Alan Biggs at Large: Mal Brannigan is a key member of Team Nigel Clough at Sheffield United

Nigel Clough
Nigel Clough

It’s been demonstrated by actions and doesn’t necessarily need words but it’s still good to hear Sheffield United’s financial strength and commitment spoken from the top.

Not loudly but emphatically in the quiet, thoughtful tones of managing director Mal Brannigan. Regardless of the important title, Brannigan’s role, working hand in glove with Nigel Clough, cannot be understated.

As the manager’s long-time close colleague and transfer fixer, Brannigan is arguably the most important member of Team Clough. As demonstrated by a hectic round of January recruitment netting the already prolific Matty Done.

Managers commonly bring coaches with them and, as with Clough, former players too. It’s rare to see such ties extend to a manager effectively putting in place a member of his new club’s hierarchy. But that’s what happened when Brannigan, who worked alongside Clough at Derby and has known him for seven years, arrived at Bramall Lane 13 months ago.

It’s compelling evidence of the extent to which United, funded by Prince Abdullah, are giving Clough autonomy. “If you believe the manager is the right person to steer the football department then it is the right system,” Brannigan tells me with a logic that defies contradiction and yet is ignored by so many clubs. “Nigel is a manager who hasn’t flitted from club to club. He has built. We’re here to give him the tools to do that again.”

There are similarities between the pair. Both are amiable characters with a clear underlying strength. Neither uses a lot of words where a few will suffice.

Here’s the bit that some Blades fans have needed spelling out. “We’ve proved the funding and investment is there,” says Brannigan. “We’re building a team and club at the same time.”

Note the present tense. Clough didn’t go to the Saudi well and leave it dry during January. Nor will there be a sudden panic if United fail in their objective to win promotion this season. Brannigan again: “We’d love to do it this season but we’re on a build programme – to make this club at least a strong Championship club and to be ready when we’re up there.”

That doesn’t remove the ultimate imperative of results but it does firmly suggest that Clough’s mission – to restructure a club as well as a team – is for the foreseeable future. As it should be.

Which is why United won’t cut corners when it comes to the relationship between the Bramall Lane surface and Clough’s preferred playing style. “The bit of green in the middle can be the most important tool,” Brannigan insists. “That’s the reason we’re about to invest £750,000 in a new pitch.”

Meantime, it’s back to plotting those transfers, balanced by some hard-headed calls on player valuations. So who pulls the plug when the demands are too high?

“It’s probably a joint decision but weighted more with the manager,” Brannigan explains. “It’s his budget at the end of the day.

“He’ll usually give me a list of three or four players for any one position.

“I think we’ve been very successful. Not many times have we missed out on the number one target.”