Clough continuing to defy the odds at Burton - Opposition Profile
Friday, 22nd Sep 2017 08:16 by Clive Whittingham
The division's lowest budget and smallest crowd, but Burton Albion punched above their weight last season and Nigel Clough has them doing so again in 2017/18.
You couldn’t help but laugh/kick your TV screen in when Harry Redknapp let rip on live television about how the Birmingham City side he’d been lumbered with desperately needed reinforcements before the end of the transfer window as they were “the same players who destroyed Gianfranco Zola, a fantastic manager” and “whatever these young managers tell you, you can’t just take a group of players out onto the training ground, put on a few sessions and lift them from a low level to a higher one”.
Redknapp was talking in the tunnel at the Pirelli Stadium after Nigel Clough’s half-time tactical switches had seen his Burton Albion side skilfully and deservedly turn around a 1-0 deficit and register a 2-1 win. They scored a beautiful equaliser through Marvin Sordell and Australian midfielder Jackson Irvine was superb at the heart of the team. The irony that Burton, who’d attracted just 4,948 fans to the game and operate on a budget more appropriate for the middle of League Two, had completed the comeback against a much richer club purely through coaching, tactics and management was apparently completely lost on Redknapp as he continued his quest to – successfully in the end – bully another dozen signings out of a naïve foreign chairman.
A non-league side as recently as 2009, Burton Albion’s second successive promotion in 2015/16 and subsequent survival in the Championship last season – beating Sheff Wed, Derby, Cardiff, Birmingham, Norwich and Leeds along the way – is thanks largely to Clough over his two spells as manager, but mainly to long-time chairman Ben Robinson.
Burton-upon-Trent used to be best known for its beer, and the silos of its breweries still dominate the area’s skyline.
The Staffordshire market town, which stretches itself along the main railway line that connects South Yorkshire and Derby with Birmingham and the South West, had 12 main breweries at one stage. Glance out of the train window now and you’ll see the tower and tanks of the Coors headquarters on these shores – brewing the Grolsch the marketing men would have you believe comes from Holland, and the Coors Light Jean-Claude Van Damme wants you to think is born in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
Football wise, this town hadn’t really figured on the map until relatively recently. Only formed in 1950 and awkwardly positioned in the centre of the country, they played in both the Southern and Northern Leagues during half a century of non-league football. They reached the semi-final of the FA Trophy once, in 1975, and won the first leg away from home over the border at Derbyshire minnows Matlock Town to set themselves up for a first ever trip to Wembley only to lose the second leg at home 2-0.
When they did make the final, in 1987, they lot a replay to Kidderminster at West Brom's Hawthorns after a 0-0 draw under the twin towers.
That was pretty much as good as it got.
Then, in 1998, Nigel Clough, still only 32 and a fine player at Manchester City, took the unusual step of applying for the vacant managerial position here. Chairman at the time Ben Robinson said he thought the application was a wind up.
Burton had appointed high profile managers before – Neil Warnock spent time here during the 1980s – but the arrival of Clough at a time when television companies were snapping up live football rights at such a rate that even the Conference games were starting to feature on Sky Sports gave the club exposure it had never previously enjoyed. I remember watching an early round cup match from the club’s old Eton Park Ground – primarily to see our old charge Andy Sinton who was winding down his career on Albion’s left wing – and remarking that the club seemed to have been renamed Nigel Clough’s Burton Albion without anybody noticing or signing off on the decision.
Clough stayed with the Brewers for ten years, making more than 200 appearances as a player, and building the team steadily as a manager cutting his teeth. He rescued them initially from a relegation scrap in the Dr Martens Premier Division and then guided them to two second placed finishes at that level before they switched to the Unibond League in 2001 following a reorganisation of the league structure and promptly won the title scoring more than 100 goals. In the Conference they were feared opposition, reaching the play-offs but losing to Cambridge in one of several near misses.
But it’s the chairman’s story which is even more remarkable than the tale of the talented striker who gave it all up to manage his local non-league side ostensibly so he could take his children to school every day and watch them grow up – Clough would regularly cite this as his reason for turning down jobs at Derby County and elsewhere during his decade with Burton.
Ben Robinson, a local insurance broker, first joined Albion in 1974 as a board member charged with raising extra sponsorship funds. He was chairman during Warnock’s time at the club in the 1980s and then returned to the role during the 1990s when the club had fallen on hard times. It’s Robinson’s astute, patient, frugal, sensible running of things at a time when football clubs of all shapes and sizes are getting carried away and spending beyond their means in pursuit of exactly the sort of success Burton Albion have enjoyed that has made all this possible.
Robinson heaps all the praise on Clough. Although he did eventually leave for Derby, as the club stood on the cusp of the Football League, and has subsequently been at Sheffield United, Robinson mentioned him in a speech after the team had won promotion from League Two under Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, six years and three Burton managers since he left the club.
But it was Robinson who completed the purchase of land belonging to tyre maker Pirelli on which Burton’s shiny new stadium stands today. That move lifted the then-Conference side to another level paving the way for the two pivotal moments in its recent history.
The first, in January 2006, was a home draw against Manchester United in the FA Cup. In front of a full house and a live televisions audience Clough’s side held United to a goalless draw to earn a replay at Old Trafford. The gate receipts from the two games paid off the debt on the £7m Pirelli Stadium, as well as attracting increased local support from a proud town, and enabled Burton to finally push on for the Football League for the first time in their history.
That promotion finally came in 2008/09 but wasn’t without its complications. Clough was finally tempted away by Derby in January that season after a first half of the campaign in which they’d only lost four times – all of them away from home – and opened up a 19 point gap at the top of the table. The league’s sponsors, Blue Square, actually paid out on Burton Albion league winner bets in February.
But the departure of Clough, and arrival of caretaker boss Roy McFarlane, heralded a collapse even Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United would have raised eyebrows at. Burton completely folded. From November 1, in all competitions, they won 17 and drew three of 21 matches. After that, starting with a draw at Woking on February 28, they lost eight and drew two of their final 14 games including five defeats from six games to finish the campaign. Ultimately, rather sheepishly, they fell over the line on the very last day with a 2-1 defeat at Torquay United, sealing promotion only because Cambridge United drew at Altrincham and finish two points behind.
A real shame in many ways, because Robinson, Burton and Clough deserved to canter over the line that season and celebrate a remarkable decade of work. Their initial forays into league football, under the rookie management of one-time QPR loanee Paul Peschisolido, were tough as well and a return to the Conference looked more likely than any further forward momentum.
But when Robinson sacked the Canadian in March 2012 after a run of 16 games without a win and eight straight defeats – the only time he’s dismissed a manager in 35 years on the club’s board – and appointed his assistant Gary Rowett, a handy former utility player with Leicester and Derby among others, it sparked another change for the better.
Initially results were poor – they lost 7-1 at Bristol Rovers for a kick off – but Rowett had them in the League Two play-offs two seasons running after that. They were beaten in the semi-finals by eventual winners Bradford in 2013, and then the final at Wembley against big-spending Fleetwood in 2014.
Their eventual promotion in 2015 wasn’t derailed by Rowett being tempted away to Birmingham, where he subsequently succeeded with exactly the same players Redknapp now says aren’t good enough. He’s now at Derby after a harsh sacking at St Andrew’s which nearly saw them end up relegated having been seventh when he left.
Robinson turned to Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, the former Chelsea and Leeds Dutch international, which seemed a rather left field and maverick appointment for a League Two side in a middle of the road town with no history of league football behind it and no money to spend to further progress it. But Hasselbaink had shown, by coaching at Woking and Forest, then going to Belgium to manager Royal Antwerp, that he was keen to learn his managerial trade rather than relying on his name and playing career to guarantee him a top flight appointment – cough, Tim Sherwood.
Hasselbaink took Rowett’s side, tightened its defence still further, and won the title at a canter with just two defeats in the final 27 league matches. That achievement didn’t go unnoticed elsewhere. When Burton started the following season at their highest level ever, in a division that included vastly bigger clubs and budgets than their own such as Sheffield United, Coventry, Wigan and Bradford, with just two defeats from their first 11 league games, QPR came calling for Haselbaink.
With Nigel Clough now available following a tough spell at Bramall Lane, the stage was set for his return. But the running theme here is Robinson. For QPR, the club Hasselbaink joined, the thirst for the constant rotation of managers from sections of the support isn’t backed by results – QPR change their manager frequently, three in the last two years alone, but never get a good deal better for it. Burton are now seeing their managers poached but as Rowett left, and then Hasselbaink, they never skipped a beat.
A club with its facilities and infrastructure in order – they train at England’s St George’s Park – and an experienced chairman who knows exactly what he’s doing and can be realistically achieved, doesn’t have the manager as the be all and end all. They’re like a lower league Swansea in that regard: it doesn’t matter as managers come and go, because everything else is right. Clough promoted them again, at the first time of asking. If anything, he added an extra attacking edge that had been missing.
And so here they are, in a ground that holds 7,000 with terraces on three sides, competing in the same division as Aston Villa et al. Ridiculously, under the current Football League rules, they’ll be obligated to put seats into those three brand-new, perfectly safe, stands at great expense if they stay at this level for this season and next.
Clough was allowed to spend a club record £500,000 to land prolific Ross County striker Liam Boyce in the summer but he ruptured his ACL in a pre-season friendly defeat to Shrewsbury and will miss most of this season. Hull came calling for Irvine the week before the transfer deadline, and snared Albion’s outstanding player for just £1.2m – an absolute steal in the current market. While Redknapp was ranting downstairs, Clough was looking at Burton’s next few fixtures with the Sky presenters at the touchscreen: Leeds A, Norwich A, Fulham H, Man Utd A, QPR A, Villa H, Wolves H. “Oh my goodness,” he said.
Burton, Robinson, is a story worth of far more coverage than it’s getting. They’re living, breathing proof that it isn’t all about spending money and signing big-name players, old fashioned values around coaching, tactics, scouting, sound management and sensible chairmanship can still take you places.
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