Clough revels in putting smiles back on players’ faces

THE latest instalment in English cricket’s winter of discontent Down Under hardly sounds like ideal viewing for anyone looking for sporting inspiration later in the day.

But that is exactly how Nigel Clough and his coaching staff whiled away a couple of hours in the team hotel early on Saturday morning as the Sheffield United squad slept soundly upstairs.

“I nearly gave up when Alastair Cook got out second ball,” admitted Clough when talking about another grim day of toil against Australia for our cricketers. “I was tempted to go to bed after watching that.”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The Blades manager stuck with the action, however, until the lunch interval. His ‘reward’ was another batting collapse as England, at one stage, slumped to 23-5 en route to what yesterday became a 5-0 Ashes whitewash.

Happily, his United team displayed much more backbone in the FA Cup as the Yorkshire club claimed a first Premier League scalp since being relegated from the top flight in 2007.

Considering 53 places separate Aston Villa and Clough’s side in the football ladder, United’s 2-1 victory was remarkable. It also continued the huge improvement in fortunes that he has inspired since succeeding David Weir in mid-October.

“When we came in, we had to get those smiles back,” explained the United chief when asked about what has changed at Bramall Lane.

“Confidence is everything and you only get that from winning. Or not losing, at first.

“To lose games as a footballer is absolutely demoralising. You have to stop that. Even a few draws, at first, can do that.

“It means you don’t come away with that losing feeling in the pit of your stomach. So, stopping that was vital.

“Football is no different to the cricket. We were buzzing at the end of the summer (after triumphing 3-0 in the Ashes on home soil) and Australia were struggling.

“But they got a result in the first Test (in Brisbane) and their confidence came flooding back. Now look at them.”

Australia’s cricketers are flying right now. So, too, are United.

The steady climb up the League One table on the back of just one defeat in their last eight outings has helped. But now, with a Premier League scalp safely tucked away following the win at Villa Park, Clough is expecting his team to really push on.

He said: “Sheffield United has had a rough time in recent seasons so to get a result like this is huge. It helps renew a lot of people’s faith in the club.

“For the supporters, the knock-on effect is it brings back the belief that Sheffield United can get back, at least, to the Championship.

“This is a big club. I liken it to an oil tanker. It takes some turning, but once you get it turned and moving in the right direction then it will start steaming along. That is the point we want to get to, but there is a lot of work to do yet.

“But this is something we can build on. We had done well away from home anyway, but I think this means the players now know that, if they play their stuff, they are capable of getting a result.

“I believe they can take an awful lot of belief from the win. We want to play positively and with a smile on their faces. I sense the players are enjoying it.

“The dressing room was ecstatic, a bit like it was out on the pitch, to be fair, when the players celebrated with the supporters.

“We have to realise the efforts that people make to come and watch us play.”

For Clough, the most pleasing aspect of the win over Villa was how his team performed.

This was not a case of a lower division side coming to the home of a Premier League team and parking the proverbial bus across their own goal.

Instead, United took the game to Villa in a fashion that allowed the visitors to dictate for long periods.

Clough said: “The best thing is the players know they deserved to win. That result was not a fluke.

“It wasn’t a rearguard action. The team we picked was positive. We didn’t want to play 4-5-1 or anything like that.

“It is just too dangerous to try and go anywhere and try to defend for 90 minutes.

“Instead, the plan was to play with width, cause problems and get crosses in.

“I thought we did that all afternoon. Things worked out well.

“We said to them at half-time, ‘I know we are 1-0 up, but don’t just try to soak up the pressure’.

“For 20 to 25 minutes, I thought we were brilliant. I learned a lot about my players. They showed great character and their work-rate was superb.”