Main chance for a natural

close-up: Nigel Clough: City's slick midfielder can make an indelible mark on today's Manchester derby. Norman Fox assesses an unfulfilled talent
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AMONG football managers and most players, the sort of club man most highly valued is often not the one who cost the most, but the guy who is unquestioningly brave, has a "motor" fit to power a tank and is so reliable that he provokes excruciatingly unoriginal compliments such as "always standing up to be counted". Nigel Clough is not like that, never has been, probably never will be.

Disciplined and undemonstrative to a fault, he has a talent that has been screaming to be let out for years. In other words, he is not the sort of guy you want in a losing team. But Manchester City did. They recently paid pounds 1.5m to Liverpool for the eternally promising son of Brian. He had no more established himself at Anfield than he had in an England shirt at Wembley.

City were struggling near the bottom of the Premiership when they signed him. Nothing has changed. Clough is not a saviour but a seeker after some of the good things in football. And suddenly he is exuding the sleek talent that over the years - especially at Nottingham Forest - graced parts of matches and bits of seasons. Today, though, Clough faces another test of his suspect ability to dominate a special match: City face United at Old Trafford in the fifth round of the FA Cup.

It was Clough who set up City's 2-1 win over Coventry City in the fourth round on Wednesday when he so gracefully turned defenders aside and fired in the first goal. Then he helped create the second. Both interventions were examples of his what-might-have-been career. If Georgi Kinkladze has brought a spring of hope to a club rarely comfortable with itself, let alone with living in the shadow of United, Clough has added a fountain of good passing that begs to be tasted.

His arrival, together with that of Martin Phillips and Michael Frontzeck, has brought some balance to a side that, while still threatened by relegation, looks a good deal more capable of surviving. And Clough has got what he wanted, first-team football after being stranded in Liverpool reserves. Bill Shankly may have described them as the second team on Merseyside, but that hardly satisfied a footballer particular in his concern for being involved at the top level.

His upbringing denies him the release of a good old moan. "Yes, there were times when it got me down at Anfield," he said after an obviously pleasurable training session with City on Friday. "But they're such good people that you do a lot of learning and listening, so I came out at the end of it a little bit stronger and more knowledgeable. It did get to the stage when I thought, 'I've had enough of this,' then the manager offered me a move. Other clubs were interested but I wanted Premiership football at an extremely big club. I like the way Alan Ball wants us to play here."

Even though in the end Liverpool found him surplus to needs, he says: "Looking back on the experience I can honestly say that I would do it all over again. It was a great opportunity. Now I've got another - I'll play wherever I'm asked, no preconceived ideas. I'm just happy to be in the Premiership."

The opportunity to restore Clough's career is one that City's manager feels is no great gamble. "He impresses you with his attitude," Ball said. "They say that about a lot of players but he's come through a period that others without his instilled discipline would have found impossible. He's a good professional."

Tony Book, the long-serving City coach, added: "There's none better. I've only worked with him for a few weeks but he's really impressed me. When the snow was on the ground and we trained in the gym he could easily have cried off because he still lives in Derby. But he was here. He's all that you look for in a player - it's bred in him. Whatever position in which he plays he's a great organiser and one of the best professionals I've seen in a long time."

Birmingham City and Leicester City also showed an interest, but no one took Liverpool's original asking price of about pounds 3m seriously. After all, he is 29 and has never had managers queueing for his signature. Most of those he has worked with temper their compliments with memories of frustration. Don Howe, who watched him come into the England squad, recalls: "He had this lovely touch, so I never thought of him as a centre-forward. But people expected him to score goals. He's a natural at playing in the hole behind the attack."

Graham Taylor added that he found Clough was always: "Thinking more quickly than he could run, so he didn't have to move fast himself. He was often a couple of yards ahead of the game. But sometimes you need pace to take opportunities yourself." Taylor gave him only a few opportunities to prove it and even when he did, the England manager tended to link him with strikers who wanted the ball to head rather than dropped on their toes like an autumn leaf.

The word among the other members of the England squad was that Clough's name kept appearing only because Taylor enjoyed his intelligent company. But Taylor could never forget that even Brian Clough seemed to explode with frustration when seeing his son fail to score goals in the quantity he had achieved. Clough senior once remarked: "My daughter could score more goals than him." Like Taylor, though, he insists that his boy "sees things before the opponent". He also believes that his "Nige" should never have gone to Liverpool but joined Terry Venables at Tottenham when he had the chance in 1993.

It was often said at Nottingham Forest that Brian Clough kept moving his son from one position to another because he never knew where he could operate consistently. In the end, Nigel became Forest's playmaker, and the present manager, Frank Clark, says that although the pounds 2.27m the club received was useful for rebuilding a team relegated from the Premiership, he appreciated that "all of what we did had come through Nigel - he was the pivot." He was also out of contract. "I really wanted him to stay," Clark said, "but there wasn't much I could do to persuade him." The persuasive Graeme Souness was deeply into a spending spree that cost fortunes and credibility: his own, Liverpool's and, in the end, Clough's. Liverpool are restoring theirs; whether Clough can do the same on big occasions, we will start to find out today.

Manchester United 2 Manchester City 2

United and City have met four times in the FA Cup. Honours are even:

27 March 1926 City were 3-0 winners in the semi-final at Bramall Lane. In a free-scoring run they had dispatched Huddersfield 4-0, Crystal Palace 11-4 and Clapton Orient 6-1, but in the final against Bolton they were undone by a David Jack goal

29 January 1955 The Revie-plan City were winners again, 2-0 in the fourth round, over a United side boasting the best of the Busby Babes. Again City progressed to the final, knocking out Luton, Birmingham and Sunderland, but they were beaten at Wembley again, 3-1 by Jackie Milburn's Newcastle United

24 January 1970 United were over the hill by now and relying on George Best, but without him Wilf McGuinness's side still beat City 3-0 in the fourth round at Old Trafford, with two goals from Brian Kidd and one from Willie Morgan. In the next round they beat Northampton 8-2, with six from Best, on their way to a dour and dirty three-match semi- final defeat to Leeds

3 January 1987 Two months into Alex Ferguson's reign, a Norman Whiteside goal in the third round at Old Trafford saw off City, who were relegated at the season's end. United went out in the next round to Coventry, the eventual winners

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