Nigel Clough on Burton Albion’s rise to the Championship
PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 August 2016
As Burton Albion prepares for ‘unbelievable occasions at the Pirelli’, Nigel Powlson talks to manager Nigel Clough
WHEN Nigel Clough was first appointed Burton Albion manager in 1998 he began his tenure with an away trip to Grantham in front of just 561 fans. This season he will be taking his Brewers team to Aston Villa, Leeds United, Nottingham Forest and Birmingham City where he can expect a fair few more to be watching.
It has been a remarkable rise for the club from the second tier of non-league to The Championship – a football story that rivals Leicester City’s Premiership success in terms of its fairytale quality.
There are also similarities in the way that Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester and Nigel Clough’s Burton Albion have gone about their business.
‘Team spirit,’ says Nigel. ‘It’s something that had gone out of fashion a little bit in football but both of us have teams with an incredible work ethic and a brilliant team spirit.’
Burton Albion also owe a debt to the wisdom and business acumen of chairman Ben Robinson, who first became involved in the club in the mid-1970s when success meant an FA Trophy semi-final against Matlock Town.
Since he returned to the club as chairman two decades ago he has masterminded a dramatic rise up the football pyramid for a club that represents a town of less than 70,000 residents.
When Nigel Clough responded to a Guardian advert for a new manager in 1998, Ben had found the partner he needed to transform the club’s football fortunes on the pitch while he shaped its destiny off it with a move from the old Eton Park ground to the Pirelli Stadium.
After Nigel’s arrival there was renewed hope of promotion for the Brewers after years of frustration, but the fact remained that in the first half century of the club’s existence, it had never won a league title. There was plenty of work to do to transform the club’s fortunes.
Two runners-up positions for Nigel in the Southern League, when only one team went up to the Conference, showed how hard it was for clubs to make progress at this level. However, it all changed in 2002 when Albion won the Northern Premier League in commanding style. The rise of Burton Albion had begun – although no-one surely dared to dream how far that journey was to take the Brewers. The fans didn’t know it back then but they were kissing goodbye to days out at Droylsden, Farsley and Vauxhall Motors for good.
Even so, the Conference was a tough obstacle to negotiate and promotion to the Football League was an ambition that still had a bit of the pipedream about it. Only one team was promoted automatically from the Conference and there were plenty of ambitious clubs at that level with more resources than Albion.
But the move to the Pirelli Stadium, with its plush conference and banqueting facilities, gave the club the business base to build for the future and an FA Cup Third Round tie against Manchester United in 2006 made sure the move to the new ground was debt-free.
Promotion to the Football League was secured in 2009 by which time Nigel had departed for Derby – leaving the club clear and away at the top of the Conference, where not even a late season wobble could dislodge them.
The former England, Nottingham Forest and Liverpool player returned in December 2015, after spells as manager at Derby County and Sheffield United, with Albion again at the top of the table – this time in League One.
Gary Rowett, now at Birmingham, and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink had led the Brewers from League Two to the summit of League One and fashioned a team that was beating all comers. When Hasselbaink left for QPR mid-season, Ben Robinson returned to the man who had started it all and Nigel Clough was re-appointed as Burton Albion boss.
Nigel said: ‘Coming back was one of those decisions that took some thinking about – but didn’t. The old adage that you should never go back is what people sometimes say but I think you can over analyse.
‘Ultimately, when you look at it, it’s a brilliant club, the team was at the top of League One and the chairman is still here – which was the biggest factor.
‘We were trying to think of the last time a manager took over with a club at the top of the league and we couldn’t think of one, apart from maybe when we left seven years ago.
‘It was an unusual situation, as usually there are things to do, the club’s in turmoil, it’s been badly run, the team is in the bottom six, which happened in our last two jobs. But that was not the case here, so it was a different set of circumstances.
‘Burton Albion has moved on a lot in the last seven years, without a doubt, but it’s still the same club at heart, doing things the right way, being run sensibly.
‘I don’t really believe in destiny, it’s just a set of circumstances that occurred and the chairman needing to continue the good work. We were available and the chairman was aware of what we did the first time and in our last couple of jobs as well.’
Nigel believes he’s a better manager now than when he left the Pirelli Stadium in 2009.
He says: ‘I think you improve – because experience is one of your greatest assets as a manager. Having been a manager now for nearly 17 years and over 1,000 games, that can help as you have seen most scenarios over that period. When you lose a couple of games you don’t get down about it but keep working as you know it will turn around.’
Nigel brought three of his long-serving backroom staff back with him – former players Gary Crosby, Andy Garner and Martin Taylor.
He said: ‘We have worked together for 17 years now. We have a good relationship and know each other inside and out. We know what we want and work well as a team.’
He was also pleased to be working with the backroom staff he inherited from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. He said: ‘It was important to tap into their knowledge and what they had been doing with the team for as long as they have been here. You need that element of continuity, especially when you are trying to keep things the same.’
Nigel also inherited a team that had developed a winning mentality over the last two seasons and which confirmed back-to-back promotions with a 0-0 draw at Doncaster on the final day of the League One season in front of more than 3,000 travelling Brewers fans.
For Nigel it is a chance to return to The Championship, where he managed Derby County, with the team that gave him his first start in management.
Showered with champagne by his jubilant players he was delighted for the club, the chairman and fans.
‘It’s not about me personally. I’m delighted for the chairman who has done such a brilliant job here for so long and for the fans who created a sea of black and yellow at Doncaster and a great atmosphere as they did at the Pirelli in the crucial games at the end of the season.
‘The last week and the final game were a bit nervy but it was always going to be like that when you have that automatic promotion place in front of you and can only lose it. It was fitting though that we got there with a clean sheet because that has been the team’s strength all season.
‘It means a lot to be here because it always irks me a little bit that we weren’t there to see the club all the way to the Football League back in 2009. Leaving the team 14 points clear was as near as damn it but if we could have had another three to four weeks it would have been nice to have tied it up before we left – but Derby couldn’t wait.’
But having guided Albion successfully across the line again, this season will be another chapter in the Brewers incredible journey with the visits of two former European champions amongst a fixture list that Brewers fans will have to pinch themselves to believe it’s true.
So who is Nigel looking forward to playing most?
‘In truth we are dreading them all,’ he laughs. ‘To come all the way from the Southern League and to be in the Championship and to try and survive is an incredible ask – even at this stage.
‘There are seven or eight clubs next year who could take our ground over comfortably without one home supporter. It’s a frightening prospect.
‘We will have some unbelievable occasions at the Pirelli this season.’