Russell Slade knows a thing or two about saving lost causes, writes James Shield.
After all the Leyton Orient manager has transformed a team which, only three years ago was teetering on the brink of relegation, into one that visits Sheffield United tomorrow harbouring genuine aspirations of reaching the Championship next term.
But even Slade, whose achievements also include a Red Adair job at now defunct Scarborough and play-off final with Yeovil Town, is mightily impressed by the impact Nigel Clough has made at Bramall Lane.
“He’s done a terrific job, absolutely brilliant,” he told The Star earlier this week. “It’s been a fabulous turnaround.
“To get them winning again so quickly, and on a consistent basis, takes some doing. Likewise the way he’s got his players working together as a group.”
United, where Slade cut his coaching teeth at both youth and senior levels, are a markedly different club to the one which drew 1-1 at the Matchroom Stadium soon after Clough’s appointment in October. Then, with only four League One victories to their name, a partite squad was languishing 20th in the table. Twenty fixtures later, they are 11th and preparing for an FA Cup semi-final against Hull City later this month.
“Getting to Wembley is really the icing on the cake,” Slade, whose side are eight places higher, said. “It’s something you could argue has gone under a lot of people’s radars but definitely not mine.
“Listen, what you’ve got to remember is that this isn’t Sheffield United, who not so long ago were rubbing shoulders with the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea, that we’re talking about. It’s Sheffield United from the third tier.
“To beat the teams they have takes some doing. Really, it’s phenomenal and, when they go there, I’ll be urging them on to go through.”
Many at United will be saying the same about Orient if, as seems likely, they qualify for the end-of-season knockouts and Clough’s players fail to finish inside the top six. Slade, who watched Tuesday evening’s draw with Brentford, is fondly remembered in this corner of South Yorkshire following two spells in caretaker charge.
Nevertheless, it would be a grave mistake to interpret Slade’s kind words as a signal that United can expect an easy ride. A fierce competitor, there is nothing he would like more than to ensure their build-up to next weekend’s showpiece in the capital gets off to the worse possible start.
Orient are attending to serious business of their own. Formidable adversaries, they average 1.9 points and 1.8 goals per game compared to United’s figures of 1.3 and 1.02.
“Being realistic,” Slade continued, “We might not get automatic promotion but that doesn’t mean we are resigning ourselves to it and we want to finish as strongly as we possibly can.
“That means, if we do have to take the play-off route, that we’ll be going into them in good form and confidence.
“The thing which impresses me the most about my lads is that, no matter what, they never throw the towel in. They don’t know when they’re beaten and they never give up.”
Orient’s ruthless streak is illustrated by the fact they have broken five club records, including most away wins in a season (11) and best ever start to a campaign (eight consecutive victories) en route to tomorrow’s contest. But it is their ability to salvage points from losing positions (22), which perhaps demonstrates their dogged nature best.
“We’ve not spent a penny in the transfer market and we’ve had to be imaginative in our dealings,” Slade said. “”Bringing together lads from places like Scotland, France and Ireland and making sure what is a really mixed bag has a strong bond.
“I think we’ve done that because this competition is a long grind. There’s been obstacles put in our way and we’ve overcome them as a group.
“The trust between everyone here is massive and very important. That means we’ve been able to have frank discussions when required and then put them behind us and move on.”
Clough subscribes to similar principles. United’s heavy defeat at Crewe Alexandra on February 1 has often been described as the defining moment of their season given that 10 victories have followed in 15 outings since.
With 10 recorded in league competition following their previous meeting with Orient, United would be ranked fifth - three points ahead of the team in seventh - if only results during the intervening period counted.
But, asked whether that was a view shared behind the scenes, Clough recently insisted nothing could be further from the truth.
“Yes, we asked some questions,” he said. “But I wouldn’t say it was a crossroads or anything like that.
“We’d already been improving and we simply wondered whether that was a one-off.
“There was nothing to be gained from dwelling on it. We drew a line under what happened and looked to go forward from there.
“Why? Because that’s not the type of mentality we want among the team.”
Harry Maguire’s return from suspension should bolster United’s defence as they go in search of a 15th clean sheet while Bob Harris (thigh) and Matt Hill (hamstring) will be assessed before Clough makes his final selection.
Orient, who are guaranteed at least a play-off berth, have doubts over Romain Vincelot (foot) while Marvin Bartley (hamstring) seems certain to miss-out. However Shaun Batt could feature after taking part in a behind closed doors friendly against Dagenham and Redbridge in midweek.
“I don’t think anyone works harder than my lads,” Slade added. “And I’m proud of them for that so hopefully they’ll get their reward.
“But it’s not all down to hard work and industry. We’ve got lots of ability too and sometimes I don’t think they get enough recognition for that.”