NIGEL CLOUGH, as the most recently appointed manager on the Yorkshire patch, had just been formally welcomed to the annual Christmas lunch that sees those at the helm of all our local clubs invited along by the media.
The event is very much off-the-record, notebooks and voice recorders left at home to allow everyone – even those who have spent the past 12 months at loggerheads – a welcome opportunity to relax for a few hours.
Nigel’s welcome from one of the county’s longest-serving newspapermen had, perhaps inevitably, involved an amusing story about his father Brian.
“Thanks for those kind words and the invite to this lunch,” started the new Sheffield United manager in reply, before dead-panning: “I haven’t heard a story about my dad for at least three hours so that was nice as well.”
The room was immediately filled with laughter, including that of Nigel. It set the tone for a hugely enjoyable afternoon, which only broke up once dark had descended on Bramall Lane and the managers headed for home while the press stumbled off to the nearest hostelry.
I was minded of those words from the Blades’ chief yesterday when the media again descended on Sheffield, this time to preview Sunday’s FA Cup fifth-round tie with Nottingham Forest.
From the moment Billy Davies’s side had seen off Preston North End after a replay to book a visit to Bramall Lane the tie has been billed as ‘Clough junior against the club dad Brian built’.
Sure enough, the media congregated at United’s Shirecliffe training ground hoping to run over old ground and be given an excuse to trot out the multitude of stories that made Brian Clough one of the game’s greatest characters as well as one of its finest managers.
They were to be left disappointed with it being made clear before the press conference got under way that Clough junior was keen to stick to the present day. He had taken a wander down memory lane in the presence of the media before the ties against Aston Villa and Fulham, the club’s press officer explained.
Such reticence on the part of the 47-year-old former striker is understandable. It must be irksome to continually be asked the same questions, even if Brian’s achievements remain a source of huge pride.
The line drawn in the sand by Clough junior was, in the end, respected. Questions about Forest were asked but only one – about the highlight of watching his father’s team – strayed into territory concerning Brian’s management career as opposed to Nigel’s goalscoring prowess in a red shirt.
It is left, therefore, to others who knew the two Cloughs at the City Ground to assess what traits, if any, the son may have inherited from his famous father.
“Absolutely none,” said Duncan Hamilton, author of Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, the biography about Clough senior that won the prestigious 2007 William Hill Sports Book award.
“Or, at least, not in terms of personality. Nigel seems equally as determined to be a success as ‘BC’ was. But, in terms of character, Nigel was always very different to his dad.
“What ‘BC’ was, though, was very protective over Nigel. In public, he would call him ‘the centre forward’ or ‘the No 9’. But, away from the microphones, it was always, ‘Our Nige’.
“When Nigel was first starting out, ‘BC’ would worry about opposition centre-halves targeting him. It was why he played under a pseudonym for the Forest A-team as a teenager. ‘BC’ didn’t want anyone thinking, ‘So, he’s Brian Clough’s son, eh? Let’s give him a kicking’.
“He also used to worry about accusations of nepotism. To me, though, ‘BC’ needn’t have worried.
“Nigel was always a tough character and, as soon as he broke through, everyone could see he deserved to be in the team.”
Father’s and son’s personalities may have been very different but, Hamilton insists, the possession of a thick skin is definitely something the two Cloughs shared.
Since moving into management, Nigel, like his father, has also developed a tendency to be brutally honest – something Brian would have surely approved of.
This steely side and a tendency not to suffer fools gladly led, during his reign as Derby manager, to a breaking with etiquette to name players he felt had let the club down after a heavy derby defeat at the City Ground.
He did not mince his words earlier this month, either, when in response to United’s 3-0 loss to Crewe the 47-year-old said he was tempted “to take the youth team to Fulham” for the replay.
He never made good on that threat. But, at a team meeting on the Monday after the nightmare on Gresty Road, Clough left his players in no doubt as to how angry he still was.
“Is this what it is going to be like for the rest of the season?” was just one of the searching questions he asked of the squad that brought such a stunning response at Craven Cottage.
Sunday will, no doubt, see a few ghosts swirling round Bramall Lane as Clough goes head-to-head with the club he served so well. Brian may no longer be with us, but Hamilton, who covered Forest for 20 years as the football correspondent of the Nottingham Evening Post, is in no doubt as to how proud his old friend would have been to see Nigel on the touchline.
“A couple of years after coming into the team,” said Hamilton, “stories started to emerge about Pisa being interested in Nigel along with a couple of French clubs. Brian’s public response was always, ‘I can’t let him go, his mother would kill me’. But there was no way he was going to let Nigel leave. He was a very proud father and he wanted Nigel at his club.
“I’ll always remember sitting in the office with ‘BC’ and three others. ‘BC’ had a photo of a headed goal that Nigel had scored against Watford.
“He kept asking us all the same question. ‘What’s so special about this goal?’ We came up with various answers and none of them were right.
“Eventually, ‘BC’ said, ‘It is because he is heading the ball with his eyes open. Not many players do that but our Nigel does. That is how you should head the ball’.”