NIGEL CLOUGH last night challenged his Sheffield United side to emulate the heroics of Bradford City’s class of 2013 and upset the odds once again to book a place in the Capital One Cup final.
The Blades travel to Tottenham Hotspur tonight for a semi-final first leg tie as the only Football League side left in the competition.
It is an identical situation to the one Bradford found themselves in two years ago when they took on Aston Villa over two legs in the last four as Swansea City faced Chelsea.
Clough believes his League One players can emulate Phil Parkinson’s Bantams, who at the time were in the basement division, by seeing off top-flight opposition to reach the Wembley final on March 1.
He said: “Cup competitions are special, they always have been. But I think Bradford brought a lot back to this cup with their achievements in getting to the final a couple of years ago.
“Their success helps us. They got a result in the first leg (beating Villa 3-1 at Valley Parade), which gave them a chance in the second leg and that is what we want to do.
“We know what an effect a full Bramall Lane can have. We saw it against Southampton (in the quarter-finals).”
United will not be lacking in confidence at White Hart Lane, even allowing for the fact Spurs have won their last three home games in a run that saw leaders Chelsea smashed 5-3.
Under Clough, the League One outfit have lost just one of 17 ties in the FA and League Cups, and have claimed five top-flight scalps inside a little over a year.
The Blades’ chief added: “It is lovely, when you look at the teams on paper, that there is a curve ball in there in Sheffield United. It’s not a final four that you would see every year in the Premier League. It is something a bit different.
“I’ll admit this will be a little bit different (to previous triumphs in knockout football). Cup football gives you a chance in a one-off game. This is a two-legged game, so the chance is slightly less. But we have the chance, nonetheless.”
Clough plans to stick to the club’s normal routine for midweek away games, with the United party heading to London this morning by train before spending the afternoon resting in a hotel near White Hart Lane.
The United chief may then copy what he did before the FA Cup third-round win at Queens Park Rangers by getting his players to walk the final 500 yards or so to the stadium.
Clough’s aim is to ensure his squad is relaxed ahead of what is likely to be the stiffest of all the Cup challenges that the Yorkshire club have faced since starting their run of bagging Premier League scalps by beating Aston Villa in January last year.
“The tie won’t be easy,” said the 48-year-old, who twice won the League Cup as a player with Nottingham Forest.
“If it is a one-off game, you have got a better chance.
“But with the two legs, and especially with the first one being away from home, if we were in their shoes then we would be saying, ‘Let’s put the tie to bed, let’s get out of sight’.
“The longer you play against these teams the more chance they have of beating you. Southampton haven’t lost a game since losing to us. What they have done since that last defeat (won six and drawn two) is incredible.
“The message is that we need to stay in the tie. But then there is also the incentive that away goals count double.
“We know we can’t defend for 90 minutes and in all the games (against Premier League opposition) – Southampton, QPR the other week – it hasn’t been backs-to-the-wall stuff.
“The sort of players we have got, we are not set up to do that.”
With United battling on three fronts, their schedule is filling up fast with Clough estimating his side have just three blank midweeks between now and the end of the season in May.
A draw at Preston North End in the FA Cup fourth round on Saturday would obviously take up one of those slots and the Blades chief is well aware of the demands that could be placed on his squad.
Equally, Spurs have a hectic programme with Mauricio Pochettino’s men having to tackle the Europa League, FA Cup and League Cup as well as try to chase a Champions League place.
Despite the distraction the London club have, Clough expects Pochettino to select his strongest XI both tonight and in the return at Bramall Lane a week today.
He said: “It is the closest they are to a final so I think this will be their ultimate focus. They are two games from getting to Wembley themselves, three games from winning a competition.
“Every manager wants to win a competition. All supporters and everybody wants to win something. Qualifying for Europe or the Champions League is a great achievement, but you haven’t actually won anything.
“To actually lift some silverware at Wembley is a great feeling. That is why you see your Chelseas trying to go at it on all fronts and trying to win all competitions.”
Last six games: Tottenham Hotspur DWDLWW, Sheffield United WDLWWL.
Referee: N Swarbrick (Lancashire).
Last time: Tottenham Hotspur 2 Sheffield United 0; August 22, 2006; Premier League.
Jamie Murphy discusses Wembley ambitions: Page 22.