Championship Manager of the Year? It is difficult to look beyond Nigel Clough, whose surname will forever be associated with one of the greats of the game.
Last season Leicester City achieved a footballing miracle by winning the Premier League and this year Clough has written an equally heart-warming fairy tale by guiding Burton Albion to survival in their division.
Clough has secured another season in the second tier with a game to spare while three former Premier League clubs, Birmingham City, Nottingham Forest and Blackburn Rovers, will head into the last day fearing for their futures.
He has managed it on a relatively minuscule £7 million budget at a club who regularly play in front of crowds of 5,000 and were operating in the Blue Square Premier only eight years ago. His record signing, Jackson Irvine, cost just £250,000. It is a startling achievement, and one that Clough, 51, was struggling to take in as he reflected on the season at the Pirelli Stadium on Wednesday.
“Bookies don’t get it wrong very often. We were odds-on favourites at the start of the season to be relegated but staying up with 52 points is no fluke,” he says.
“We’ve had to embrace the fact that we’re underdogs going into every game. It feels like the whole Championship is against us. We’ve got the smallest ground, the smallest resources and it takes a certain type of player to handle that. When away teams come here the fans all think they will roll us over, just by looking at the surroundings. It’s amazing that we’ve stayed up, really, and something I’ll only fully appreciate when I’ve retired from management.
“After the Barnsley game last weekend [when Burton’s survival was confirmed] I was knackered, went home and had a glass of champagne. I was so tired I couldn’t sleep. But it was good to enjoy it with my family, that was important because they bear the brunt of it. We’ve still lost 19 games this season and it’s impossible not to take it home.”
Clough is the reluctant hero, however, and feels uncomfortable in the spotlight. He points to the loyalty of chairman Ben Robinson, his backroom staff and squad, and believes there are more deserving winners of the League Managers’ Association award, such as Brighton’s Chris Hughton.
“I can see why people are saying nice things about me but hopefully they will recognise the achievements by the club,” he says. “How has a club from the Dr Martens League 15 years ago come this far to maintaining their place in the Championship? There are so many poorly run football clubs these days that maybe people should look at Burton and say this might be the template.
“Some of the players are cast-offs and players that clubs didn’t want, but that’s the only way we could get them. It’s about getting the balance and blending it all together. It goes back to stability and the chairman has only sacked one manager in 18 years. He lets you get on with the job. Managers here aren’t looking over their shoulders if they lose a couple of games thinking, ‘I’m in trouble’.”
There is one regret for Clough, however, after Burton’s remarkable debut in the Championship. His father Brian, who defied football logic at nearby Derby County and Nottingham Forest with two European Cup triumphs, two Division One titles and four League Cup successes, remains a huge influence and was a regular at the Pirelli before he passed away in September 2004.
“My dad would have loved being here this season. It would have been strange for him seeing Sunderland go down and then possibly Middlesbrough and Hartlepool, three clubs very close to him. That would have broken his heart. He wouldn’t be too chuffed with how Derby and Forest are being run but he would have loved sitting here watching us come up against the big boys. He did it for many years as well, fighting against the odds, Liverpool and Manchester United. He would have loved watching us.”
Forest are never far away from Clough’s thoughts and his world was turned upside down in January when they approached him to be their new manager. After making over 400 appearances there as a player, the majority under his father, it was a huge decision for him to make. Clough was torn, seeking the thoughts of family and close friends in a period of introspection, before finally opting to stay at Burton.
“It was a huge temptation, there will always be a tiny part of me thinking, ‘Should we have gone?’ When it came around I was a bit more excited than everyone else, just because of the emotional ties,” he says. “Without wanting to sound pompous, it was all about trying to do the right thing and not jumping ship within a season. When I made my debut at 18 for Forest my dad wouldn’t give me a contract for the rest of the season because I was still playing on a Sunday afternoon for AC Hunters, my brother’s team. His view was that I’d started the season with them and I should finish it too. Little things like that came into my mind.
“We’re comfortable we did it for the right reasons. I didn’t fall out with my chairman but I think he understood to manage Forest would be a very special thing one day. You never rule anything out.
“I hope they stay up. You look at the three teams and it’s sad somebody has to go but I don’t think it will be Forest.”
It will not be Burton, either, and Clough’s fingernails might just have returned to normal length when he returns to jump aboard the rollercoaster again next season.