He is only seven years old, but when William Clough gets to school this morning, there is a good chance that his class-mates, and most of his teachers, will want to seek out his view on one of the greatest FA Cup shocks of recent history. Sitting next to his father, Nigel, by the dug-out, William was introduced to the rich football tradition of his family in the most thrilling terms imaginable: watching Conference side Burton Albion hold the mighty Manchester United to a goalless draw.
It was not just the imagination of a seven-year-old boy that was fired by the achievement of Nigel Clough's Burton side, it was the entire home support in a crowd of 6,191 at the Pirelli Stadium who acclaimed a performance of staggering fortitude. On the final whistle, Clough embraced Sir Alex Ferguson and headed down the tunnel with barely a glance towards the pitch. His late father, Brian, may have been fonder of the limelight, for his unassuming 39-year-old son it was a dignified exit on an emotional afternoon.
This was FA Cup football at its most engrossing. A below-strength United side of just seven internationals - albeit one eventually supplemented by substitutes Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo - against Clough's team of electricians, builders and physiotherapists.
By the dug-out, the Burton manager's main topic of discussion for the first few minutes was William's performance in his under-eight match that morning. Clough Snr sat back, crossed his legs and joked with a few of us in the Press seats behind him. His family name dictates that he has a tradition to defend, but for this afternoon he had nothing to lose.
Although Clough's sunny disposition was gradually spoiled by his growing anger with the decisions of the referee, Howard Webb, the performance of his players befitted a team playing under the leadership of one of English football's great dynasties. They followed Exeter City, another Conference side, who held United to a draw at Old Trafford in the third round last year with a display of steel and determination that made a mockery of Ferguson's attempt to dispose of them with a team of second-string squad players.
Burton's central defensive pairing of Darren Tinson and Ryan Austin were exemplary, in the centre of midfield their captain, Darren Stride, refused to allow John O'Shea and academy graduate Richie Jones to settle.
Stride had been injured in the first 10 minutes but played on to the end and, as one of the builders who helped construct the Pirelli Stadium, it was fitting that he was here when the new ground got its soul. In goal, Saul Deeney made an extraordinary save in injury time.
Burton go to Old Trafford on 18 January with "not a prayer" according to their manager but already it feels as if the damage has been done to United's battered confidence. That Ferguson was prepared to play only a handful of senior players - Mikaël Silvestre, Wes Brown, John O'Shea and Louis Saha among them - seemed dangerous given that, apart from the Carling Cup, this competition represents his only viable opportunity to win a trophy this season.
The pitch, buried under 50 tonnes of sand during the week, was in a poor state but not as unplayable as some may have feared. Nevertheless it did not seem like the appropriate day to give Ole Gunnar Solskjaer his first start since May 2004 after more than two years of chronic knee problems. In reality, he has been out of sustained action since September 2003 and the 32-year-old was substituted before the hour as soon as United's desperation to force the issue became urgent.
Park Ji-Sung pulled out just before the kick-off with injury and Ferguson gave a start to Jones, Phil Bardsley, Guiseppe Rossi and Gerard Pique, yet it did not take the United manager much more than 30 minutes to leave his dug-out in concern. "Are you Tamworth in disguise?" sang the Burton fans in mockery, and on the lacklustre nature of United's first-half performance that was something of a slur on the club who earned a draw with Stoke City of the Championship on Saturday.
The very best chances of the first half fell to Clough's men and right-back Bardsley was twice called upon to clear off the line. The first occasion was from striker Jon Shaw's flicked header and then again four minutes from the break when Burton's inspirational captain Stride connected with a corner. Bardsley went the closest for United with a run down the right and volley.
Ferguson did not even wait for the hour to send on Rooney whose emergence from the dug-out on 58 minutes elicited a low groan from the home support and the sight of Ronaldo behind him did little more to ease their tension. United's England striker looked like he might have broken down the side placed 13th in the Conference on his own. Silvestre whipped in a cross from the left and Rooney forced a good save out of Deeney.
On the bench, Clough's regard for referee Webb was not improved by an incident on 72 minutes when United's centre-half Pique appeared to commit a handball in his own penalty area.
The Burton manager became as animated as he had been all match, running from the dug-out on to the pitch to voice his fury at the official.
Rooney could not find a way through with 11 minutes left, twisting and turning among a sea of yellow shirts before attempting a chip that never troubled Deeney. It could have fallen apart for Burton in injury time when Saha headed the ball down to Jones and his snap-shot from the edge of the area looked to be in until Deeney threw himself full-length at the ball and kept it out with his legs.
The United players' haste to disappear down the tunnel of the Pirelli Stadium meant they were only just behind Clough, who has a few more pressing concerns before he turned his thoughts to Old Trafford in nine days' time.
There is the small matter of Stourbridge in the Birmingham Senior Cup, which, on balance, is certainly a more winnable tie. For two generations of the Clough family, however, there will be nothing to match what awaits them on 18 January.
Burton (4-4-2): Deeney; Sedgemore, Tinson, Austin, Corbett; Hall (Todd, 90), Stride, Ducros, Gilroy; Shaw, Harrad (Anderson, 80). Substitutes not used: Henshaw, Taylor (gk), Clough.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Howard; Bardsley, Brown, Pique, Silvestre; Solskjaer (Ronaldo, 58), R Jones, O'Shea, Richardson; Saha, Rossi (Rooney, 58). Substitutes not used: Eckersley, Steele (gk), Campbell.
Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).
Man of the match: Tinson.
Attendance: 6,191.Reuse content