Playing an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley with Cloughie as your manager.
It’s the kind of scenario British football icons Roy Keane and Stuart Pearce reminisce about; a bygone era of afro-perms, tiny satin shorts and a team punching above their weight in one of the world’s most illustrious competitions.
Tomorrow, a little lad from Gilmerton lives out that dreamy scenario. Stefan Scougall rocks up to Wembley with Sheffield United under the guidance of Nigel Clough, son of the legendary Brian, for an FA Cup semi against Yorkshire neighbours Hull City. The midfielder stands just 5ft 7in and weighs 9st, yet he isn’t even moderately fazed. Not by the situation, or the stakes, or the heroes who have previously trod this path.
Clough Snr’s Nottingham Forest side regularly chased silverware during the 1970s, 80s and early 90s and almost had a second home at Wembley given how often they visited. Their wily old manager even had his son playing centre-forward and Nigel is now crafting his own cup giant-killers at Bramall Lane. Sheffield United sit mid-table in England’s League One, but have already beaten Aston Villa, Fulham and Charlton on this FA Cup run.
Scougall joined in January from Livingston in a deal that could be worth up to £400,000 depending on appearances. Three months in, he is preparing for the biggest match of his life in front of a 70,000 crowd. His humble rise from Inch Colts Boys Club, through Musselburgh Windsor, Hibs, Dunfermline and Livingston has brought him a crack at the big time with United.
Having Clough as manager simply adds to the intrigue. “Any time I’ve spoken to him he’s been great. It’s quite hard to judge and I don’t want to say anything wrong here,” he laughs, nervously. “He’s been a gentleman, just with the way he comes across. I could listen to him all day. People who have played at a high level like him, you just have to take everything they say on board and use every bit of advice you can.
“He’s been first-class with me. He’s created a never-say-die attitude and fostered some great team spirit. He gives you the belief and confidence to go out and express yourself. If you work hard for him, he gives you plenty of praise. As long as you give your all, he’s quite happy.”
Fail to show enough work rate or desire and Clough can quickly transform into his madcap father. “He’s definitely got that in him. We’ve experienced that once or twice this season. At Crewe, he went through everyone because we were terrible that day [United lost 3-0]. Because of that, I think everyone has come on leaps and bounds and we’ve gone on a good run. I think that’s what was needed back then and the gaffer certainly delivered the message.
“If you had said to me a few months ago that I’d play at Wembley before the season was out, I’d have thought you were either a liar or a joker. It is quite incredible what has happened. I couldn’t have imagined this.”
Scougall lied about his age as a young child in order to play for Inch at an older age level, such was his appetite for football. He credits his father, Alex, with driving him on in the game. He will be at Wembley tomorrow to watch his son in action along with a busload of friends and relatives from Edinburgh.
“My parents are coming with about 40-odd other people,” says the 21-year-old. “It does heap the pressure on a bit, but undoubtedly this is the biggest game of my career. There is an excitement about the club, but the gaffer has kept it low-key. We’ve trained as usual and we’re leaving for London today after training. We’re treating it like a normal away game, really. There’s nothing fancy about it.”
For a player who tried to hone his game watching former Scotland captain Barry Ferguson, England always seemed a likely destination. Yet Scougall stumbled on some familiar faces when he first walked into Sheffield United’s dressing-room. Jamie Murphy, Ryan Flynn, Stephen McGinn, Neill Collins and Bob Harris had already formed a Scottish clique into which he was warmly welcomed.
“I didn’t realise how many Scottish players were here. To walk in and hear all the “ayes” and “naws” in the dressing-room kind of made me feel like I was still at home,” says Scougall. “It’s been a big help in terms of mixing in with them and the other players. We’ve only managed to have one or two nights out so far, though, because of all the games we’ve had.”
Tomorrow offers an ideal chance to test the camaraderie if United can upset the odds against Premier League opponents once again. “Getting to an FA Cup final doesn’t happen very often, especially for a club in League One. We’ve been underdogs in all our FA Cup games so far, so we want to prove again that we can more than match a Premier League side. It will be a great occasion.
“The nerves I get are good nerves, I’d say. It’s nerves through excitement. I don’t feel fazed by anything. I’ve shown since I’ve come down here that I get my head down, blank everything else out and play my own game. Possibly it will be different when the bus pulls up at Wembley. I’ve obviously never been in that situation before. Here’s hoping I’m not sitting on the toilet all through the pre-match.
“I always wanted to go to England. You want to challenge yourself at the best level you can. Right now, for me, that’s League One in England. It’s a good standard, but naturally you want to aim higher. If that’s with Sheffield United or it’s with another team, it has to be your goal to play at the highest level you can. A football career isn’t very long, so you need to make the most of it.”
There is no doubt Scougall is maximising his potential as he prepares to step out at Wembley under a man called Cloughie.