Two proud clubs, an iconic name and just the right amount of needle, writes James Shield.
Sunday’s fifth round tie between Sheffield United and Nottingham Forest at Bramall Lane promises to be a classic FA Cup encounter.
But win, lose or draw, Garry Birtles told The Star last night that Nigel Clough’s players deserve the utmost praise for their efforts in the competition having claimed two top-flight scalps en route to this weekend’s meeting with Billy Davies’ side.
“It’s impossible to under-estimate what an achievement it is to beat two Premier League teams, especially away from home, in back to back games,” he said. “Going to Aston Villa and winning was one hell of a result. But then to follow that up in a replay against Fulham, having played much of the first game between them with only 10 men, well, I think it’s phenomenal.”
Birtles is perfectly placed to assess the 116th meeting between these two rivals who, despite plying their trades in the third and second tiers of English football, have contested the final a combined total of nine times.
The 57-year-old made over 200 appearances for the visitors and played alongside Clough, whose father Brian famously led Forest to European glory in 1980 and 1979, during his second spell at the City Ground.
A trusted confident of United’s manager - regularly observing training sessions during Clough’s reign at Derby County - Birtles outlined the qualities which, he believes, made his friend such a shrewd appointment following David Weir’s departure four months ago.
“Nigel has a proven track record and is very skilled at what he does,” Birtles continued. “Which isn’t surprising because it would be strange if he hadn’t picked-up a few ideas from his father who was one of the best there’s ever been.
“He likes to build a club from top to bottom and is very big on ensuring there are the right sort of characters in the dressing room. At Derby, for example, one of the first things Nigel did was get rid of the bad eggs among the group and also the high-earners which allowed him to completely reshape what was going on and create a really good environment.
“He’s very big on character and it’s good to see that, at United, he’s kept what I’d call ‘proper football people’ around him like Andy Garner, Gary Crosby, Chris Morgan and Darren Ward. You won’t get very far under Nigel unless you’re committed to your profession and your club.”
United are the lowest ranked team remaining in the tournament having slipped to 22nd in the League One table following the postponement of Wednesday’s game with leaders Brentford. While Clough, who inherited a similar situation at County before eventually cementing their Championship status, attempts to reach the last eight without compromising his squad’s battle against relegation, Davies hopes the trip to South Yorkshire does not distract from Forest’s efforts to regain their place among the country’s elite.
Birtles said: “Nigel is very methodical and it’s no stretch of the imagination to say that, even though he’s not there anymore, Nigel very much laid the foundations for what Derby, who like Forest are in with a great shout of promotion to the Premier League, are doing now.
“He’s very keen on bringing young players through the ranks and, with Sheffield United having such a good reputation for developing talent, there’s a really good fit there. Will Hughes at Derby is one of the most exciting youngsters in the Football League and Nigel guided his career perfectly.
“If you show you are good enough, if you show you are worthy of an opportunity, then you’ll be given a chance.”
Forest are fifth in the Championship and unbeaten in 16 outings following their victory over Huddersfield Town in midweek and Birtles said: “The key for Forest this season has been their goals. They’ve got some very strong forwards in the team like Darius Henderson, who of course was at Sheffield United, Jamie Mackie and Jamie Paterson who has been a real revelation.
“On top of that, they’ve also invested in the squad at a key time of the year which means they’re building from a position of strength. That’s helped them to keep up their momentum.”