The sign outside Sheffield Wednesday's academy and training ground reads: "Please do not criticise players or coaches." There must have been times in recent years when it was tempting to erect it up the road at Hillsborough. The Wednesday have gone through nine managers in the past decade while slumping from the middle of the Premiership and bottoming out in what most of us still think of as the Third Division before starting the long climb back.
But a proud old club are now stirring again, at a venue grand enough to have staged matches at the 1966 World Cup and Euro 96 on either side of the tragedy that will always be synonymous with its name. Last week, with Wednesday moving to within three points of the Championship play-off places, a crowd of almost 29,000 turned up for a home game with Hull City, and there will be more for Manchester City's visit in the FA Cup this afternoon.
The tie is notable for bringing together for the second successive season two of Brian Clough's managerial protégés in Brian Laws and Stuart Pearce, regular Nottingham Forest full-backs for more than 100 matches. Regular, that is, until the Cup final of 1991, when Laws was in for a shock. "On the bus the day before," he recalled, "Stuart Pearce was given a scruffy old screwed-up bit of paper by Cloughie and told, 'That's the team, son'. Stuart read it out and we all started laughing. Then I went apeshit. I'd been playing in every game."
Gary Charles was in at right-back, so it was him not Laws on the end of Paul Gascoigne's absurdly reckless tackle early in the game. Laws had the small consolations of meeting Princess Diana - "a photograph that's still on my wall" - and appearing as a second-half substitute before Des Walker's own goal decided the game in Tottenham's favour.
Despite that blow to his pride, he accepts he was "one of many ordinary players" Clough made into better ones, even if the way it was done still astonishes him: "We were a great side but we were never coached at any time, never said a word about the opposition, never did a free-kick or corner. It was all down to good organisation on the park by the players."
Pearce, who had the better of his old team-mate when City beat Scunthorpe 3-1 at this stage last year, was one of the most influential of those organisers, "a man I respect totally for what he's done in football and in management".
If Clough is looking down from the great dug-out in the sky today he might even spare a rueful smile for the young man in the Sheffield Wednesday tracksuit who ignored his manager's wishes about taking a Football Association coaching course some 15 years ago. "I had to ask his permission to do my coaching badge and he went absolutely berserk. He said the FA knew nowt and couldn't teach me 'owt and I was better off staying with him because I'd learn more. And he was right in a way, because you couldn't help but learn from Cloughie.
"I was cheeky enough to say that if he could guarantee me a coaching job I'd withdraw from the course. My first day back, he called me 'coach', and every mistake I made after that, all I could hear on the touchline was Cloughie bellowing: 'Coach! Is that what you're going to show your players?' "
In a dozen seasons in charge of Grimsby, Scunthorpe and Wednesday (he succeeded Paul Sturrock in November), Laws has in fact done remarkably well. All the more so after having to live down the infamous incident in which he hurled a plate of chicken wings at the Grimsby player Ivano Bonetti after a defeat by Luton, fracturing the Italian's cheekbone. He admits "that could have finished a lot of people", and puts the incident down to an excess of emotion while under the strain of being a player-manager, something he would not recommend to anyone. Today he is a wiser old Owl.
As a manager, he has enjoyed some good FA Cup runs, taking his lower-division clubs to the third round or beyond for eight of the past 10 seasons, which included giving Chelsea a fright when Scunthorpe took the lead at Stamford Bridge two years ago. So playing at home to City will hold no fears.
"I know how important the Cup is to clubs," Laws says. "Realistically, your chances of winning it are remote, but what you can get out of it is beating the top teams when they're having an off-day and the financial gains the club can get. But if you gave me a choice of the FA Cup final or promotion, it would be promotion without a doubt. The Premiership is what we're aiming for. When, where and how remains to be seen, but we're going to have a right good go. I believe in keeping it low-key, letting the team speak for itself. If they believe they can do it then it's achievable, if they don't then it's not. They've not shown any fear, and that's a positive for me."
His Wednesday squad are largely unknown outside Yorkshire, apart perhaps from the much-travelled Jamaican striker Deon Burton - now with his 10th club - and Mark Crossley, Forest's goalkeeper in the '91 final, who is on loan from Fulham. What Laws has going for him is the potential at a club who eight years ago were two full divisions ahead of City, before passing them on the way down in May 2000.
"This is as close as you're going to get to a Premiership club other than being in it," he believes. "We are a big club. To have just under 29,000 against Hull City, that's a fantastic amount of support. There's a belief round the ground because they're seeing us win regularly, which they haven't seen over the last 18 months, and they're getting a buzz. Expectation levels will rise, but they're level-headed people here. The way we'll do it is by determin-ation, we're not going to buy it. We've got a hard-working bunch of lads and a manager who desperately wants to do well."Reuse content