Exclusive interview with Burton’s in-demand manager Gary Rowett
THE ONE certainty for football reporters at this time of year is that managers insist they are distancing themselves from the league tables.
It sometimes seems they’re allergic to them. Top or bottom, high or low, the perennial quotes about how they’ll be avoiding the team standings in the morning papers until things have ‘settled down’ never take long to be wheeled out.
Gary Rowett has always done things differently. For instance, not even wanting to consider an approach from a club two divisions higher, even if the club in question were Blackpool, the Football League’s own version of Raggy Arsed Rovers.
His mood as we were about to discuss the start to Burton Albion’s season and his recent commitment to their cause was forecast to be frosty, coming half an hour after Burton Albion had been walloped 3-0 by struggling AFC Wimbledon on Tuesday night.
A performance more fitting for where the club had come from – they were a Northern Premier League side just over a decade ago – than a display suitable for where they want to go.
But Rowett was contradictory as ever; charming and insisting only that I put the internet on my mobile phone to good use by flicking through the night’s results and updated table for him.
It revealed his team remained top of League Two despite the Wimbledon hammering.
“You’ve got to be happy with how the table is looking, I’m not going to pretend otherwise,” said the 40-year-old former full-back, a favourite at Birmingham, Derby County and Leicester City.
Deflection of pressure is a builtin characteristic with most modern-day managers. Not with Rowett. Anything less than League One football next season isn’t meeting standards.
“The ambition has to be to get promotion, it’s as simple as that,” he added. “We’re not so arrogant as a club not to realise that is a big aim for us. We’re not the biggest club in League Two, not by any means.
“Budget wise, I would say we’re around mid-table so there’s no pressure from that point of view to meet our targets.
“We haven’t spent considerably more each year since I have been here. We’ve got a better crop of young players coming through, which has been the key.
“We’re all about making those constant improvements. We’re trying to be progressive, but we are also trying to do it in steps that are reasonable for our club.
“We’ve been down there. There was a time before Nigel Clough came to Burton where they wondered what direction it would take. The new stadium really helped but you’ve seen it happen before when clubs over-stretch themselves.
“Where the chairman Ben Robinson is brilliant is that he knows and understands football.
“He’ll be thinking that if we get promoted then fantastic, if we don’t then it’s no big deal. It’s that level-headed attitude that typifies the nature and the history of our club. If we can keep pushing great, but for me it’s just about being the best team we can possible be.”
Wembley last May was a watershed moment. In truth, the Brewers drooped under
the Arch – they didn’t turn up for the play-off final, a 1-0 defeat to Fleetwood Town that was everything Rowett’s side wasn’t.
“We really reflected on the performance at Wembley a lot over the summer,” he added. “It showed us exactly what we needed, and where we were short.
“We needed more mobility in forward areas, we needed to be more flexible in the way that we played and I think we needed to be more attractive to watch and creating more going forward.
“It was an eye opener. So far this season we’ve done all those things. We were semi-final losers in my first season. Last year obviously we fell just short in the play-off final. So, this season? We’ve got to go one better really. You have to be moving forward in football or what happens is that you find yourself moving back.
“Just because we are sat top of the league it doesn’t in any way, shape or form mean that we expect to be there. Sometimes the humble nature about the way we operate allows us to get on with our work quietly, and it doesn’t put too much pressure on us.”
Rowett’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Blackpool were brazen enough to think that he would jump ship last week the moment they fluttered their eyelashes.
In reality, walking out on what he has built for Blackpool, who showed such little decency that they approached him while their own manager was preparing for a game, was never likely.
He added: “The key thing for me is that the club wanted to put a statement out saying I wasn’t leaving. I think it was more born out of how pleased the chairman was that I didn’t want to go!
“I chose to stay at Burton. Yes, I could have furthered my career by stepping up to the Championship, it is always going to be appealing – I’m a professional, and in your profession you always want to progress and test yourself.
“To manage in the second tier of English football would have given me that opportunity. Everyone wants to be better, don’t they? But I feel we can do that here. I’m working in a very good environment, the best.”
In Burton’s favour, of course, is probably the best training facilities in world football at St George’s Park.
Where normally the mention of a League Two training ground conjures up visions of ramshackled changing rooms and occasional dog mess on pitches, Albion get to use the £120m National Football Centre that last month housed Barcelona.
“We’ve been there ever since the pitches first went up,” Rowett added. “Obviously it’s in Burton, so a relationship has really developed.
“We first moved in when there were no buildings at all – just a few lights around an immaculate pitch. We don’t use it every single day but when we do, it’s fantastic.
“We’ve always been there. I actually think they value us, so we’re very fortunate. Sometimes they’ll ask us to test pitches out or try some other idea, it’s an amazing place – we’re so lucky.
“It’s probably the best training facility in the world at the minute. It’s our USP when we’re looking to sign players.
“You take them to St George’s Park, then to the Pirelli Stadium and it promotes Burton Albion to them. When we show them around the club doesn’t take much flogging!”
Rowett is certainly selling himself. The Championship or even higher? Put your money on it.
MAN APART: Gary Rowett is doing it his way Inset, right: Burton are dejected at Wembley after Fleetwood win. Bottom: Barcelona using the Brewers’ St George’s Park training pitch