Nigel Clough was barely halfway through the press conference unveiling him as Sheffield United manager, when a question came from the field about getting into the Premier League.
His new club was languishing in the bottom four of English football’s third tier at the time.
The same journalist had earlier asked Clough, fresh from an acrimonious, “painful” departure from Derby County, whether promotion from League One was achievable. The bookies, after all, were quoting 20/1, apparently.
Clough respectfully smiled back. United had, in their first ten games under his predecessor David Weir, tasted victory just once. They trailed the top six by 14 points. The ink was barely dry on Clough’s contract and, already, he was feeling the pressure.
And, perhaps, therein lies the problem for fans, players and, more so than ever, it seems, managers in this famous old corner of the footballing world we call Sheffield. Clough, the latest addition to an ever-increasing list of former United managers, just couldn’t deliver quickly enough.
In mitigation, he did plenty; a record-breaking, history-making march to the FA Cup semi-finals in his first season and, perhaps equally as impressive, a run to the last four of the Capital One Cup which saw them almost take Spurs to extra-time on an unforgettable night at Bramall Lane.
But all this was served up amidst a backdrop of League One football; of defeats to Shrewsbury and at home to Fleetwood. And Clough, ever the realist, knew he was up against it when his side lost out in the play-offs earlier this month after a crazy 5-5 draw at Swindon.
Clough spoke at his inauguration, flanked by Kevin McCabe and Selahattin Baki, of his determination to make the Bramall Lane experience a long-term one. He admitted that he and his staff were not miracle workers. Time, he stressed, was needed.
This was a manager, after all, who did things his own way; he declined offers during his time at Burton Albion because he wanted to stay part-time and watch his children, William and Helena, grow up.
He inherited a sense of family importance from his dad, Brian, who had Nigel and brother Simon on the bench during his time at Nottingham Forest.
He spent 12 years at Burton and enjoyed five at Derby, even if much of it came amidst a culture of selling players, cutting wage bills and promoting youth.
Players, despite what fans’ phone-ins and internet message boards would have you believe, were generally fond of his methods. Youngsters, like Louis Reed in particular, flourished; Marc McNulty acknowledged that Clough’s tough-love approach inspired him to be a better player. John Brayford would not have graced Bramall Lane if another manager was in situ.
His methods were refreshingly old-school and traditional; Terry Kennedy, United’s ink-loving centre-half, was made to wear long-sleeved shirts in training to cover up his colourful arm artwork. Clough once offered to stay behind with a player for extra shooting practice; the offer was turned down because of a prior appointment with a tattooist. Needless to say, the player is no longer plying his trade at United.
Clough, a veteran of trophy-laden spells at Nottingham Forest and Liverpool, was understandably big on team spirit when he made the transition into management. United’s Redtooth Academy training base was overhauled to create a more team-centred atmosphere; players and staff would frequently stay behind after training and socialise with each other.
We might be here for two more weeks or two months, you just don’t know. The sack isn’t something we’re worried about because it will happen, if they don’t carry us out in a box first. The highs and lows are so disproportionate to everyday life that it’s difficult to keep things in perspective.Nigel Clough, 2013
Striker Michael Higdon seemed to have taken up residency on the table tennis table; Brayford almost hit a 180 on the dartboard last season before meeting the media.
Clough’s United overhaul was always about more than just events on the pitch but things weren’t all that bad in that department, either. In the end, Clough had 19 months at S2 and his record stands up against most others; from relegation probables to outside play-off possibles, to a fifth-placed finish with two semi-finals on the top, and a near-50 per cent win ratio.
He wasn’t blameless in United’s failure to return to Wembley for the play-off final, of course; United lacked presence in key areas like midfield, while the lack of a recognised and favoured centre-half cost them dear when they were forced to play four full-backs towards the end of the season.
Clough was a steadfast believer in his methods, another trait - probably inherited from his old man - which hardly endeared him to the United faithful.
But he had identified United’s shortcomings and planning was already well underway for next season’s promotion push when the axe fell, unexpectedly.
United’s decision to allow Clough to rule on the club’s released and retained list, as well as his decision not to take up the option to make Jason Holt’s loan move from Hearts a permanent one, suggests the board were not planning any significant changes.
That all changed on Bank Holiday Monday. For better or worse? As ever, only time will tell.
Clough may have only been eight years old when his dad was infamously sacked by Leeds, after just 44 days in charge. But he knows the game. The risk and reward.
“We might be here for two more weeks or two months, you just don’t know,” he said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, back in 2013 whilst still at Derby.
“The sack isn’t something we’re worried about because it will happen, if they don’t carry us out in a box first.
“The highs and lows are so disproportionate to everyday life that it’s difficult to keep things in perspective.
“The managers like Sir Alex Ferguson, my dad and Arsene Wenger are the successful ones and you’d think clubs would look at those models and say, ‘wait a minute, let the managers get on with it’.”
Saturday, March 28, 2015; 3.12pm.
United had just fallen behind after 12 minutes, against Crewe at Bramall Lane, and the shift in atmosphere around the place was palpable.
Players began to rush around as if they had 78 seconds left to get back into the game, not 78 minutes. Unsurprisingly, they lost; Ryan Colclough’s last-minute winner met with howls of derision.
The scenes were not quite Bernabéu-esque white handkerchief protests, but the message was a similar one.
Such is the weight of expectation at Bramall Lane; and it’ll weigh heavier than ever next season, their fifth in League One.
“A change in direction was necessary,” a Bramall Lane missive said when Clough was sacked on Monday morning.
That’s not unheard of, either; since Neil Warnock was canned in 2007, they’ve lurched from manager to boss hoping to stumble on a winning ‘direction’.
Eight years later, the search is still ongoing. And they’d better hope the next bloke is up to the job.
Because, after hiring and firing seven permanent managers in eight years, one does begin to wonder; how many more directions can there be?