Earlier this month, Burton Albion celebrated the 13-year anniversary of one of their most famous ever results. On 8 January 2006, the then-non-league outfit held Manchester United to a 0-0 draw in the third round of the FA Cup. It was a fantastic achievement by Nigel Clough’s men, who did not disgrace themselves despite losing the replay 5-0 10 days later. Burton were cheered on by 11,000 fans in that game, setting a new record for visiting supporters at Old Trafford.
The club’s supporters were treated to another encounter against a member of England’s elite this month, but there were very few positives to take from a 9-0 thrashing by Manchester City in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final. It was a chastening night for the Brewers, but it is important to remember that the two clubs operate in different stratospheres as far as finance is concerned; Burton may have been in the Championship last season, but their budget is still dwarfed by several of their divisional rivals in League One.
That Burton even made it to the second tier in the first place was a minor miracle. Clough’s first game in charge in 1998 was an FA Trophy qualifier against Grantham Town, when Burton were routinely playing in front of 500 people in the Southern Premier League. With several bigger, more famous clubs – Nottingham Forest, Leicester City, Derby County, Birmingham City, Aston Villa – just a train ride away, it was difficult to envisage too much changing in this corner of the East Midlands.
And yet Burton did make gradual progress, switching to the Northern Premier League in 2001/02 and winning it at the first time of asking. They survived in the Conference, finishing three points clear of the drop in their inaugural season at that level, before consolidated in mid-table. Clough then set Burton on the path to promotion to League Two in 2008/09 but left for Derby midway through the campaign, at which stage the Brewers were 13 points clear at the summit of the standings.
Under the stewardship of Paul Peschisolido, Burton secured an impressive 13th-place finish in their debut Football League campaign, before going on to finish 19th in 2010/11 and 17th in 2011/12. Gary Rowett led them into the play-offs in the two seasons after that, but it was left to Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to oversee promotion to League One in 2014/15. The former Leeds United, Chelsea and Netherlands goal-getter then set Burton on the path to the Championship a year later, with Clough returning to complete the job after Hasselbaink left for Queens Park Rangers in December 2015.
Burton survived against all the odds in their first season in the Championship, and were only relegated back to the third flight on the final day of last season.
“As a club, first and foremost we’ve always been community orientated,” chairman Ben Robinson told the Daily Mail before the first leg. “We put a great emphasis on that family spirit. We have developed over the years gradually. I am not a rich chairman. We have not had millions to spend. Nigel’s philosophy with signing players, like his dad, is that the character is important.
“You think about when we started off all those years ago, going to Margate on a wet, windy Tuesday night. There and back in a day. So these games are very special. We are hopeful we might make half a million pounds, over the two legs, with the TV coverage as well. It would give us funds to strengthen the team and there are certain areas of the ground we can improve. It is a massive bonus.”
Robinson, like Clough, has had two spells at Burton, initially stepping down as chairman in 1984 before taking charge again 11 years later. “It’s not how much you spend, it’s how you spend it” is his motto. Robinson is a chairman who always has the bigger picture in mind, and the fact that he has only sacked one manager in the last two and a half decades shows that he does not make decisions on a whim.
Clough and Robinson are therefore a perfect partnership. The former has also managed Derby and Sheffield United in the last 10 years, but the Pirelli Stadium is his home and he will be relishing the chance to pit his wits against Pep Guardiola on his own patch, despite the outcome of the first leg at the Etihad Stadium.
“He [Guardiola] said: ‘Come in for a glass of wine.’ I hope he’s got more than a glass,” Clough said after the 9-0 loss, which was the heaviest defeat in the competition since Liverpool demolished Fulham 10-0 in September 1986.
“Do I wish we hadn’t played? Not at all, we have made history in getting this far. It wasn’t about tonight it was about the achievement of getting here. We kept going right to the end, they were shouting: ‘We want 10’. And we stopped them, that’s a positive for us. I told them that front five, if they reach the Champions League semi-final, will give Real Madrid or whoever they play a problem.”
Burton have no chance of overturning their nine-goal deficit and advancing to the Wembley showpiece, but they should still be immensely proud of their League Cup run this season. Wednesday night is a chance to celebrate that.