Sheffield United: Pembo previews Ashton Gate clash

John Pemberton led Sheffield United into the FA Youth Cup final two years ago.
John Pemberton led Sheffield United into the FA Youth Cup final two years ago.

“If we finish first and they finish second then that’s my idea of perfection. I’d be as happy as a pig in muck.”

For someone known to embrace the beautiful game, John Pemberton can demonstrate an ugly turn of phrase.

But the Bristol City assistant head coach’s admission underlines why, for a variety of reasons, tomorrow’s fixture against Sheffield United is perhaps the most poignant date on his League One calendar.

Pemberton, the former Crystal Palace, Leeds and Crewe Alexandra defender, made 77 for the visitors during a playing career spanning nearly two decades and six different clubs before returning to take charge of their academy in 2010.

Having later accepted a position on Sean O’Driscoll’s staff at Nottingham Forest before following him south again last term, at least two members of the United squad Pemberton guided into the FA Youth Cup final two years ago are set to feature at Ashton Gate.

The sight of Nigel Clough patrolling the technical area will also stir memories of those spells in the east Midlands which, he told The Star last night, helped shape his principles and beliefs.

“Of course I’m delighted to see Harry (Maguire) and George (Long) doing so well,” Pemberton said. “They’re terrific lads and I enjoyed working with them at United so it’s great to see them coming on like they are.

“I always try and stay in touch with the youngsters I’ve worked with. It doesn’t matter where they are.”

Pemberton’s first spell at the City Ground began after Clough’s late father Brian announced his retirement. But the manager who delivered them a First Division title and two European Cups remained a hugely influential figure behind the scenes.

One meeting in particular is still seared into Pemberton’s psyche.

“I remember being introduced to Brian once and, when I said I was working at the academy, he replied: ‘Young man, if I ever see that ball leave the ground once, I’ll be straight back here to see you.’

“When Brian walked into that ground it was like the King was arriving. You could tell the love and admiration people there had for him.

“Quite rightly too. Equally, you could tell the affinity he had for the club. I’m sure it was exactly the same when he was at Derby.”

“When I first worked at Forest, Paul Hart was there and he was seeped in Brian’s ideas,” Pemberton added. “So that made a massive impression on me.

“How can you not try and soak all of that up. He (Clough) was one of the absolute greats.”

Nevertheless, with both teams struggling at the wrong end of the table, there will be no room for conflicting emotions when they lock horns in 24 hours time.

United, who remaining 23rd following last weekend’s defeat by Gillingham, are hoping to record only their second away win of the campaign and third at this stadium since 1971.

City, meanwhile, are 19th despite entering the contest unbeaten in five and with forward Jay Emmanuel-Thomas in sparkling form.

Previously of Arsenal, Doncaster Rovers and Ipswich Town, Emmanuel-Thomas is O’Driscoll’s leading scorer this term having netted 14 in all competitions.

With seven of those coming in his last five outings, halting Emmanuel-Thomas’ progress could hold the key to success for a United side which has seen defender Harry Maguire score 43 per cent of its goals during the same period.

“City is a great place and a great club to work for,” Pemberton said. “A real family club with great people behind the scenes.

“There are so many similarities, in my book, between City and United because of that.

“Neither of us are in the division we want to be at the moment but, with hard work and a fair wind, I’m sure that can change.

“We’re both trying to bring youngsters through in the right way. If you do that then you have to take ups and downs to begin with because they’re still learning.

“The amount you bring in depends on what your aims are. If it’s like Crewe, where the model is sell to survive, then you can do it all at once but, if you’re talking promotion, then you’ve got to do it on a smaller scale and let some of them learn their trade on loan.”

“Sean and I are very different characters,” Pemberton continued. “And that’s probably why we get on together.

“I respect him a lot but, don’t get me wrong, I probably drive him nuts at times. The great thing about Sean is that, despite being the boss, you can express ideas to him and argue them out so there’s a good dynamic.”

Although United are still struggling for consistency, Clough, who took charge 30 days ago, has improved their potency in front of goal.

After hitting the target seven times in 13 outings under his predecessor David Weir, United prepared to face City having claimed the same amount in their last four.

The volume of chances being created has also slightly increased, with 11 engineered against Peter Taylor’s side.

But repeating the defensive lapses which gifted Gillingham two goals could prove even more costly against a marksman of Emmanuel-Thomas’ talents.

“It promises to be a good game because we’ve both got some talented players,” Pemberton said. “Of course, I’ll be doing all I can to help us win it.

“But, after that, I wish United nothing but the best. Like I say, if we could finish first and second then that would be brilliant for me. It would be great.”

*Twitter: @JamesShield1