. Mark Robins' header – which Clough recalled as a "pivotal moment" – ensured he survived. As one empire declined and fell, another burgeoned to the extent that the Derby manager believes United could win all five trophies for which they are competing. "If any manager and squad can do it, it's them."
The FA Cup may, he surmised, may be only United's fourth priority, but then again, he views Derby's game with Blackpool on Wednesday as having greater significance. "It's a case of 'if we lose, forget it, it wasn't important anyway'," he said, warming to his pay-off line like a chip off the old block. "But if we win, we'll be shouting from the rooftops."Reuse content