The visit of Second Division Hartlepool to the Conference club Burton Albion this afternoon might not sound like riveting viewing. Until, that is, you add the words Cup and Clough to the equation.
Brian Clough launched his managerial career at Hartlepool, pitching in as driver of the team bus and general handyman in those penny-pinching days. His son, Nigel, is player-manager of Burton, still playing at 37 when needed. Brian will be at Eton Park today, as he is most weeks, to watch Nigel trying to propel the Staffordshire side into the third-round draw alongside clubs he once graced, such as Nottingham Forest, Liverpool and Manchester City.
Nigel has always left the extrovert stuff to dad and is not about to change now. Over a pot of decaf with lots of added sugar, he described the earlier events of the day, when the FA Cup, with the Cloughs in tow, was taken to a primary school for a photo opportunity as "a bit of a circus". Nor was he overly gung-ho about the Hartlepool game: "It's possible to win but the odds are against because they are having a good season and are two leagues above us.
If Hartlepool were at home to a Premiership side, which is also a two-league difference, you would expect the Premier club to win. But we will give it a shot. Even a draw would be a very good result and would put us in the hat with the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, and that's our aim."
Nigel and Gary Crosby, a former Forest team-mate who has been his assistant since they went to Burton together in October 1998, are still required to turn out from time to time at a club with a playing staff of only 18. At Torquay in the last round Nigel started the game, despite a long-term heel problem which leaves him in much pain after a game, while the 39-year-old Crosby was pressed into action to replace an injured defender with 35 minutes to go.
"Gary was absolutely superb," said his manager. So was the younger Clough, according to the chairman, Ben Robinson: "You won't see better commitment than Nigel showed that day." The Crosby fill-in was an emergency, but Clough has been anchoring the team of late. Will he play this afternoon? "No idea," was the guarded reply on Thursday evening. "Gary and I haven't picked the team yet. We have had six or seven injured and we have a couple cup-tied." Burton's players are a mix of solid pros like Steve Chettle and Darren Wassall, plus the usual assortment of part-timers - labourer, brickie, student, schoolteacher and landscape gardener.
Nigel is in his sixth season at Burton, his first job in managership, and dad thinks it's about time he moved on and up. Without making any fuss, his son disagrees. "This is the best squad we have had at Burton and our highest-ever position in the League, joint eighth in the Conference. In 12 months we will have a new ground which holds 6,000 and is up to League standards, 2,000 seats with some nice facilities. At the moment we are restricted to 3,600. I still enjoy doing the job very much, as long as we are moving forward. If it ever reached the stage where I think we have gone as far as we can, then it might be different. But the prospect of a new ground has given everybody at Burton a big incentive. The last three years we have made a profit, which is unusual these days in football. Our next aim is to go full-time like 12 of the other Conference clubs."
Nigel was unsure about his contract. "It has 18 months left, something like that, but Gary and I have such a good relationship with the chairman, Ben Robinson, that contracts are not an issue. The last contract we negotiated was when we were promoted to the Conference. We went for a bite of lunch and before we had ordered we had sorted it out. Money is not an issue here. It is the same with the players. You read about people arguing over thousands of pounds. We argue about 10 or 20 quid. It makes it easier to deal with when there are a few less noughts on."
Nigel has never applied for another job in management, though his name has several times been linked with vacancies at League clubs in the Midlands, notably Forest. "I have an understanding with the chairman that if something ever cropped up, me and Gary would sit down and talk about it. We certainly wouldn't be sending off CVs and applications." Robinson acknowledges: "We know Nigel will go on to higher things, and when he does it will be with a big thank-you from everyone here."
According to Clough Jnr, the chairman promised to let him know if anyone came asking for him. "So I presume nobody has, and we are not pushing him on that issue. Anyway, very few jobs come up that I would want to do. There are so few available that you get top people, like Bryan Robson, applying for lesser posts like Bradford, so there is no God-given right to a job these days. We are OK, we have a good job, and there is a lot to be said for that.
"Gary and me both had a fantastic time at Forest for a number of years. When you go somewhere else and it isn't quite as good you appreciate how good those times were. It's a bit like that now. We are not eager to jump ship and go somewhere else where we might not be so happy. It's the people who make the job enjoyable, not the size of your office or salary." There is also the fact that Nigel, a devoted family man, is only 20 minutes from his hilltop home outside Derby. "That's definitely the priority. Football fits in after the kids. Not to sound unambitious, but a move to a club a long way away wouldn't happen because my family is always my priority."
One of that family, Clough's three-year-old son William, will be the mascot at today's game. "You won't be able to get him off the pitch," Nigel forecast. Just like his grandfather there, then.Reuse content