I doubt whether any other town in the country of the size of Burton-on-Trent can claim to have had four Football League Clubs.
In the pre-war years Burton could proudly lay claim to three Football League sides in Burton Wanderers, Burton Swifts and Burton United.
Burton Wanderers inflicted Newcastle United’s worst ever defeat 9-0 in Division Two on 15th April 1895. A contemporary report in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle Sports Edition included quotes about a match on February 8th 1896, when Newcastle United (6th) were due to play Burton Wanderers (2nd) at St James' Park in the League Division Two return fixture:
About 7,000 people lined the barriers (about average for that time) waiting for the two teams to take the field. The game was advertised to start at 2.45pm and at the allotted time the Newcastle team began to warm-up, but the opposition failed to appear as only six Burton players had arrived; the others having missed their connection at Sheffield. The Newcastle players approached referee Mr. Cowley claiming that the match should be awarded to Newcastle. However, although nothing was certain, it was believed that the rest of the team would arrive by 3.30pm and the decision was taken to delay the kick-off.
Shortly before 3.30pm the Newcastle players returned followed a couple of minutes later by eight of the Burton team (not including the keeper) and the match was on! The Burton captain lost the toss but Newcastle had the decency to kick up the hill in the first half. Within minutes a long low shot by defender Graham found the net. At 3.45pm “the first of the missing lot, namely Watts, the regular goalkeeper, turned up and immediately took up his position under the crossbar, attired in ordinary long trousers and jersey". A couple of minutes later the remaining tawdry two arrived having kitted themselves out.
Thus United only had one goal for their early numerical advantage as they "had taken things easily" and only when the opposition was up to their full quota did their "tactics become more vigorous".
Initially it was United who continued to dominate the game and kept Burton's custodian well occupied, but The Wanderers gradually worked their way back into the game as the "attack of the visitors became more spirited". They hit the bar and had another goal chalked out for offside.
"Remarkably fast play next became the rule, and the excitement grew in intensity as both sides pressed in turn" but there were no further goals in the first period. The players retired from the field and the visitors were "cordially applauded for their plucky stand under such unfortunate circumstances".
In the second half Watts now had his kit on, but United had both the incline and the wind in their favour and they laid siege to the Burton goal. Lennox soon scored a brace. The first a "flying kick banged into the net" the second following "a splendid piece of combined play" brought "to a magnificent conclusion by swinging the ball into the net".
There were more chances for both sides and United had a goal disallowed while Burton defender Hanford "elicited tremendous cheering" when he blocked an Aitken "stinger". United added a fourth just before the end; Graham scoring his second (his only goals of the season).
In 1897 both Burton Swifts and Burton Wanderers faced re-election and the Wanderers were voted out, their place being taken by Luton Town.
The club rejoined the Midland League but in 1901, it merged with Burton Swifts who were facing re-election once again. The new club, known as Burton United continued to play in the Football League for another six years, before it too lost its place and went out of business in 1910.
Senior football in the brewing capital was represented by Burton Town but the club was wiped out during the War in 1940. A 10-year void was filled with the formation of Burton Albion F.C. (The Brewers), at a public meeting in 1950, playing at the Lloyd’s Foundry ground on Wellington Road.
The Brewers worked their way up the football pyramid via:
The Birmingham League (including a F.A. Cup third round appearance at Charlton Athletic);
The Southern League (including a move to Eton Park in 1958 and a period of three-years from 1962 managed by Peter Taylor, who went on to be Brian Clough’s managerial partner);
The Northern Premier League part under the player/management of ex- Nottingham Forest and Manchester united Ian Storey-Moore.
During the Club’s Northern Premier League days, local businessman Ben Robinson became Chairman and Storey-Moore was succeeded in 1981 by Neil Warnock, who had worked previously for an undertaker and was a qualified football referee and chiropodist. Warnock’s team won the Northern Premier League Challenge Cup beating Macclesfield Town in the Final at Maine Road, Manchester in April 1983. Also during his reign, the Club hit the national headlines in 1985 when it lost in the third round of the F.A. Cup to Leicester City at Derby County’s Baseball Ground. A 6-1 defeat (including a hat-trick for Gary Lineker) was due in part to the fact that the Albion goalkeeper, Paul Evans, was hit by a missile thrown from the crowd. After huge national publicity and a Football Association review, the game was replayed behind closed doors at Highfield Road, Coventry with Albion losing by a far more respectable 1-0 score-line.
Warnock was succeeded by his assistant Brian Fidler and the Club reached Wembley in the F.A. Trophy Final in 1987. A goalless draw with Conference side Kidderminster Harriers was followed by a replay at The Hawthorns, West Bromwich where 15,685 saw Albion go down 2-1. In 1988 Burton-born and ex-Latics player Vic Halom (‘King of all Geordies’) became The Brewers’ manager.
After a further ten years in the Northern Premier League/Southern League (based on geographical balance), Ben Robinson started his second spell as Chairman, and appointed Nigel Clough as player/manager in October 1998, with his former Forest team-mate Gary Crosby as his assistant. After struggling in the remainder of the 1998-99 season there followed a period of continual improvement that saw the club finish as runners-up in the Southern League Premier Division in successive seasons, just missing out on promotion to the Conference.
Another geographical alignment of the feeder leagues saw Albion return to the Northern Premier (UniBond) League in 2001, when Clough’s team of part-time players swept all before it, with a league record number of points gained, over 100 goals scored and only 30 conceded achieving the goal of Conference football.
The players went full-time and the first three years in the Conference were all played at Eton Park, with the Club finishing in the bottom half in each campaign. It became clear that the only way for the club to progress was to move away from their home of more than 45 years. Chairman Ben Robinson negotiated the free acquisition of land from Pirelli against naming rights, and the Pirelli Stadium was built on the site of the Italian tyre giant’s Sports and Social Club at a cost of £7.2m in 2005, only a stone’s throw from the Club’s former home. The Stadium is paid for and its conference and meeting facilities have generated a steady income from non-football-related activities, leading to the Club being in the enviable position of having no debt.
Although the Pirelli Stadium opened for business in July 2005 with a low key pre-season friendly against Chester City, it was officially opened in November 2005 by Manchester United, who ironically returned to the Pirelli two months later in the F.A. Cup third round. Albion held the Premier League giants to a 0-0 draw in front of a then record ground attendance of 6,191 and TV audience, before losing in a replay at Old Trafford, while coming away with enough money to bring forward by four years the Club’s 5-year plan. The team kicked on to earn a best-ever Conference finish (9th), only to better that the following season with a 6th place finish, and then the play-offs in the 2007/08 season before losing to Cambridge 4-3 on aggregate.
The Club’s ability to generate significant off-field revenues through the Stadium’s excellent banqueting and conferencing facilities enabled Clough to have the backing to put together the side that ultimately achieved Football League status, 102 years after their predecessors, Burton United, lost their League status. The Brewers racked up an impressive run of twelve straight wins mid-season to streak ahead of the pack, and even when manager Nigel Clough left for Derby County in January 2009, with the Club in great form, it seemed the title was a formality. Under caretaker-manager Roy McFarland The Brewers won four of his first five games. Bookmaker Bet Square paid out in February in anticipation of The Brewers being Champions. That appeared to be the kiss of death with them winning only four of their next 12 matches as the momentum dissipated and nerves crept in, with what had been a 19-points lead being whittled away. It was squeaky-bum time, as the title-decider went to the final day when, despite Albion’s 2-1 defeat at Torquay United, Cambridge United’s failure to beat Altrincham handed the Blue Square Premier title to The Brewers.
Ahead of the 2009/10 season in the promised land of the Football League, the Club was granted permission to increase capacity at the Pirelli Stadium to 6,912.
When caretaker-manager Roy McFarland opted not to apply for the full-time role it was turn of former Birmingham City and Derby County striker Paul Peschisolido to benefit from the Chairman’s desire to give ambitious young managers a chance to succeed. The former Canadian international brought in another ex-Blues’ and Rams’ man, Gary Rowett as his assistant.
After a first season that saw The Brewers comfortably consolidate their new-found status with a thirteenth place finish, the second term in the Football League was a more difficult campaign, given that the club had to play over half of its league matches in the final three months of the season, after numerous postponements left them with up to eight games in hand on their rivals. From a comfortable position just five points off the play-offs in December, their inactivity meant that at the start of February a relegation battle ensued, with a six game unbeaten run at the end of the season eventually confirming League status for a third season with a game to spare. The backlog of games was also affected by the club’s best ever FA Cup run. Championship club Middlesbrough was beaten in the third round but the Club’s first-ever appearance in the fourth round ended in a 3-1 defeat to another Championship club, Burnley.
The Club has the best training facilities in the country to call upon at St George's Park, Rangemore, on the outskirts of Burton, which have been used since long before the F.A. found the money to finish the project. I saw Latics Reserves beat Burton Albion Reserves there in 2012.
Peschisolido was sacked as manager in March 2012 following a run of poor results, and Gary Rowett was promoted from within to lead the club to Football League safety. Rowett's first full season brought the club's highest ever league finish of 4th in League Two, qualifying for the League Two play-offs against Bradford City. The Brewers won the first leg at Valley Parade 3-2, but the Bantams fought back in the second leg to progress to Wembley and break Albion hearts.
The Brewers bounced back however, and this time reached the play-off Final in 2013/14. Over 8,000 Albion fans made the trip to Wembley to see the Club make its first appearance there in 27 years. A tight game against Fleetwood Town looked to go either way until Antoni Sarcevic scored with 18 minutes left to consign the Albion to a second successive year of play-off disappointment.
With Albion achieving six wins and a draw in the opening seven League Two fixtures of the in the 2014/15 season, and progressing well under Gary Rowett, he left to become manager of Birmingham City in late October 2014.
Ben Robinson made another astute appointment from sixty applicants, in the form of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, to his first managerial role in England after a year at Royal Antwerp. On 18th April 2015 Burton won 2–1 away at Morecambe to earn promotion to Football League One for the first time in the Club’s history. On 2nd May 2015 The Brewers graduated from the Abbey Stadium Cambridge with full honours as Champions of Football League Two.
With Louis van Gaal and Ronald Koeman faltering, and Dick Advocaat unable to create a snowball effect, Jimmy has turned out to be the season’s flying Dutchman, and now he appears to be attracting the attention of Leeds United. If the opportunity arises, he faces a tough decision whether to quit the progress he is making with Burton, for a role in the quicksand of Elland Road, with a crack at promotion to the Premier League.
I have supported Oldham Athletic for longer than Burton Albion has existed, but since moving to Burton in 1974 to work at the Town Hall and living in the town for 40 years, I have taken a close interest in The Brewers’ progress. At work I enjoyed first-hand news about the Club from a colleague who was in daily contact with Maurice Edwards, a former Albion player/referee/scout and close friend of ex-Brewers’ manager Peter Taylor. With Brewers’ fixture dates nearly always coinciding with those of Latics, the opportunities to watch them have been few and far between, but, in addition to home games, I have seen them play at places such as Accrington, Altrincham, Barnet, Boldmere, Halesowen, Sutton Coldfield and, of course, the old Wembley Stadium. When watching The Brewers, I do not have the same emotional attachment as I do with Latics, and sometimes it has proved difficult to remember to sing the appropriate words to the same songs.
Pre-season has often provided the best opportunities to see them play, particularly in the form of the Bass Charity Vase competition, which was founded in Burton-on-Trent in 1889, to be competed for annually by Midlands’ teams, particularly Football League clubs. The proceeds from the games would be donated mainly to medical-related and hospital charities. Its Patrons were Lord Burton and Hamar Alfred Bass who presented a magnificent inscribed silver Rose Bowl (reputed to be one of the most valuable trophies in British football) to be held by the competition winners.
Many famous clubs and players have taken part since the competition started. Innovation has been a key to its continuing success: even during the difficult times of the two World Wars, the competition took place. Coalville Munitions Girls won during the Great War and a Royal Artillery team was successful during the 2nd World War. Other past winners include Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Coventry City, Derby County, Leicester City, Liverpool, Notts County, Nottingham Forest, Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion. On one occasion I tipped-off Oldham Athletic’s manager Joe Royle that West Brom was to field its strongest side in the competition at Eton Park, five days before playing Latics. Joe sent a scout to watch, and Latics came away from The Hawthorns with a point in the opening game of the season. In addition to The Brewers’ homes, I have seen games in the competition at Bass Meadows, Gresley Rovers, Rocester F.C. and Stapenhill F.C. I also remember watching one of the games in the competition played at Peel Croft, Burton Rugby Club’s ground, when a young Stan Collymore played for Wolves. The competition is played pre-season and current holder Burton Albion is the most successful club, having won the trophy 27 times.
My hope was always that one day The Brewers would play Latics, and so it came to pass in the first round of the F.A. Cup in November 2002 at Boundary Park. Josh Low gave Latics the lead only for Aaron Webster to equalise just before half-time from the penalty spot. When ex-Latics Craig Dudley sprinted through to put The Brewers in front in the 59th minute, the Rochdale Road End exploded, and the long-arms of the law could see no further than the colour of the shirt when arresting not only a fan for pitch encroachment but also Aaron Webster for….your guess is as good as mine!
Picture courtesy of Oldham Athletic fanzine ‘Beyond The Boundary’
It took a 90th minute goal from Fitz Hall to realise my dream of seeing Latics playing in Burton in the replay. The script for that replay at Eton Park read that Albion were to play well, but Latics were to go through to the next round. The game followed the script, but it had so many twists and turns, that it would have done Alfred Hitchcock proud. Latics went in front in the 59th minute through Clyde Winjhard, but succumbed to Albion pressure when Christian Moore scored in the 84th minute. In the 20th minute of extra time, Albion took the lead when Moore scored again and, with the sound of my friends in the adjoining home stand chanting my name and asking me the score, my blushes were spared when the legendary David Eyres equalised with only four minutes of extra time remaining. In the ensuing penalty shoot-out Albion went first and both teams had seven attempts, including one scored by Albion player/manager Nigel Clough, but Carlo Corazzin scored the winner for Latics to end an epic contest. Albion fans rated the two games against Latics as the best in their Club’s history up to that date.
I had to wait nine years for Latics to be drawn out of the F.A. Cup hat to play The Brewers again at Boundary Park in the first round. This time a series of mistakes by Albion gave Latics a 3-0 lead by the 35th minute and all the visitors had to show was a Calvin Zola consolation goal in a tepid encounter.
In July 2009 The Brewers' Chairman Ben Robinson went out of his way to greet the ’92 in Blue’ team of Oldham Athletic supporters and to support their 92-club charity challenge, when they visited the Pirelli Stadium.
Even when I was one of the many co-owners of Ebbsfleet United, I watched from the home end as ‘my’ club played at the Pirelli Stadium, because The Brewers had a greater need for the points. Now I am looking forward to watching The Brewers from the away end of the Stadium, with all the emotion that goes with supporting Oldham Athletic.
Ben Robinson has told the Burton Mail that promotion could provide a ‘major boost’ to the club’s coffers, and business leader Chris Plant has claimed that promotion will put the town ‘on the map for all to see’. Many Latics supporters are planning to boost the Burton economy next season and, with so many pubs to visit and the town’s renowned Beer Festival, it may take more than one visit, with possible away draws against The Brewers in the Carling Cup, F.A. Cup and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, helping to quench those thirsts.