Burton chairman Ben Robinson charts the Albion rise up the leagues
THE date is hazy, the result forgotten. But Ben Robinson still remembers his first game as a young director of Burton Albion.
“It was away at Yeovil Town in midweek,” says the Brewers chairman.“Travelling with us on the coach was the commentator Mike Ingham, who at the that point worked for Radio Derby.
“And next to him was a local newspaper reporter, Andy Barker, who was reading the first Jaws novel – before it became a film!”
Yes, those were days when nobody had heard of summer blockbusters. When Burton Albion were a million miles from box office. And when Robinson, a 29-year-old insurance broker from the local council estate, still dreamed small.
“The old Football League club in Burton went out of business in 1940,” he says. “But one had existed and, right at the back of our minds, was a feeling that one day it could again.
“But to be quite honest, we looked up to teams like Nuneaton and Stafford Rangers. We used to look at their facilities and think ‘One day....’.”
That day is long gone. Fortyone years and three promotions later, Robinson is the owner of League One’s newest member. Eton Park has been replaced by the Pirelli Stadium. JimmyFloyd Hasselbaink stands in the dugout. And the man who once envied Stafford may next season stand shoulder to shoulder with Sheffield United.
Yet Burton’s rise does not follow the usual narrative; Robinson is no mega-rich backer. There was no meteoric surge through the divisions. The Brewers are no Wigan Athletic, no Fleetwood Town, no Wimbledon.
Indeed, in the time it took the Dons to rise from Southern League contem- poraries to FA Cup winners and Premier League stalwarts, Burton didn’t win a single promotion. Theirs is a tale of patience and diligence, a lovingly crafted matchstick model with Robinson wielding the glue.
Ask the 70-year-old to point out pivotal moments and he reels them off. The first sponsorship deals in the 1970s, the move to the Pirelli in 2005, the FA
Cup tie with Manchester United that paid it off a year later.
Fondly recalled, too, are the characters – men like Ian StoreyMoore and Neil Warnock, a “passionate and determined” player at Eden Park before returning as manager in 1981. But head and shoulders above them all stands Nigel Clough, who turned his back on a playing career with Manchester City to become player-manager in 1998.
“That was the start of all this,” recalls Robinson. “I had a particular client who would ring up and pretend to be somebody famous in football, just to see if I’d be taken in.
“So when one of the secretaries said ‘I’ve got Nigel Clough on the phone’, I thought ‘Yeah, pull the other one’. But she put him through and you know the rest. “He was 32 and wanted to be a playermanager. He lived 20 minutes from the ground. Back then he didn’t have any family and just thought this would be a good place to start – a small, family club where he would be supported. We were delighted.
“Nigel was our foundation. He won us our first title, the Northern Premier League (2001-02). And when he left us ten years later we were 19 points clear at the top of the Conference.
“But what he brought to us went beyond football. Without him, I don’t know if we’d have been able to purchase the land for the stadium, or get Pirelli on board. That was his profile.
“It was also the standards he brought and the way he bought into the community. He’s very honourable, very hard-working, very decent. And he’s never forgotten us.
“We play in a summer competition called the Bass Charity Vase, the most expensive trophy in English football. It’s been played since the end of the 1800s and raises a lot of money for local charities.
“Over the years, the bigger clubs who took part would always send a youth team or reserve players. Last year, Derby didn’t send anyone at all. So I spoke to Nigel and he brought Sheffield United.
“That’s just the measure of the man. He knows the value of that competition to the local community and he felt duty bound to support it.”
Robinson sees parallels with current manager Hasselbaink, the former Premier League top scorer who took charge when Gary Rowett left for Birmingham in October and finished the job of winning promotion to League One.
“He’s a real inspirational figure who works incredibly hard,” says Robinson. “But, like Nigel, he’s also very down to earth and a dedicated family man.
“For example, the players trained on Christmas Eve. Then Jimmy drove down to his home in Surrey to be with his kids. He drove back on Christmas Day for training, went back to Surrey for the rest of the day, then drove back again for the game on Boxing Day. That’s his discipline and focus. He only does things one way – and that’s the right way.”
Hasselbaink is Burton’s third
permanent manager since Clough departed for Derby in January 2008. Of those, only Paul Peschiso lido was sacked. In the e week when League Managers Association stats revealed the average tenure of a manager to be just 1.24 years, it is little wonders that Robinson is widely regarded as the best chairman in the business. You have to believe in man-agers he says. “Most managers who get the sack haven’t been given a proper chance. That’s proved by the fact they pop up later and deliver the goods somewhere else.
you've got to give people time to learn from their mistakes, give them help through the dark days results are inevitable. that's when you get behind your manager and help them main-tain self belief. Every individual, no matter how strong they are, needs that support.” Robinson, who has never taken a salary from Burton, says the brewers “pushed the boat out this s year, a response to losing in the play-offs in both the past two seasons. As a result, they will make a loss for the first time under his stewardship.
He insists it is a one-off, but with an average gate of just 3,123 – the sixth-lowest in League Two – doesn’t he worry that the Brewers gentle rise will eventually nudge a glass ceiling?
“We recognise that as good as our support is, Derby are just down the road,” he admits. There is a limit to how many people will watch us. But look at Bournemouth. They get nine or ten thousand and are top of the Championship. Crowds aren’t everything.
“Of course, I’m not a super-rich chairman. My plan is just to stay in League One long enough to reap the benefits of the Premier League’s new TV deal. Our progress has always been gradual.
“But I’ve always said that if somebody comes along with a pot of gold and wants to take Burton into the Premier League, I’ll open the door. So far, that hasn’t happened – so they’re stuck with me!”
I doubt anyone’s complaining.
KEY MAN: Nigel Clough laid the foundations for the Brewers to climb the divisions
SPECIAL DAY: Chairman Ben Robinson is interviewed before last Saturday’s match at Morecambe when the Brewers clinched promotion. Inset, from top, Lucas Akins puts them 2-0 up from the spot, runs off to celebrate and the team party after the 2-1 victory
INSPIRATION: Current boss Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink