Sunday afternoons, as those who know him testify, are sacrosanct for Nigel Clough, writes James Shield.
A time reserved for family, good food and friends rather than scouting missions or tactical analysis.
But the Sheffield United manager, whose side host Tottenham Hotspur in the second-leg of their Capital One Cup semi-final tonight, will gladly alter his plans if football intrudes on March 1.
“I was speaking to the chairman at Burton about getting together for lunch on a Sunday and he said ‘give us a couple of dates’ that are okay for you,” Clough admitted earlier this week. “I gave him a couple and he said ‘that one’s fine, but the other one, I’m hoping to be cheering you on at Wembley’.
“Honestly, we haven’t even looked when the final is because we’re that far away from it. I’ve not even thought about it to be fair.”
On paper, Clough’s players are actually tantalisingly close to becoming Bramall Lane’s first representatives in a major domestic knockout final since 1936. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and the size of the challenge facing them when Mauricio Pochettino’s team visits Bramall Lane this evening becomes abundantly clear.
The devil, as United discovered in north London a week ago, is in the detail.
“We need a goal but we can’t concede,” Clough, whose team lost the first leg 1-0, said. “If we concede then it becomes a very difficult task. You’re looking at scoring at three goals.
“That’s going to be as important as scoring, you’ve got to hang on in there at 0-0 at least if we can and then one in the last five minutes gets us to extra-time. We’ve got to balance our approach out.
“We don’t want to go hell for leather because they can hit us on the break and all of a sudden you’re 1-0 down and the game’s over.”
“The disappointment was giving the soft penalty away but also that we didn’t come out for the second half and gain belief from the first half,” Clough continued. “We came out a little bit timid for 20 minutes or so.
I don’t think Spurs did much different, it was us. We gave the ball away and we weren’t as attack-minded as we were in the first half.”
That penalty, converted in the 73rd minute by Andros Townsend, was conceded by Jay McEveley but United, who allowed the defender to miss Saturday’s FA Cup tie at Preston North End, expected him to feature tonight.
“He was pretty down,” Clough, admitted. “It’d difficult when you’ve played as well as he had and just made that one mistake.
“It’s like a goalkeeper sometimes. You can have a blinder and let one in in the last minute and everyone forgets about everything else. He was superb, he made one error and we were punished for it.
“I think he’ll be in the team. People like Jay, you put him out there and he wants to atone for his error and get us through to the final.”
Recent results achieved by Bradford City and Middlesbrough have prompted claims the gap between the Premier League and the rest is closing. Clough, though, is no so sure.
“On a week to week basis, I don’t think it is. I think it’s all down to the Premier League lads not taking the cups as seriously as the other players.
“The cups are so important to lower-league players and lower-league clubs, I don’t think that’s matched in the Premier League.
“I don’t think they regard it with the same importance, even when they put a full side out. Whatever Man City want to do is their business but to have a seven-and-a-half-hour flight the day before a game, well, I wonder if they’d do that for a Champions League game or Chelsea at the weekend?
“Would they fly back on Friday from Abu Dhabi before they play Chelsea next Saturday?”
“We got a draw at Preston with four teenagers in. People said we weren’t taking it seriously by resting eight but we went there to get a result,” Clough added. “That was our best team to get a result.”
Midfielder Stefan Scougall revealed earlier this week that Clough and his staff have devised a blueprint which, if executed correctly, can swing this precariously balanced tie back in the League One club’s favour. But the former England international, who started his managerial career at Albion before arriving at United via Derby County, was giving nothing away when he addressed the media on Monday.
“We’ve learnt they’ve got some very good players and that their bench is a lot stronger than ours. They were bringing on Soldado and Dembele and we’ve got a lad from Ilkeston (Kieran Wallace) who was playing non-league football eight weeks or so ago.
“That’s a stark contrast between the two squads and benches but we’re at home and 25,000 of the 30,000 will be cheering us on. That can make a difference.”
The Albion chairman, his United counterparts and half of the Steel City are hoping it counts.