A modern football fairytale: Burton Albion’s rise through the divisions

Ben Robinson has only ever sacked one manager. It’s just one of the records that sets Burton Albion’s chairman apart from most trigger-happy club executives lining boardrooms up and down the country.

The measly tally, which covers Robinson’s 24-year tenure at the club, epitomises everything that has helped to make the Brewers what they are today: one of modern-day football’s greatest fairy tales. As they get set for an 11th season in the Football League, Burton have created a blueprint for ambitious non-league clubs to follow by showing that stability and sensible growth can still profit in the mega-bucks world of professional football.

That’s not to say that Robinson hasn’t made big investments and decisions when necessary, but he’s remained patient to turn Albion into perennial overachievers. And on the one occasion when he was forced to fire a manager, that fate falling on former Birmingham City forward Paul Peschisolido back in 2012, it was only after a 17-game winless run threatened to pull Burton back into non-league. It’s a lot longer than many managers would have got.

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Instead, the Staffordshire side continued to build brick by brick, eventually culminating in promotion to the Championship in 2016; a promotion Robinson compared to Leicester City’s 5,000-1 Premier League success.

What makes Burton’s achievements even more impressive is the fact that the town is hardly a hotbed of football. In fact, the football landscape in the area was barren before the Brewers were formed in 1950.

Burton hadn’t had a club of any note for a decade after Burton Town withdrew from competition in 1940 due to World War II and didn’t reform after the fighting stopped. Further back, the town’s Wanderers and Swifts had been among the first clubs to play in the Second Division in the Football League’s formative years, and merged to form Burton United, who kept up the membership until failing to gain re-election in the early 1900s.

Albion’s emergence was hardly an awakening either. While the start of the 1950/51 season marked day zero in the club’s history, any hint of what would come in the 21st century was barely evident in its first half century. The team took its place among a host of other non-league sides in the region, bouncing between the regional divisions ­– only making what happened in the following 20 years even more impressive.

Led by the enigmatic Nigel Clough, who had taken over the reins in October 1998, Burton narrowly missed out on promotion to the Football Conference twice towards the end of the last millennium, before finally topping the Northern Premier League in 2001/02.

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Clough’s arrival, after seeing a newspaper advert for the job in the Daily Mail, had given Burton extra impetus and his vision – along with Robinson’s financial support and disciplined approach – began to steadily establish Albion in the sixth tier.

“Straight away, we [Robinson and Clough] had lots of common ground and got on really well,” Robinson recalled in a 2013 interview for Derbyshire Life.

“I thought that with Clough’s profile, we probably couldn’t afford him, but how much Nigel was to be paid was never on the agenda.

“Nigel raised the profile, not only of Burton Albion, but the town of Burton, and literally took us to another planet [sic]. I couldn’t have worked with a more honourable man.”

Three consecutive bottom-half finishes in the Conference were seen as progress, with Robinson’s key investment, the building of the club’s new Pirelli Stadium, opening its doors in 2005 with a friendly against Manchester United. It was the return of Alex Ferguson’s men later that season that spurred Burton onto the next level, with a 0-0 draw in the FA Cup third round earning a money-spinning replay at Old Trafford – inspiring new supporters and renewed ambition.

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Revenue from the cup run was reinvested prudently, as Burton gradually improved on their league finishes: firstly challenging, then reaching the play-offs across the next three seasons before securing promotion to the Football League in 2009.

While achieving such status was an incredible feat for a small, provincial club, that optimism was punctured towards the end of the season when Clough left to become Derby County boss, with his former charges nearly blowing a 19-point lead to limp over the line on the final day after rivals Cambridge United failed to win against Altrincham. Meanwhile, Burton were losing at Torquay United.

The questionable end-of-season form, albeit ending with promotion, meant caretaker boss Roy McFarland decided not to apply for the permanent position, with former Birmingham forward Peschisolido given the task of establishing Burton at their new level.

Once more, Robinson’s plan was to build sensibly. All was going to plan, with the Brewers achieving safe mid-table positions in the first two seasons and going on another FA Cup run, beating Middlesbrough along the way. But after Burton plummeted down the table towards the end of 2011/12, Robinson was forced to sack Peschisolido and leave assistant Gary Rowett to steer them to survival.

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What happened next was the sort of ascent Burton weren’t accustomed to. Rowett transformed the club into promotion contenders and, after two near misses in play-offs, his successor Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink followed up winning League Two by leading them to the top of League One before leaving for QPR. It was a position the returning Clough converted into promotion to the Championship and brought Burton’s rise into national focus.

“We’ve done this on a shoestring, the most expensive player we bought was probably £25,000” Robinson told The Daily Mail following promotion. “And we’ve competed against teams with a wage budget three, three-and-a-half times what we’ve paid this season.

“On the basis of that, as we’ve said all along, for the size of the club and the level of support and our finances, we’ve overachieved big time and it proves it’s possible to be successful without spending a fortune.”

Relegation after two seasons in the second tier didn’t dampen the mood that Burton, who will look to push for the play-offs in the upcoming campaign, are a club on the up. And built on the foundation of modest growth, their achievements are a stark message to the spend big, sack-happy owners that lurch their sides from one crisis to the next.

A modern football fairytale: Burton Albion’s rise through the divisions
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