WHEN Nigel Clough was recently trying to fix up a date for Sunday lunch with his former chairman at Burton Albion, he put forward a couple of suggestions.
“That first one is okay,” came back the reply from Brewers chief Ben Robinson, “but the other one, I’m hoping to be cheering you on at Wembley.”
Clough had, without realising it, put forward March 1 as a possible Sunday to meet up, not realising this was the scheduled date for this season’s Capital One Cup final at Wembley.
It was not the United manager being flippant. He honestly had not looked beyond the two-legged semi-final with Tottenham Hotspur and this down-to-earth approach has brought the Blades to within touching distance of a second Wembley visit inside 11 months.
“We don’t do anything any different to what we do in the league games,” said Clough. “If you start taking players to hotels the night before home games, that just cranks up the pressure.
“Everything just stays exactly the same: the preparation, the training, everything.”
United have been served well by Clough’s single-minded determination to treat each game the same, regardless of whether it be Cup ties at West Ham United and Spurs or a league game at home to bottom club Crawley Town.
Even if it does then mean he was in the dark as to what potentially could be one of the biggest days in United’s history.
“We honestly haven’t even looked when the final is because we are still that far away,” said Clough.
“I was speaking to the chairman at Burton about getting together for lunch on a Sunday and he said, ‘Give me a couple of dates’.
“I gave him a couple and he said, ‘That one’s okay, but the other one, I’m hoping to be cheering you on at Wembley’.
“But we are that far away from it (the final) that I hadn’t looked.”
If Clough is to have to break his lunch date with Robinson, United will have to not only overcome a one-goal first leg deficit but also be wary of Spurs scoring a crucial away goal.
“Us not scoring down there does mean that if we concede at Bramall Lane then it becomes a very difficult task. You are looking at scoring three goals.
“So, in that respect, keeping them out is going to be as important as scoring.
“We have got to hang on in there at 0-0, as if we can do that and then grab one in the last five minutes then it gets us to extra-time.
“We have got to balance our approach out. We don’t want to go hell for leather because they can hit us on the break and all of a sudden you’re 1-0 down and the game’s over.”
Asked about the first leg, Clough added: “The disappointment was giving away the soft penalty, that we didn’t come out for the second half and gain belief from the first half.
“We came out a little bit timid for 20 minutes or so. We wanted us to be a bit better in the second half and we weren’t.
“I don’t think Spurs did much different, it was us. We gave the ball away and we weren’t as attack-minded as we were in the first half.
“We had a few opportunities in the first half. We have learned they have got some very good players and that their bench is a lot stronger than ours.
“They were bringing on (Roberto) Soldado, Paulinho and (Mousa) Dembele. We brought on a lad (Kieran Wallace) who was playing for Ilkeston six months ago. That was a big difference between the squads.”
United’s preparations were badly affected by the capital’s congestion, a five-mile journey from their Islington hotel that should have taken half an hour at most turned out to take five times that time on the packed roads.
It brought about a 15-minute delay to the kick-off, but if the Blades were unsettled then they did not show it.
Instead, the League One side more than matched their hosts during the opening 45 minutes, and even though Clough’s men were not as effective after the break in possession, it still took a bizarre handball from Jay McEveley to literally hand advantage in the tie to Spurs via a penalty.
“Jay was pretty down in the dressing room after the game,” said the Blades chief.
“It would be difficult when you have played as well as he had and just made that one mistake. It is like a goalkeeper sometimes. You can have a blinder and let one in in the last minute, and then everyone forgets about everything else.
“Jay was superb last week, he made one error and we were punished for it. He was down, but we gave him a few days off. He needed that with his knee anyway.
“He had Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday off. He was back in on Monday morning and seems to be in better spirits.
“I think he’ll be in the team. With people like Jay, you put him out there and he wants to atone for his error and get us through to the final.”