What a difference a year makes.
Exactly 12 months ago to this day, Nigel Clough was unveiled as the new manager of Sheffield United at a packed press conference at Bramall Lane.
United, at the time, were languishing, struggling. David Weir, Clough’s predecessor in the Bramall Lane dug-out, had won just one of his ten league games in charge. United, by and large the biggest club in the division, were bottom of the league. Something had to change.
Fast forward a year and the mood around S2 is markedly different. On the day of his appointment, a colleague and I approached several fans and asked if Clough was the man. Their reaction was lukewarm at best. A CV which included an impressive spell at Burton Albion and a harsh sacking from Derby County didn’t impress one fan. Another wanted Gary Megson.
There can be no such doubts now. Clough transformed United from ragged promotion certainties to solid, hard-to-beat outside promotion candidates. United ultimately finished seventh in League One last season but the fact that the top six was even a possibility at all, given their start, was a staggering achievement.
The former England international wasted little time in shaping the squad ‘his way’. The likes of Febian Brandy and Darryl Westlake were shipped out after their temperaments were called into question. In came the likes of Ben Davies and John Brayford, characters who Clough knew and trusted. Another familiar face, Mal Brannigan, joined as MD, after working with Clough in a variety of roles at the iPro Stadium.
Although United’s revolution off the field was gathering apace, it couldn’t match the improvement on it as Clough’s men made a groundbreaking march to the semi-finals of the FA Cup. That thrilling 5-3 semi-final defeat to Hull City at Wembley - which saw United twice take the lead - will live long in the memory for United fans used to seeing their side fall without a whimper on the big stage.
But there was no pride in defeat for Clough’s men. No platitudes about being happy to be there. Just honest disappointment at losing a game which they had no right, in reality, to win.
And that, in a moment, sums up Clough’s reign to date. Any manager can come in and change a team, or sign the odd loan player. But to come in and transform the entire aura of a club, and its entire fortunes? That is something else.
Clough has enjoyed a healthy win percentage of 58 per cent, of his 58 games in charge so far. His reign, of course, began with a 3-1 win over Crewe Alexandra. This weekend’s opponents? Crewe Alexandra, of course. And Clough will be hoping to celebrate with more of the same.