History could be made tonight as Burton Albion go after a record-breaking 12th consecutive win in the Blue Square Premier in a game that may well underline their credentials as the team to beat in the league this year.
But the match against fellow promotion hopefuls Torquay United isn’t the only concern for Brewers fans. Derby County are after their boss, Nigel Clough, who, in ten years, has guided Burton from the depths of the Southern League to within touching distance of league status. It’s no surprise that he’s a man in demand.
Young Big ‘Ead? Not quite
With Clough junior now starting to get linked with high profile jobs (Nottingham Forest were rumoured to be interested, before plumping for Billy Davies), the inevitable comparisons with his late father will undoubtedly start. But what they have in common as managers, beyond the family surname, is a single-mindedness and an ability to put together teams that others may consider less than the sum of their parts.
Unlike dad, Nigel is rarely outspoken and comes across as thoughtful and polite in interviews, which are usually more focused on Burton’s next opponents than any kind of Mourinho-esque proclamation or Ferguson-style mind games.
Clough is also a devoted family man and has frequently said that he enjoys the Burton job because it gives him time to spend with his two young children. The setup at the club is such that it allows the manager to pick up and drop off the kids from school, and enjoy a normal family life away from the glare of the media.
The 42-year-old has also, in the past, said he is in no hurry to go to a bigger club and still has plenty of time of his side should he want to move. Nor should he need to as Burton chairman Ben Robinson has often said Clough has a job for life at the club in recognition of his work with the Brewers.
And if Clough does decide to leave, he won’t be the first Burton manager to manage at a higher level. Both Neil Warnock and his dad’s old right-hand man, Peter Taylor, have occupied the dugout in the Midlands town.
Ten years to build success
In October, Clough Jr celebrated ten years in charge of Burton, during which he took them away from Southern League relegation candidates to Conference table-toppers, although the success hasn’t always been instant.
Clough pitched up at Burton in 1998, aged 32, having been forced to retire from the professional game due to a degenerative heel injury. His career spanned spells at Nottingham Forest, Liverpool and Manchester City and took in 131 goals for Forest alone, as well as 14 England caps.
But rather than leap straight into a job with a league club, Clough accepted the offer from Burton Albion to take up the reins as player-manager (the part-time schedule meant he could still play) and save them from relegation from the Southern League. It was a gamble, as Clough had no previous management experience, but it was also the highest profile appointment in the club’s history.
Clough then started building a strong and successful side that finished runners-up for two consecutive years, while delivering the Southern League Cup along the way. Then, in 2001, came Burton’s most successive season under Clough.
Due to a geographical shuffle of the non-league pyramid, Burton found themselves in the Unibond Premier League. But the swapping of regions proved no obstacle for the Brewers as they ran away as champions, setting a record points total and scoring over 100 goals in the process. Conference football – the club’s highest position ever – beckoned.
It’s fair to say Clough’s opening seasons in the Conference weren’t a runaway success. Despite being touted as the next big thing in management – and the club being many people’s tips for the top – Burton’s progress was steady and unspectacular.
The first two seasons saw the Brewers flirt with the relegation places as the side adjusted to life in a higher division. But Burton’s board didn’t panic and slowly Clough started to build momentum as his side finished steadily higher up the Conference each year.
The Man United moment
In 2006, the Brewers got what every non-league team dreams of when they drew Manchester United at home in the FA Cup. Like Exeter City the season before, Burton held United to a goalless draw before losing the replay but keeping their pride very much intact.
More than the result, the draw gave Burton a financial windfall that has undoubtedly helped the stable, well-run club to their position today. What’s more, it brought Clough to the attention of the national press again and had many tipping him for a big move sooner rather than later.
Instead, he stayed at Burton, guiding them to their best-ever Conference finish of 9th. Last season, in keeping with the club making small strides each year, the Brewers finished in the playoffs for the first time ever, losing to Cambridge United in the semi-finals.
This year, Clough threatens to go one better. They sit 13 points clear at the top of the Blue Square Premier (although second-place Histon have three games in hand, while Torquay and Kidderminster both have two) and, at the moment, cannot stop losing.
The man of the moment
It was inevitable that Clough, with his famous surname, top-flight career and relative success and experience in management (he’s got seven more years in the hotseat than Paul Ince) that bigger clubs would come calling and some may see it as fate that two teams forever associated with his father both had vacancies while Clough’s stock is highest.
Forest now have a manager but it appears Nigel Clough is number-one target for Derby County, where his father etched himself into Rams folklore by winning the league in 1972. Other names in the frame are caretaker Chris Hutchings, Wrexham boss Dean Saunders, and another offspring of a famous manager, Darren Ferguson.
There’s no doubting Clough would be a popular choice among Rams fans, although the Burton boss has stronger ties to Forest than he does to rivals Derby.
But Burton have already said they won’t stand in the way if he wanted to leave – and Clough has admitted the job does interest him.
But, like his dad, Clough is a canny operator and with Burton now the leading contender for the Conference title, there’s still every chance he’ll stay with the Midlands club and attempt to finish what he started away from the glare of the public eye.
With Derby having seven managers in as many years and Forest a more modest five, there’s every chance the opportunity will come up again. At 42, Clough has time on his side, which is more than can be said for Derby right now.