The theme of Zach Clough’s introduction to Carlisle United is not difficult to find. After talking to the media for 20 minutes yesterday, the player saw it clearly himself.

“Like I’ve said about 50 times already in this interview, it’s about enjoying it,” he said. “I just want to play football and enjoy it.”

It is telling to hear a 26-year-old attacking player stress such a point. Clough would not be at Brunton Park had his bright young career not taken the odd unwanted turn.

The hope now is that Cumbria can revive the best of Clough: the richly talented player who emerged with fizz and sparkle at Bolton before a lesser time at Nottingham Forest, the odd injury later, and the need to find reserves that had not been necessary at the innocent outset.

People who know him speak well of Clough’s attitude and approach. Chris Beech, who coached him at Rochdale in 2018/19, believes he can unlock his ability. The attacker, who had a short, refreshing spell helping Wigan stay in League One last season, sat in the sun at United’s ground and sounded ready to turn a new page.

“The fact I’ve worked with [Beech] before was a big plus point for me,” Clough said. “His training sessions were really good, really enjoyable, and I feel he will get the best out of me.

“That’s what I need at this point of my career – to play, to smile, and be loved by the fans and hopefully by the whole city.”

United have known the odd story of a star who has revitalised himself in these parts. Clough need not be burdened by comparisons; all he needs to do is make good on his desire to find football pure and pleasant again.

As it had at Bolton. Clough emerged for the Trotters, his boyhood club, at 19 and was soon scoring goals and producing dashing performances in the Championship that lured many scouts along to watch.

News and Star: Clough celebrates scoring for Bolton against Watford in 2015 (photo: PA)Clough celebrates scoring for Bolton against Watford in 2015 (photo: PA)

“It was quite surreal, to be honest,” he said. “When you look back now, you think about it more, but at the time…I didn’t think about anything other than football. I didn’t worry about who was coming to watch – I didn’t really know until afterwards – and I didn’t feel any pressure at all.

“I think the older I’ve got, the more pressure comes. A lot of players will say the same thing. When you’re younger…I had no fear of anything. I just took it all in my stride and just felt love from everyone. That’s when I felt at my best – just feeling the love.”

Clough was eventually signed by Nottingham Forest, the fee said to be £3 million, and made a positive start, but changes at a club not known for recent stability left the player’s progress more complicated. He slid down the reckoning and was introduced to football’s harder side.

“A lot of people don’t see what goes on off the field at a club like Nottingham Forest,” he says. “Sometimes everyone thinks it’s always the player’s fault, and sometimes it isn’t.

“I think to get away from there and feel really free now, and to come and smile every day, coming into work, and meet new people…I can’t wait.”

News and Star: Clough scores for Forest in 2017 (photo: PA)Clough scores for Forest in 2017 (photo: PA)

Clough says he learned important things through his frustration at the City Ground. “You find yourself a bit more [in situations like that]. You find other things that make you happy away from football. But hopefully now I can get back onto the football pitch and get smiling again.”

Clough’s time at Forest involved a loan back to Bolton, and then another to Rochdale. Injury made it a limited spell but he enjoyed working under Beech, who was then No2 to Keith Hill.

“I picked up a lot of injuries that season unfortunately, so didn’t play as much as I’d have liked, but I did enjoy it,” he said.

“I just like the way he [Beech] works, the excitement he brings to people when they play. He’s a really motivated person who wants to get as high as he can, and I’m the same. I want to get back to the levels where I was at.

“That was the conversation we were having [when Carlisle made their approach]. We want to get this club back to where we believe we should be and where it could be.”

Can Beech restore the smile to Clough’s game? He nods hopefully. “For sure. I think Chris will get the best out of me in that aspect. He’s a really happy character and I think I’ll thrive under his management.”

News and Star: Clough believes Chris Beech, left, can get the best out of him (photo: Amy Nixon)Clough believes Chris Beech, left, can get the best out of him (photo: Amy Nixon)

Clough enjoyed his time at Wigan, from January onwards. “It was more a case of getting myself back up to match sharpness, I hadn’t played the first half of the season because of Forest not letting me go anywhere.

“When I eventually got out and got to Wigan it was a matter of time, really. I just needed to get myself embedded back into a first-team environment and back up and running and fit again.

“I feel like I got there towards the end. The season ended at a bad time for me, really, because I was starting to get myself going again.”

Clough was released by the Latics, another club who have experienced recent crisis, but is philosophical about this. “It’s always the club and manager’s decision in which direction he wants to go. I have a lot of respect for the club and manager for giving me the opportunity to get myself back out in some games. We have a really good relationship. I was fine with it to be honest. I just wanted to find a new club and a new home and hopefully I’ve found that in Carlisle.”

The call from the Blues, he said, came last Thursday and United’s keenness to offer Clough an opportunity appealed to him. One phonecall from Beech, he said, made that crystal clear. Dipping into the fourth tier brought no reservations.

“It’s just about playing football,” he said. “I don’t think the level matters too much. Every league poses different types of challenges. I’m just ready to take on the challenge it will throw at me this year. 

“If the minutes come, I don’t feel like there’ll be much pressure on me because I feel, when I’ve played, the numbers have always been quite good, even at Championship level. I scored one in four – and every time I started probably one in three. I believe as long as I’m playing games, and my numbers are high, it will fall into place.”

Clough believes he can be an “exciting player” and “nice on the eye” when at his best. He says he has already talked formations with Beech, will add a free-kick specialism to United’s squad – and a certain attacking versatility.

“I’ll play anywhere across the front three, or in behind. I’ve played in probably every position in the front and midfield in my time. I didn’t find my favourite. But probably in behind, in the 10 position, playing on the half turn…that’s probably my best position.”

Clough is not a teenage prodigy any more, but it probably reflects some of the football he has missed in the way he answered the next question: which aspects of his experience will benefit United the most?

“That’s quite a difficult question. I feel quite young still. I’m only 26, but feel people do expect me to bring some experience. I’m quite a quiet character to be honest. As I get older I probably do need to be a bit more of a talker in the dressing room. I don’t know if that will come. I’m quite quiet.”

Clough says he has been putting in the yards in the close-season and is keen to start life in earnest at Carlisle. Pre-season testing takes place on Friday before training starts in earnest.

“I am ready,” he said. “I feel I’ve always been ready. I just don’t feel I’ve always been treated fairly. I’ve never, ever taken my foot off the gas, I’ve always been working hard. I’ve probably worked harder the older I got. An opportunity is all I needed, to be honest.”

Clough talked more about “feeling the love” from fans, who will hopefully be back in League Two grounds in proper numbers again in 2021/22. “It does help a lot,” he said.

“The games do feel a bit flat with no supporters in. I think it’ll give us the edge to hopefully be where we want to be come the end of next season. If we can get the fans in it will push us on.”

United’s new season fixtures are about to be published. Clough’s mind will naturally go towards that first game in the blue shirt: the proper onset of his fresh start. “It’s gonna mean a lot to be honest. Sometimes when you’re not playing at Forest, you’re thinking, ‘When are you gonna play again?’ You’re just waiting for the moment.

“At Wigan I played a little bit, but I’m just waiting for that moment to be a real part of a team and a real fresh start.”

It is only four years since Clough was traded for millions, but Carlisle is now the setting for a hoped-for climb back to decent heights. “I think it did add pressure to me personally,” he said of that Bolton-to-Forest switch, “but I think that comes with age. In football when you’re young and fresh you don’t fear anything.

“Coming here now as a free agent…I just feel like I’m 19 again and can’t wait to get going. I’m just relaxed about the football, nothing to worry about. I just want to enjoy myself.”