Burton Albion v Sheffield United: Nigel Clough laid foundations that Chris Wilder has built on

Sheffield United's manager Chris WilderSheffield United's manager Chris Wilder
Sheffield United's manager Chris Wilder
WHEN Nigel Clough led Sheffield United into the FA Cup semi-finals, nothing was going to keep Chris Wilder away from Wembley.

Not even his Northampton Town side’s then desperate fight for Football League survival, the Cobblers having remained in the relegation zone the previous afternoon despite beating Burton Albion.

With just four games remaining, Wilder needed a break from the pressure of what would ultimately prove to be a remarkable rescue job at the Sixfields and there was no better way than immersing himself in the all-Yorkshire clash against Hull City.

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His day ended in disappointment courtesy of a 5-3 defeat, though only after Clough’s League One battlers had led at half-

Further heartache followed for United under the former England international the following season as another last-four exit in the League Cup to Tottenham Hotspur preceded a 7-6 aggregate loss in the play-off semi-finals against Swindon Town.

Wildernow Sheffield United manager, had been in the Bramall Lane crowd for both home legs as Clough’s men went close to glory.

Clough was sacked a few weeks after that play-off exit, but Wilder insists the manager he will go head-to-head with tonight at the Pirelli Stadium deserves plenty of praise for the work he did in South Yorkshire.

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“The pressure was on when he got the job, but he did ever so well,” said the 50-year-old about Clough, who took the reins in the autumn of 2013 with United sitting in the relegation zone on just nine points from 13 games.

“The club was in a difficult position and yet, by the end of the season, the club was just outside the play-offs.

“It was a big process turning things round in terms of players and everything else.

“He did it in an honest and enthusiastic way.

“How he left is not for me to comment, but look at the results, the league positions, the cup runs and the good things the people who worked here say about him.”

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On the two cup runs in back-to-back campaigns that saw Clough’s third-tier side upset the odds time and time again, Wilder added: “To beat the teams Nigel did along the way, and to get the nights here he did in the cups, was fantastic. Even in the earlier rounds, there was beating West Ham on penalties and Southampton too.

“All the focus, of course, goes on the semi-finals against Tottenham and also against Hull City.

“Against Tottenham (in 2015), they were in the tie right up to the very end.

“Same with the FA Cup semi-final the previous year.”

Going in at half-time ahead at Wembley, the then Northampton manager went in and sampled the Guinness, but, by the time he came out, Hull were 3-2 up. “I was wondering, ‘What happened there?’ Maybe I had too many pints of Guinness.”

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Wilder and his fellow supporters were also left scratching their heads in what proved to be Clough’s last act as manager, a remarkable 5-5 draw in a record-breaking second-leg tie at Swindon that defied logic in a similar fashion to the ‘Magic Roundabout’ that sits just outside the County Ground.

His subsequent sacking was harsh, but Clough’s reaction was to dust himself down and return to Burton the following December.

Almost two years on, Burton can look back on not only a promotion from League One, but also survival last season that Wilder believes deserved official recognition via the Championship Manager of the Year award.

The Blades’ chief, who has previously faced Clough’s Burton in the Conference with Halifax Town and Oxford United, added: “When awards get handed out, it is quite easy for people to give them to the teams with the biggest resources, the best players and most money.

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“Sometimes, though, it would be nice if people looked below the surface – and recognised things like facilities, budgets, standard of division and working with players.

“Being in the game myself, Nigel’s achievement last year was absolutely outstanding. I wouldn’t be surprised if they stay up again and that is not being disrespectful.

“Their aim is to stay in and improve on last year’s league position.

“We won’t underestimate them on size of club, history or levels of support. These are proper games when you have to be at it.”