When Nigel Clough talks about characters, he doesn’t mean people willing to fool around at end of season parties or run through proverbial brick walls for the team.
Instead, the Sheffield United manager means professionals. Committed, sociable footballers who recognise their own egos and reputations must sometimes be sacrificed in the pursuit of positive results.
Ten straight wins in all competitions means the League One table now makes pleasant rather than petrifying reading for a club which, having beaten the likes of Fulham and Nottingham Forest en route to Wembley, is also preparing for an FA Cup semi-final against Hull City next month.
Speaking ahead of tonight’s fixture at Preston North End, which could see United move to within eight points of sixth-placed Peterborough with 11 matches remaining, Clough revealed how his regime has set about creating the cameraderie senior squad members insist is responsible for their improved performances on the pitch.
“We don’t like ‘Big Time Charlies here,” he said. “We don’t like lads who swan around and drive Baby Bentleys into the car park because, with one or two exceptions, they tend to be more interested in themselves.
“It’s all about the group. That has to come above anything else and, without that attitude, it can be very difficult to do well.”
Andy Garner, Clough’s first team coach, recently outlined how prospective new signings are considered on the basis of their personality as well as sporting prowess. Ben Davies, John Brayford and Kieron Freeman, among those to arrive at Bramall Lane on loan since the former England international’s appointment, are clearly made of the right stuff.
But Clough used a player recruited by his predcessor David Weir to illustrate exactly what Garner means.
“That’s one of the reasons why we’ve been so impressed with Conor (Coady),” he said. “He’s come in from Liverpool, one of the biggest names in the world let alone our own top-flight and captained his country at under-20 level.
“Yet, there’s no edge to him at all. All Conor is bothered about is trying to improve himself.
“He’s conscientious, wants to listen and learn. He realises that’s what he’s got to continue doing throughout the rest of his career as well.”
Coady, despite cementing a place in Clough’s starting 11 during a gruelling schedule of games, is expected to patrol United’s midfield as they attempt to make it 11 consecutive victories by becoming only the third team this season to beat North End on home soil.
Simon Grayson’s side will pose a huge threat to the visitors hopes of reaching that landmark with organisation and a superb work ethic arguably their best traits.
Joe Garner, previously of Blackburn Rovers and Watford, provides North End with a razor sharp cutting edge and, having hit the target 20 times this season, it should be fascinating to see how he fares against a defence which, after keeping seven back to back clean sheets, crosses the Pennines having been breached just once in over 12 hours of football.
“We didn’t change much when we first came in,” Clough, who was appointed in October, said. “Just one or two little things, the same as everybody else would do.
“There’s no secret about the fact that we try and foster a good team bond and so a lot of what we do in training is very team-orientated. We’re not big fans of spending too much time hanging around in the hotels before games because the lads can spend that time with friends and family.
“But, when we do check-in, we like to go for a walk as a group or something like that.”
“You can’t force it either,” Clough added. “You don’t just flick a switch and it happens.
“You’ve got to hope that it happens naturally and it’s pleasing to see that’s been the case here.”
North End, who have not tasted defeat since losing 2-0 to Forest eight outings ago, drew for the fourth time during that sequence at Stevenage last week. Twenty-four hours later, United triumped 1-0 over Carlisle to continue what Clough, who inherited a team spiralling towards relegation, described as a “truly remarkable” five weeks.
“The lads were knackered after that one,” he acknowledged. “And it’s no surprise given everything they’ve done of late.
“But, as everyone agreed, the rewards are worth it so that’s why we’ll carry on.”
TEAMS AND REF
PRESTON (possible): Rudd, Wiseman, Clarke, Laird, King, Gallagher, Kilkenny, Keane, Humphrey, Davies, Garner.
BLADES (possible): Howard, Harris, Collins, Maguire, Brayford, Doyle, Coady, Flynn, Murphy, Scougall, Baxter.
GEOFF ELTRINGHAM (Co Durham): cautioned four players, including Jose Baxter and Shaun Miller, when he took charge of Sheffield United’s League One fixture against Gillingham at Bramall Lane earlier this season. Tonight’s match will be his first appearance at Deepdale since February 2013 when Jack King received the only yellow card of Preston North End’s fixture with AFC Bournemouth. Eltringham was a Sunderland season-ticket holder before becoming a referee.