March to Wembley: These games are the reason why we get into football, says Clough

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Nigel Clough knows all about his opposite number Steve Bruce.

“I’ve come across him before,” the former England international revealed earlier this week. “Or, to be completely accurate, he’s come across me with his studs.

“I remember one of my first ever games for Nottingham Forest was against Norwich City when he was there. Let’s just say he gave me a welcome that I wasn’t going to forget. Well, not in a hurry anyway.”

Tomorrow, when his Sheffield United side face Hull City at Wembley, Clough is hoping for retribution. By masterminding what would be a momentous victory for the South Yorkshire club.

History might be against them. No team from the third tier of English football has reached the FA Cup semi-finals for 13 years. But, after beating the likes of Aston Villa and Fulham during what has been an extraordinary journey through gruelling rounds, United will compete as equals. Not star-struck tourists content to play a supporting role.

“We won’t be going down with an inferiority complex,” Clough continued. “That’s not the mindset I want us to have.

“Yes, we know it’s going to be tough. Yes, we know that Hull City are going to be everybody’s favourites to go through.

“But our lads have shown what they are capable of. They’ve seen off some excellent teams on the way here and, what’s more, they’ve deserved to do it every single time. None of those results have been flukes.

“We’ll be giving it our best shot and, if that’s not good enough, then so be it. Make no mistake, though, we’ll be doing everything we can to try and make sure of a result.”

Top-flight scalps guarantee column inches. But, speaking at United’s Redtooth Academy on Monday, Clough admitted that dispatching their respective namesakes from Colchester and Cambridge, had been a source of even greater satisfaction in Bramall Lane’s bootroom.

“We learnt a lot about the players in those games and, even more importantly, I think they learnt a lot about themselves. Actually, I think it’s possible to make a case that those were our best two results. When you play someone from the Premier League you know, come what may, that people are going to be ‘up for it’.

“When that’s not the case, if you are against someone from the same league or below, then you have to rely on your professionalism even more, look to your own character and desire.

“You can make a case that we could have gone out in both of those. We hadn’t won away from home in heaven knows how long when we went down there but, after they came right back at us during the game, we still came through right at the end.

“Cambridge were buzzing and their crowd were buzzing. You could sense when you got to the ground that they thought something might happen, that it might be their day. They were top of the Conference, had a phenomenal home record at that time and threw everything at us. But, once again, we were professional, dedicated and got the result we wanted.”

To give themselves the best possible chance of doing so again, United, who last lifted the trophy in 1925, must walk an emotional tightrope. View the hullaballo surrounding tomorrow’s showpiece as a motivational tool rather than a hurdle to be overcome.

“There’s always pressure on occasions like this,” Clough, a member of the Forest team beaten in the final by Tottenham Hotspur in 1991, acknowledged. “But they are a pleasure too.

“These are the moments that you go into football for. These are the ones you dream of throughout your career and most people are never fortunate enough to fulfil them but now we are.

“It’s going to be a very proud moment when we walk out of the tunnel for all of us. But these lads, with what they’ve achieved so far, deserve the acclaim and reception they’re going to get.”

“The nerves start when you are on the coach to the stadium,” he continued. “You start to see all the fans about a mile away from the ground and, after crawling through that, it’s almost a relief to get into the dressing room.

“It’s nice and quiet, away from all of that, and there’s a sort of sanctuary in there. Then, when you go out for the warm-up into the cauldron, that’s when everything becomes reality.

“But what you do is remind yourself this is why you’re in the business. It’s what you made all those sacrifices as a youngster for.”

Bruce, who cut his coaching teeth at United between 1998 and 1999, is likely to deliver a similar message when he addresses his squad before kick-off.

City, paired with Sunderland, Southend, Middlesbrough and Brighton and Hove Albion, en route to the capital, will be formidable opponents. Not least because of their manager’s fiercely competitive streak.

“Joking aside, Steve is a good guy. He was a tremendous player too,” Clough said. “Tony Adams and [(Steve] Bould at Arsenal, Bruce and [Gary Pallister] at Manchester United. Back in that era those were the two most famous pairings at centre-half.

“All four of them were excellent at their jobs but, I tell you what, Steve was probably the toughest of them all.”

Clough provided an insight into the self-belief which has underpinned United’s work throughout the tournament during the immediate aftermatch of their triumph over Charlton Athletic.

“We won’t be going down there for a day out,” he reminded the media. “You go to the seaside for one of those.”

Clough has refused to revise United’s usual pre-match routine. Given that the likes of Harry Maguire, Neill Collins, Chris Porter and Michael Doyle all have all previously appeared at Wembley, he said: “We won’t be doing anything differently. We will be sticking to our usual pre-match routine so that means there won’t be any visits to the stadium beforehand or stuff like that. Everything is going to stay exactly the same as it always is. It’s served us well so far and we don’t see the need to change.”

There has, though, been one notable exception.

“We have practiced penalties,” Clough said. “I told Gary [Crosby] to remind me on Monday morning that we must do that every single day.”