Nigel Adkins did his best to paint this fixture as a battle between clubs, not coaching staff, at the Steelphalt Academy yesterday.
But, no matter how hard the Sheffield United manager tried, one subject was always going to dominate the agenda during a revealing pre-match media conference.
The return of Nigel Clough. His counterpart, predecessor and, having rejoined Burton Albion earlier this term after being unceremoniously shown the door following last season’s play-off semi-finals, rival across the technical area at Bramall Lane tonight.
“Our paths have crossed before,” Adkins said. “Nigel worked very hard here at Sheffield United and there were some really good evenings then weren’t there.
“But this is about the league leaders coming to town and us, looking at their defensive record, trying to break them down.”
Of course, the narrative surrounding this evening’s game is not only unfair on both Adkins and Clough but also, as the 50-year-old tactfully pointed-out out, a distraction from the actual job in hand. United, 10th in the League One table after losing at Rochdale three days ago, are in desperate need of a positive result while the visitors know defeat could see them dislodged from top spot.
Nevertheless, Clough in particular could be forgiven for viewing the meeting with United as an opportunity to settle old scores following surreptitious attempts to denigrate his achievements by certain individuals associated with their hierarchy during the immediate aftermath of his departure.
Having inherited a team spiralling towards League Two when he took charge in October 2013, the former England international helped United reach the last four of both major domestic cup competitions during an eventful 19 month reign.
Although failing to deliver promotion only partly explains his exit, Clough deserved better than to become the subject of a captious briefing campaign although co-owner Kevin McCabe attempted to redress the balance during a series of conciliatory interviews earlier this month.
“There always is a little bit extra when you go back somewhere. I went back to Scunthorpe a couple of times and Tranmere, but not to Southampton or Reading yet,” Adkins said. “I always had really good relationships with everybody, so when I have gone back, they have always made me feel really welcome which is a support and I had a good relationship with the supporters.
“I just try and be honest and upfront and that’s what it is. But ultimately when you go back, it’s about winning because you represent the football club you are at. It’s about winning for them and the supporters you have got.”
“All managers want to do well and I speak to all the managers that come,” Adkins continued. “They know if they come to Bramall Lane that if they can just keep it quiet for five minutes, they will turn on the home team and it makes life a lot easier for them. I have done it before when I have come as a previous manager.
“Sheffield United supporters are very understanding and they are a part of the team. But obviously there is a lot of frustration around at the moment.”
With that in mind, Adkins was understandably keen to accentuate the positive aspects of United’s performance at Spotland last weekend. Especially because, his coaching staff suspect, Albion will look to make this evening’s game a cautious, finely-balanced affair.
“It’s another game and for those who saw it (on Saturday), it was very good for an hour. It was probably even alright after the hour; it was the scoreline which did us. The scorelines changes the mindset of everybody. That’s the top and bottom, but when you break down the structures of it, there was a lot of very good stuff that went on. However, it means nothing if you lose. But you have got to believe you are doing the right things.”
The structures Clough established during his first spell at Albion, and subsequently developed by the likes of Paul Peschisolido, Gary Rowett and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, are bearing fruit now with the club he steered from the Southern League Premier Division to the brink of the Conference title well-positioned to secure a Championship berth next term.
Clough, who took charge of Derby County in January 2009, was unveiled as Hasselbaink’s successor just before Christmas following the Dutchman’s move to QPR and, with Albion making the short journey north two points clear of second-placed Wigan Athletic, has won seven of his 12 games so far.
“It’s a great story for Burton and they are where they are for a reason,” Adkins said. “But it’s about stability. Putting those building blocks in place. You need that in all walks off life and very little, or very little that actually lasts, happens overnight.
“Gary did a great job is setting the foundation and template there. They have a very small pitch and defend deep . Gary’s gone to Birmingham and done exactly the same thing there and it’s been successful.
“They defend deep, don’t concede many and counter. There’s no right and wrong way to do it, no issue with that at all. I’ve been to hundreds and thousands of games and you are always searching for the latest trend, but it all keeps coming around in circles. Ultimately it’s about good players on the pitch who work hard for each other.”