When Nigel Clough leads newly promoted Burton Albion into the Championship this coming season he’ll be aiming for more than just survival. But he also knows that success takes time and perseverance.
In 2015 Nigel Clough returned to Burton Albion, the club where he got his first taste of management, then still a player, and where he spent 10 years as its manager.
Raised in Derby, Clough enjoyed a long and successful career on the pitch, most notably for Nottingham Forest under his father Brian, and England, with whom he gained 14 caps.
During his first spell as manager of Burton, then in the seventh tier of English football, Clough succeeded in taking them 11 points clear at the top of the table. Having primed them for promotion to League Two, he moved to Derby County and then, four years later, to Sheffield United who he steered clear of relegation in his first season before guiding them into the play-offs and, remarkably, the semi-finals of the FA Cup in his second year. Meanwhile, the Brewers had made significant progress under the management of Gary Rowett and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, reaching the upper echelons of League One prior to Clough’s return.
Since his reappointment at Burton last year he had already made his mark, leading the club to a second-place finish in the league and promotion to the Championship for the first time in the club’s history.
How did it feel returning to the fold at Burton? Had much changed?
The club is essentially still the same; it has many of the same staff and the same chairman, Ben Robinson, which is unusual after 20 or so years. While the club has, without doubt, grown as it has progressed through the leagues it’s lovely that it has retained the same family feel it has always had. To retain its culture over so many years is one of Ben’s greatest achievements.
When you work with someone for 10 years, a trust develops and when you move elsewhere it can be difficult to establish that in the same way, so my experiences with Derby and Sheffield United were very different.
And of course I have also changed since I started at Burton 17 years ago; with time you get wiser and more experienced.
Does it help that you’re familiar with the club’s culture or is it a case of new team, new start?
It does help, as it means there’s less of a settling in period. It also certainly helps to inherit a team that’s doing well rather than struggling. There are still challenges and problems, but fewer than when you take on a team that’s in the bottom six and confidence is low.
In that situation, when the wins just aren’t happening, the team look to you for some kind of magic, but it’s rare that things can be solved instantly like that in football. When I joined Sheffield United it was second from bottom, but we finished the season seventh and even reached the FA Cup semi-finals. We ended well, but it took three months to get to that point. You need a win or two to kick things off.
I can’t remember many instances where a manager has taken over a team at the top of the league, as I did at Burton. It meant I had to respect that whatever was being done was working. When the players are accustomed to doing something a certain way and it’s bringing them success it’s important not to make too many changes.
You are now preparing to lead Burton into its first season in the Championship. How helpful will your past experience in the league be?
It’s daunting but exciting. I’ve heard other managers say that it’s going to be the strongest Championship ever and, clearly when you look at the clubs there and in particular those that have come down from the Premier League, it’s going to be a very tough competition.
I know all about the battle to stay up from my experience with Derby and what it will take to achieve it. But we’re not aiming just to stay up; we have to aim higher than that.
You will go head to head with two other former Burton managers in the Championship, Gary Rowett at Birmingham and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink at QPR. What is it about the club that breeds successful managers?
The chairman. Ben has let one manager go in nearly 20 years and I know he did that with a heavy heart. He lets you get on with it and doesn’t interfere, with signings for example, and there is less pressure than there is at some other clubs. He lets you manage. With Gary and Jimmy having moved on to big Championship clubs, it will be interesting playing against them next season.
You spent 10 very successful years at Burton. What did having that longevity mean for what you were able to do at the club?
It means you can build things up over time. We were in the Southern League and our aim was to be in the Conference, but there was no time limit on achieving that. We finished runners up twice and the third time we moved to the Northern Premier League, which we won. There was no mentality as there is at some other clubs of ‘if we don’t do it this year then that’s it’. At Burton we would think, ‘OK, we just missed out, we’ll have another go next year’. I think the most important thing is that you can see progress and that the team is moving forward. Ultimately, if you are always improving then eventually you will achieve your goals.
Some clubs seem to give their managers only a year to achieve promotion, and if they fail then they go. People need more time to build and improve; given that time maybe they will achieve it the next year or the one after.
I think it’s often the rate of improvement that people are impatient with, but sometimes when you build slowly you get a more solid foundation, one that lasts. It may be different when your budget is very high, because that allows you to make quick changes and hopefully therefore improvements, but when you don’t have that money you need time. Rather than changing eight players, you might only be able to change two or three.
Given that your management career started in non-league football, how closely do you monitor these leagues for potential signings?
With the likes of Jamie Vardy and Andre Gray coming up from non-league and doing so well, there is a greater focus on players in these leagues now; there’s tough competition as everyone is looking for that rough diamond. But you have to remember that such players need time to adjust. It took Jamie Vardy, for example, a number of years to hit the peak he is at today, but not everyone has the patience to wait. Many owners and supporters are looking for instant success; they want to see the finished product.
Vardy and Gray are two of the best strikers in their respective leagues, which shows that there is still a pathway for non-league players, but the fact that Vardy made the national side makes it an exceptional story.
Given that Burton has now seen back-to-back promotions, how do you keep the momentum going?
Certainly momentum is the biggest thing, because you need to win some games so the players feel confident. But you also have to find ways to raise the standard of the team without changing its spirit and ethos, and this could be our biggest challenge. We’ve kept the core of our side since League Two, so it will be about maintaining the good things and improving as we go along.
Our players are on a roll now and not used to losing, so it will be interesting to see how they deal with next year.
Promotion could happen; that’s what people love about football. Even making it to the Championship is a fairy tale, so our aim is to really establish ourselves at this level.
Burton have never had financial backing, everything has been self-generated, which makes it an interesting story. And St. George’s Park has played an important part of that story. When we were in the Conference we used to train on the pitch or, as non-league clubs do, find a park somewhere. Then one day we got a call from The FA asking if we would mind testing the pitches at St. George’s Park, because no one had played on them yet.
As the local club, we were asked to come and train there a couple of times, which to the lads felt like playing at Wembley. We were still part-time back then, and it put a spring in the players’ steps that is still there to this day. Training on near perfect pitches gave them the confidence to try things in training they otherwise wouldn’t and that confidence built and built. It has had a profound effect on our development as a side.