FA CUP: Clough is hoping to be dealt a lovely little problem

Nigel Clough, left and Andy Garner.
Nigel Clough, left and Andy Garner.
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if, by the end of this weekend, Sheffield United are through to their first FA Cup final in 78 years, Nigel Clough will have a problem.

A pleasant problem, he admits. But a problem, nevertheless. Namely, how to fill the gap between the final fixture in League One on May 3 and English football’s showpiece occasion a fortnight later.

Where prospective opponents Arsenal or Wigan Athletic will, as it stands right now, be involved in either the final week of the Premier League or the Championship play-offs, United’s players will be left twiddling their thumbs ahead of the biggest match of their lives.

“Getting to the final would be incredible,” said the 48-year-old when speaking exclusively to The Yorkshire Post at United’s Shirecliffe training base. “Absolutely incredible.

“Not that we are taking anything for granted. We know Hull are favourites in most people’s eyes and that they have a good team. But football is about believing and we will definitely go to Wembley believing we have a chance.

“And if, on the day, it is Sheffield United who come out on top then what an incredible achievement that would be. No-one has done it before so we have the incentive of creating history.

“It would also keep the season going even longer. And if we don’t get in the play-offs, which I admit is unlikely, we would have a two-week gap before the final. Logistically, that would cause a few problems. But what a lovely problem to have.”

The size of United’s task on Sunday is perhaps best illustrated by how the nine previous FA Cup semi-finalists from outside the top two divisions have fared in the past. They all lost, Wycombe Wanderers being the most recent to crash out in the last four after coming up against a Robbie Fowler-inspired Liverpool in 2001.

Clough’s men, however, will head to the capital buoyed by a stirring run that has seen two Premier League scalps claimed in the form of Fulham and Aston Villa. Both those triumphs came not only on the road but at a time when the Blades were sitting in the League One relegation zone.

Now, of course, United’s league position is much healthier. A seven-game winning run that immediately followed the Cup triumph at Craven Cottage has seen to that. Anyone believing, though, that the roots of the surge up the table can be traced back to beating Fulham are wide of the mark.

Instead, it was a team meeting held two days before the trip to London – and, more pertinently, two days after an awful 3-0 loss at Crewe Alexandra – that helped spark the change of fortune.

“That was an awful day,” says Clough with a visible shudder as the United chief casts his mind back to the February 1 trip to Gresty Road.

“We were in the bottom four and after losing 3-0 we couldn’t honestly see where the next point was coming from.

“So, we had a meeting and challenged the players by asking, ‘Is this how it is going to be?’ Since then, the players have been superb.

“I can’t say I was confident it would turn out like this. I was hopeful. But you never truly know how people will react to a clear the air meeting like that.

“But the players have been great and we haven’t had to mention that meeting since. Not to the players, anyway. Our form meant we have been able to leave it in that room.”

Wembley was a long, long way away back at the start of February. Little changed even after the win over Fulham, especially with Clough’s old club Nottingham Forest, at the time unbeaten in 16 games and seemingly certainties to reach the Championship play-offs, laying in wait for United.

Chris Porter’s late double changed all that, allowing supporters to dream about a possible visit to the national stadium. Victory over Charlton Athletic in front of a super-charged Lane duly booked that trip to north west London.

It is a journey several in the Blades camp are familiar with. Six of those on duty for United’s last Wembley visit – the 2012 League One play-off final – are still with the club. In contrast, only Tom Huddlestone, with Spurs, and Liam Rosenior, with England Under-21s, in the Hull camp have played at the rebuilt national stadium.

Clough said: “The first time you do go to Wembley, you can be in awe of it a little bit. So that could be a very, very small advantage for us. But I still believe because they play in the Premier League that Hull are favourites.

“They play at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and so on every week. So, along with the ability in their camp, that has to be an advantage.

“But it is interesting that a lot of our lads will have played there. Even if they don’t have particularly happy memories.

“The thing I will stress to them is that they now have a chance to change that. That goes for the club, too. If you keep getting there and keep knocking on the door, that door has to open at some stage. Let’s hope that time is now.”

United’s defeat to Huddersfield on penalties in 2012 was, indeed, the latest in a long line of Wembley defeats. The club has a similar record in FA Cup semi-finals, with 2003, 1998 and 1993 all bringing disappointment in the last four.

Clough has similar memories of the world’s oldest knockout competition, as he recalls: “I played in a few Cup semi-finals but only won the one. We kept drawing Liverpool, who were at the height of their powers at the time.

“Semi-finals are often quite similar. The first goal is huge. Especially this one, when we are playing a team from two divisions above. For us, we have to keep it tight early on. How we start the game and then settle into it will be key, just as it was against Villa and Fulham.”