Burton Albion's chairman Ben Robinson
PUBLISHED: 12:50 17 January 2013 | UPDATED: 18:10 29 April 2016
Nigel Powlson talks to Ben Robinson, a Burtonian born and bred who loves both his town and 'the beautiful game'
During Ben Robinson’s first spell as Burton Albion chairman, the Brewers travelled to play Willenhall in the FA Cup on a borrowed school bus, arranged by a club director who was a local headmaster. The bus was in such a poor state of repair, Ben had to coax a disgruntled first team who were threatening to strike to even board the vehicle, let alone play.
During his second stint in the Albion hot seat, the club played Manchester United home and away in the same competition, received international TV coverage and the players swapped shirts with Ronaldo and Rooney.
From humble non-league roots, Burton Albion have put themselves on the football map, raising the profile of the town in the process. Their rise through the football pyramid has been slow but sure, with the club refusing to indulge in the boom and bust of its rivals.
Their cherished Football League status has been achieved thanks in no small part to Ben’s shrewd business sense, his vision and his love of the game.
Born and brought up in Burton, Ben Robinson is from ‘a working class family on a council estate’. He was born of an English mother and an American father, with a great grandfather who was a Cherokee Native American.
Recalling his childhood, he says: ‘I remember my stepfather, Frank, taking me to watch a Burton Albion game at the old Lloyds ground, where they first played. In my teens, and on leaving school, I played for several local teams. One Saturday afternoon, after turning out for Stretton Village FC, I went to collect my bike and this man came up to me and said he thought I had shown a lot of skill as an inside forward and that he would be coming back to sign me for Burton Albion’s youth team. But the scout left the club soon after and nothing developed.’
These days, as the club chairman, he relaxes in the boardroom looking down on one of the best pitches in the professional game. Hanging on the wall is a reminder of more humble times – a photograph of the old Eton Park ground with its tiny press box and cramped wooden seats and a hard-as-bone pitch that was like playing on concrete by the end of the season.
He’s delighted with what has been achieved by the club under his tenure but quickly dismisses suggestions that he’s responsible for the modern Burton Albion. ‘Without Nigel Clough, none of it would have happened,’ he says. He still smiles when he remembers the day that the former Nottingham Forest and England international responded to a job advertisement in the
Fortunately, it wasn’t and Ben says that call was the best thing that ever happened to Burton Albion.
He says: ‘Straight away we had lots of common ground and got on really well. I thought that with Nigel Clough’s profile we probably couldn’t afford him, but how much Nigel was to be paid was never on his agenda.’
Clough was appointed in October 1998, and that started the best period in the club’s history. Ben says: ‘Nigel raised the profile not only of Burton Albion but the town of Burton, and literally took us on to another planet. And I could not have worked with a more honourable man.’
Modestly, Ben omits the part he has played in this transformation of a football club that was founded in 1950 and which had never achieved Football League status in its history previously. It was Ben who set about the task of providing the infrastructure, stability and financial acumen that gave Clough the backing he needed. For Ben, it was the completion of a dream that began nearly 40 years ago.
It was the 1974/75 season when he first got involved with the club. Back then, the Brewers opened the season at home to Stourbridge in front of a few hundred fans. These days, they play at the plush Pirelli Stadium as an established Football League club and no-one was surprised when they knocked Leicester City out of this season’s League Cup.
It was a friend, Jeff Salt, an Albion director and local businessman who asked Ben to help out at Burton Albion over a Christmas lunch. So, in February, 1975, the insurance broker joined the board with a remit of building sponsorship revenue. ‘Then, as always, in an honorary capacity,’ he says.
Ben persuaded Burton Rubber to have its name on the back of the team tracksuits and, when the FA relented on advertising on shirts, he secured a sponsorship deal with Stuart Turner of Plasplugs. The long hard slog of transforming Burton Albion had begun.
The perks of being a director were minimal. ‘At half time, there was a cup of tea and a sandwich and after the game a bottle of whisky and a jug of water in the middle of the table. That was it.’
But Ben had joined a club on the rise, going well in the Southern League Premier Division and seemingly heading for Wembley after drawing Matlock in the FA Trophy semi-final and winning the first leg away from home 1-0. So confident was the club of making progress that Ben approached Burton businessman Stan Clarke for £500 for blazers so the team could look smart at Wembley.
‘The second leg was on my daughter Fleur’s first birthday, 5th April 1975,’ he says. ‘We had done the hard bit and were all expecting to win. The team went to the Berni Inn for a steak before the match and we lost 2-0 and it was as though the team froze.’
Maybe it was the heavy lunch, possibly stage fright, but Burton Albion blew what was then the biggest day in the club’s history. It taught Ben a lesson that has stayed with him ever since. ‘On the Sunday morning I came down to the ground on my own,’ he said. ‘There was litter blowing in the wind and I still felt absolutely gutted – and I said to myself "I’m never going to be affected by the highs and lows of football again" – because the disappointment was so bad.’
Ben also quickly learned another lesson, this time involving the turbulent economics of a football club. That successful but expensive team of stars had to be taken apart when the club couldn’t pay a tax bill.
In 1976, Ben, still a young, inexperienced director was invited to become chairman and agreed to do it for ‘a few months’. That short term commitment lasted until 1984. It was a golden time for Burton Albion with big name managers Ian Storey Moore and Neil Warnock and prestigious signings such as former Derby and England striker Kevin Hector.
Ben says: ‘We played some tremendous football under Ian and I remember working through the night to get Kevin’s clearance from Vancouver Whitecaps... twice. We had quite a bit of success in the old Northern Premier League. It was a great period really.
‘One of the players Ian signed was Neil Warnock but he broke his wrist twice and went off to manage Gainsborough. I kept in touch and, when Ian decided to spend more time on his bookmaking business, Neil became manager. He’s a real character and, after Nigel Clough, the most successful manager the club has ever had.’
There were downs as well as ups, however, including that FA Cup clash with Willenhall where Albion had to travel away for a first qualifying round replay and, in order to save a few bob, a headmaster on the board suggested using his school’s bus for the trip. Ben had never seen the suggested transport and didn’t realise that it looked as though it had come fresh from a St Trinian’s film. ‘When I got to the ground, all the players were sitting in their cars rather than on the bus,’ says Ben. ‘Ian Storey Moore came up to me and said "the players regard themselves as professionals. How do you think they are going to feel travelling to a club in a lower league in that?"’
Ben needed all his diplomatic skills to persuade the players to travel, getting them to see the funny side of it and fostering a spirit that saw the team win 2-1 on the night. Former Nottingham Forest player Sammy Chapman’s sense of humour helped the day when he told the players that the holes in the coach seats were from the ‘Battle of Anzio’.
Ben stood down as Chairman in 1984 in order to spend more time on his insurance business, but kept his links with the club and his shares over the next ten years. Albion had mixed fortunes without him, enjoying a first-ever Wembley appearance in the FA Trophy final in 1987 but failing to capitalise on that exposure and success and hitting a financially rocky patch in the 1990s.
In June 1995, Stan Clarke rang Ben saying he had done a deal to buy the club and asking him to return as honorary chairman and to help him see the club through their financial crisis. Ben says: ‘Stan wanted to build a new stadium at Shobnall Fields but the plan was defeated by one vote at the local council. Stan Clarke was a racing man with no great interest in soccer so, with the new stadium not being approved, he agreed to sell his shares to me and my consortium.’
It was the turning point for the Brewers, the beginning of the modern era, with Ben first expanding Eton Park and then persuading Pirelli to sell the club the land where the current stadium was to be built. The ground, with its conference facilities, is an asset for both club and town, and provided the right setting for Nigel Clough’s talented team to do the business on the pitch.
The first match at the Pirelli Stadium was in July 2005. It was officially opened that November with a prestigious friendly against Manchester United, with Sir Alex Ferguson on hand for the ceremonies along with Brian Clough’s widow, Barbara, and Pirelli MD Dominic Sandivasci. No-one at the time knew that it was a sign of what was to come.
Albion were drawn at home to the most famous club in the world in the Third Round proper of that season’s FA Cup and, in front of a live TV audience, remarkably held Sir Alex’s team to a 0-0 draw, earning a lucrative Old Trafford replay. ‘It was amazing. We got emails from all over the world, people wanting to support the underdog,’ says Ben. ‘We took 11,000 fans to the Old Trafford replay and 126 coaches plus numerous cars. We had to keep asking United to release more tickets, extending the away section of the ground. It made the youngsters in Burton associate with the club. It was when they became proud to wear the shirt and scarf. The money from the games paid off the remaining debt on the new Pirelli stadium. We always said maybe Brian Clough was up there having an influence on the draw for us.’
Ben says it was a ‘special ten years’ working with Brian’s son Nigel and creating the modern Burton Albion, but he was also happy to see his manager move on to Derby County in 2008, grateful that he had spent so long with the Brewers.
Since then Ben, a chairman known for his patience, has had the difficult job of dismissing Clough’s successor Paul Peschisolido after a disastrous run of 16 games without a win last season that saw the club flirt with relegation. It was the first time he has sacked a manager he had appointed throughout his association with the club and not something he would want to repeat.
Now, under Gary Rowett, the club is rebuilding on the pitch against a backdrop of the economic recession that’s hitting clubs hard throughout football. Ben says: ‘These are still really difficult economic times but it’s something we have to deal with. Last season was difficult financially but we are still a club with no debt and with the stadium paid for, which places us in a strong position against many other clubs.’
Away from the Albion, Ben is the chairman and also a trustee of several charities and is the President of the Burton YMCA. It was no surprise when earlier this year he was honoured with the British Empire Medal for services to East Staffordshire, having previously been made a Freeman of the Borough of Burton by the local council and also an Honorary Fellow by the Burton and South Derbyshire College.
So it’s not hard to understand what he sees as the best thing about Burton Albion’s elevated status in the last four years. ‘If you were to ask me what was the most important aspect of gaining promotion to the Football League, I would have to say that it is what we, as a club, are now able to provide in working and supporting our local community. Because Football League clubs receive funding which enables them to appoint a full-time community officer and we now see our community manager – Andy Taylor and his team – doing a great job with more than 1,200 participants taking part in our weekly projects. That’s what pleases me most of all.’