Aristocrats face a fight in the finest Clough tradition

Burton Albion play Manchester United in the FA Cup on Sunday, led by a man for whom duels with Sir Alex Ferguson run in the family. Phil Shaw reports
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The Independent Football

In one respect at least, Nigel Clough has already emulated his father in management. Not by winning the European Cup or the League championship, or being touted as the finest manager England never had, but by having a fanzine named after him.

Late in Brian Clough's career at Nottingham Forest, a supporters' journal called Brian appeared. Across the East Midlands, the required reading for Burton Albion followers as the Conference club prepare for the visit of Manchester United in the third round of the FA Cup on Sunday is titled Clough the Magic Dragon.

In the song from which the name is adapted, a hit from four decades past when Brian was a serial scorer, "Puff" lived by the sea. Few football communities lie further from the coast than Burton upon Trent, a brewing town in Staffordshire, but the startling amount of sand on the pitch at their Pirelli Stadium yesterday made it resemble Skegness beach.

Shades, perhaps, of when his dad was in charge of Derby County and famously had the Baseball Ground heavily watered before swamping Benfica? Not at all, said Nigel, conceding there was "some problem with drainage" but promising it would look better by kick-off time.

As he talked, three tractors worked on the playing surface, creating huge tyre tracks in the mixture of sand and mud which could leave it rutted in the event of frost. "It won't worry United unduly because they're good enough to play on anything," insisted Clough. "But it's not ideal for us either. We like to pass the ball around. Some of our lads can play a bit. But it might be a little bit of a leveller."

One of the lads, of course, is Clough himself, though the player-manager is hardly champing at the bit to fulfil the first half of his role. Only if the experienced Gary Rowett is unfit will he be among the substitutes, the reluctance to put his 39-year- old body through a gruelling struggle with United seemingly typical of his approach to life and work.

Where Clough Snr was larger than life, he revels in reticence. At a packed press conference, the subject he does not like discussing was quick to come up. Was his father on his mind this week, and did he wish he was around to see him tackle Sir Alex Ferguson?

"Dad is on my mind at all times," he replied. "I wish he had a table at the other end of this room so you lot could talk to him instead."

That attitude almost certainly explains why Clough Jnr has stayed at Burton, his seven years making him their longest-serving manager. Bigger clubs have courted him, but he works for a chairman he likes, Ben Robinson, is well paid and can drop his two children off at school and pick them up again. Moreover, if he moved into the League, at whatever level, his every move would be compared to his father's career.

Nigel Clough cannot escape media scrutiny this week. Yet he cut a relaxed figure, claiming he was more worried before the tie against Burscough, knowing the winners would receive United. "That was nerve-racking. We're more at ease now. We've got no game plan and, believe it or not, we haven't had them watched. Normally the chief scout goes all over the country watching teams. With United, you just turn on the television."

It would be a mistake to assume that Clough's intelligence and his articulate manner make him a soft touch. His captain, Burton-born Darren Stride, who helped to build the stadium and is a one-club veteran of 500 games and 100 goals, described him as "very fair", but admitted he could "give you the hairdryer" if his instructions were not carried out.

Despite his respect for the man for whom the expression was coined, Clough will know he is doing a good job if he sees Sir Alex breathing fire from the visitors' dug-out.

"I'm going to tell my players to enjoy themselves. This will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of them. I'll say: 'Don't waste the chance. Don't come off at six o'clock thinking you could have given more'."

Ferguson will be keen not to let Burton embarrass United the way another Conference outfit, Exeter City, did by taking them to a replay a year ago.

A friend of Clough's who played for Exeter at Old Trafford has told him they were "shattered" by the end. "We're hoping we can raise our fitness on the day so it might not be such a big issue. The biggest gulf we face is ability - even their second string are internationals. We need luck and hard work. If we get those ingredients, we may not get thrashed."

Ideally, Burton would have been drawn away. Clough would love his players, mainly rejects from League clubs, to have had the opportunity of stepping out before a 68,000 crowd at United. If nothing else, it would have paid for the sand.

Stride, though, has not given up hope of a replay. Would he trade his century of goals for the winner on Sunday? "We've been told to go for the draw, not the win" he deadpanned.

Much as Brian Clough once went into a League Cup final with a little-known, teenaged goalkeeper, Chris Woods, so Nigel's last line of defence is a 22-year-old released by Notts County early this season. Saul Deeney from Derry, who has nine brothers (all United fans) and three sisters, was asked which emotion he felt as the tie grew closer, fear or excitement? "Fear," he said honestly. Ten minutes later, when pressed as to how scared he was, he grinned and gushed: "I'm excited now."

His manager joined in the laughter. But true to the family tradition, Clough the would-be dragon slayer was not about to let his players take all the best lines.

"This is only the third round," he reminded the assembled scribes. "We've got a Birmingham Senior Cup quarter-final at Stourbridge on Tuesday if anyone's interested."

How father and son made their mark in the Cup


1956-61 Middlesbrough

Clough Snr scored his first FA Cup goal 49 years ago this week as Boro won 3-2 in a replay at Charlton. Last Cup appearance for home-town club was in a 3-0 defeat by Manchester United.

1961-67 Sunderland/Hartlepool United

No goals for Sunderland in the competition before injury stopped him playing. In management with Peter Taylor - lured from Burton Albion - his Cup record remained mediocre.

1967-73 Derby County

Best Cup run so far, reaching last eight in his final season. At Tottenham in fourth round the Rams trailed 3-1 after 78 minutes yet won 5-3 in extra time, with Roger Davies hitting a hat-trick.

1973-74 Brighton & Hove Albion

Clough derided Walton & Hersham as "donkeys" after 0-0 draw. The Isthmian League amateurs, including Dave Bassett, brayed pointedly in dressing-room after 4-0 away win in replay.

1975-93 Nottingham Forest

His first game was in the Cup, a 1-0 win at Tottenham. In 1989 semi-final against Liverpool at Hillsborough, 96 fans died. Two years on, Forest led Tottenham in Wembley final but lost 2-1.


1985-93 Forest

Nigel's FA Cup fortunes were initially as modest as his father's. He eventually reached two semi-finals, both lost, with the second overshadowed by Hillsborough, also failing at Wembley in 1991.

1993-96 Liverpool

Clough Jnr's bright start at Anfield was fading by the time Bristol City won replay there to scupper Graeme Souness's reign. The "new Dalglish" was superseded by Messrs Fowler and Collymore.

1996-99 Manchester City

Plunged into a Cup campaign following mid-season move but lost to United in fifth-round derby at Old Trafford. Brief loan with Sheffield Wednesday before injury prompted semi-retirement.

1999-2006 Burton Albion

As player-manager, first three bids for League scalps brought replay defeats before Burton won at Torquay in 2003. They have beaten Peterborough and Burscough to earn Clough a tilt at United.