NIGEL CLOUGH will tonight send his Sheffield United side into play-off battle with the message: “The past counts for nothing.”
The Blades have the unenviable record of never having triumphed in seven attempts since first competing in the end-of-season deciders in 1988.
Only Preston North End, also competing in the League One play-offs tonight, with a record of nine failures can compare to a tale of misery for the Yorkshire club that includes four defeats in the final. Clough, however, is adamant that his side – who host Swindon tonight before travelling to the County Ground for the return on Monday – is capable of ending that hoodoo and wants last season’s visit to Wembley to serve as inspiration.
“We went to the FA Cup semi-final last year,” Clough told The Yorkshire Post.
“I was told we had never even scored at Wembley and never done this or that.
“But we got three goals and gave Hull a massive fright. It is the same sort of approach this time.
“This is a fresh start and we have as good a chance as anyone. Records only count if you allow them to. This is a three-game mini-Cup season now. Nothing else matters.
“We have told the players that the last 46 games don’t count for anything. So, previous seasons definitely don’t.”
Pressed on a record that includes defeats in the final to Crystal Palace (1997), Wolverhampton Wanderers (2003), Burnley (2009) and Huddersfield Town (2012) – a play-off record – Clough added: “It is an incentive to be the one to break the hoodoo and the run. I don’t like the phrase ‘history makers’ as that is over-egging it.
“We have been going 125 years so there have been a lot of history makers. But if we can break this run that started in 1988 then let’s be that team.”
An attendance of 20,000 plus is expected tonight as United, who finished one place and eight points behind Swindon in the table, look to establish a first-leg lead.
Clough’s side already have experience of two-legged football this term from the run to the Capital One Cup semi-finals.
Drawn against Tottenham Hotspur in the last four, the Yorkshire club lost 1-0 at White Hart Lane and then fell further behind in the return when Christen Eriksen opened the scoring just before the half-hour mark.
That appeared to be that until Che Adams netted twice in three minutes during the final quarter to set up a frantic finale that saw a clearly rattled Spurs side eventually emerge victorious thanks to a well-taken 88th-minute goal by Eriksen.
Clough, whose only previous taste of the play-offs came in 2008 when his Burton Albion side – then of the Conference –lost to Cambridge United, wants his players to use that experience tonight.
He said: “I love the idea of the play-offs. They have been very good for football and keeping seasons alive. When you are in them, it is a little bit more nerve wracking.
“History doesn’t mean anything. It is brilliant to be in the play-offs. Ideally, you want top two but that hasn’t been possible.
“It is still a good achievement and now we are in them, let’s make the most of it – irrespective of what has happened in the past.”
Following last term’s run to the FA Cup semi-finals, United were installed as favourites to win League One.
A fifth place finish could, therefore, he seen as something of a disappointment. It could also leave the Blades open to accusations that anything but clinching promotion through the play-offs would leave the season as a failure. Clough, however, does not agree.
He said: “People ask, ‘Is it total failure if we don’t go up?’ We don’t think it is. Other people might judge that (differently).
“It is difficult to pick your ideal time to go up. Are we ready or not? Not sure. We are ready enough to get into the top six and have a chance.
“Our aim is to get into the Championship, this season or next season. Look at MK Dons, they were knocking on the door for years and lost in a couple of play-offs. But now they have automatic.
“That is the case a lot of the time. You keep knocking on the door, get close and, eventually, you build up to it.
“People also talk about being in a good enough position if you do go up. And build. I think it would be fair to say that if we’d had the players we got in January from the start of the season then we would have been a bit closer to the top two.
“It is still a team that is developing and growing. We are not the finished article, both in terms of numbers and in terms of who we need for the squad even for this league never mind the one above.
“All we do as a staff is try and build.
“The best is yet to come.”
Page 20: Big match preview.