This week, we take a look back to the 2008-09 season when Burton Albion – following a record-breaking start to the campaign – just about managed to limp over the line and seal their promotion to the Football League after losing their high-profile manager Nigel Clough to Derby County mid-season…
It is the final day of the 2008-09 season and Burton striker Shaun Harrad is watching disaster unfold.
Two months earlier, the Brewers sat 19 points clear at the Conference summit. Histon and Cambridge, the foremost of a forlorn chasing pack, were specks in the rearview mirror.
Blue Square, the division’s sponsors, even paid out on promotion to the Football League. “Burton are 1/100 for the title,” said Alan Alger, the betting company’s spokesman. “It is almost a foregone conclusion.”
But it wasn’t. Game by game, defeat by defeat, Burton’s lead evaporated. Like a prisoner chipping away his cell wall with a teaspoon, Cambridge inched closer.
So it was that Burton pitched up at Plainmoor on that final day still needing a point to secure promotion.
Blue Square, now offering 2/5 on the Brewers, were sweating. And when Torquay took a 2-1 lead shortly after half-time, a team who’d boasted the biggest points cushion in Conference history were staring down the barrel.
“I was suspended that day,” recalls Harrad, who’d been dismissed in the 90th minute of Burton’s penultimate game against Oxford.
“And I’ll always remember standing on the touchline after Torquay scored. I was thinking ‘We were flying. How has it possibly come to this?’”
Harrad knew, of course. As did everyone else. In January, at the apex of a 12-match winning streak, Nigel Clough had departed for Derby County.
Clough, a former Liverpool and England striker, wasn’t just Burton’s manager. He was, alongside chairman Ben Robinson, the heart and soul of the club.
Player-manager since he’d answered a Guardian advert in 1998, Clough led the Brewers from Southern League anonymity to Conference contention and from run-down Eton Park to the glittering Pirelli.
Along the way he’d forged unbreakable bonds with stalwarts like Darren Stride and Aaron Webster, become a father figure to youngsters like Harrad.
“Everybody loved playing for Nigel,” says the 33-year-old, now player-manager at Matlock. “He just had that aura and he was – is – a fantastic human being.
“The whole atmosphere came from him. He’d give you days off, respect you as an adult. He knew when it was time to have a laugh.
“But when you came in to train it was 100 per cent. Anything less and he made sure you knew about it. Striking that balance was probably his biggest strength, but he also got the lads playing great football on very restricted finances.”
Underpinning everything was an unshakeable belief in continuity and gradual evolution. For Clough, retaining a bedrock of players was the only weapon a part-time side like Burton could wield against monied rivals like Cambridge and Oxford.
Stride, a self-employed builder who’d played in every position (including goalkeeper) and even helped construct the Pirelli, was playing in his 15th season for the Brewers. Captain for 12 of them, his leadership was cherished by Clough.
Andy Corbett, the striker-turned-right-back, had arrived in 2003, Keith Gilroy in 2005. Webster, meanwhile, was preparing for his testimonial at the tender age of 28.
“Nigel was always clever with the signings he made,” says the left-back, who had made his debut just months before Clough’s arrival in 1998.
“He never made eight or nine every season, it was always two or three – adding that little bit of quality to make the squad better than the season before.
“It meant we were all local lads, friends on and off the pitch. We weren’t on great money but because we saw each other out of football and had a drink after, we fought blood, sweat and tears for each other. It was run very cleverly.”
John McGrath, who played every minute of the 2008-09 campaign, illustrates the strength of Burton’s bond.
“The reason I went to Burton was because of Nigel Clough,” he says. “After my first year there, I had a lot of interest to go elsewhere, including full-time teams. But him and the lads were the reason I stayed. I think that was a massive attraction for a lot of players.”
Clough’s careful cultivation reached its apotheosis in the summer of 2008. First came Jake Buxton, a defender who arrived with the jeers of Mansfield supporters ringing in his ears.
The centre-back had abandoned ship following the Stags’ relegation to the Conference, stating his intention to remain in the EFL. There were no takers.
Buxton, though, responded with a series of monumental displays and would eventually sweep the board at the end of season awards.
“I’d played with Bucko since I was a kid,” recalls Harrad. “Nigel rang me to say he wanted to sign him and asked for my thoughts. I said, ‘Go for it’. Even then, I knew it would be such a coup.
“He was immense, absolutely unbelievable. He was no-nonsense, gave his all. And the way he conducted himself around the club was so mature and professional.”
Next came Greg Pearson, a prolific striker for Bishop’s Stortford whose disappointment at a failed trial with Notts County was mitigated by a £10,000 move to the Pirelli.
And that was it. Yet those two signings tweaked the beaten play-off semi-finalists of 2007-08 into a remorseless winning machine.
Salisbury were beaten on the opening day. Then Woking. Between November 1 and January 17, the Brewers won every single match, equalling the Conference record.
“We absolutely bossed it,” says Harrad. “The morale, the way the club was going – everything came together. And on the pitch, nobody could touch us. Every game couldn’t come quick enough.”
There were no spectacular thumpings. No maverick talents. When The NLP announced its team of the season in May, not a single Burton player featured – a fact that delighted Clough.
“That was part of our success,” says Pearson, who scored 20 goals that season. “It wasn’t about egos or star names. We all knew there were better players out there.
“But we were solid. We had a plan. We knew we had a bit of ability. At that level, a hard-working team with a little bit of quality is very hard to stop.”
Yet stop they did, in spectacular fashion.
“At first it was just a rumour, then the news came through that Nigel was going to Derby,” says Harrad. “It knocked everyone. Looking back, that’s where the wheels came off.”
Clough himself had agonised about taking charge at the club his famous father had led to First Division glory in 1972.
“Leaving was incredibly difficult and something I’ve regretted ever since,” admitted the 52-year-old, now back at Burton after spells at Pride Park and Sheffield United.
“It was the chairman, ironically, who said at the time, ‘Look, it’s a great opportunity and you’ve got to go’.”
Together, Clough and Robinson chose Roy McFarland, a title-winner under Clough Snr and a former Derby manager, to usher Burton over the line.
Initially, little changed. Four wins from five games opened up that 19-point gap. Blue Square pulled their publicity stunt. Then, on the final day of February, Burton drew 0-0 at Woking.
Suddenly, all form and momentum dissipated. Confidence plummeted. And when Burton’s players boarded that coach for the interminable journey to Torquay, they boasted just four wins from 13 games.
Why Burton collapsed, nobody can explain. Harrad says routines changed and intensity dropped, an issue Stride alluded to at the time.
“The lads enjoyed having Nigel here,” he said after a defeat to Kidderminster three games from the end.
“Everybody got on with him well, everybody knew what they were doing, and when a new manager comes in – whoever that may be – obviously that changes.
“In actual fact, I don’t think Roy has changed much. It’s just mannerisms, and the way he comes across to players.
“We’ve not had a b********g off him, whereas Nigel would have been down our throats by now – it just might wake a few people up if he had a bit of a go.”
Pearson, though, is more circumspect.
“It’s very difficult to say what happened,” he says. “And if anybody thinks they can put their finger on it, I’d like to know.
“When Nigel left, you lost that figurehead, that unifying voice. And when the voice changes, sometimes other things change with it.
“But you can’t blame that on Roy McFarland. It was the same team, the same group of lads, the same backroom staff. All of us were culpable, not just one man.”
With three games to go, Burton needed only a point. Defeat to Kidderminster in the first set nerves jangling. Oxford then came to the Pirelli and won 1-0. Panic set in.
“That Oxford game sticks in my mind as the first time I really thought ‘Uh oh, are we in trouble here?’” recounts Pearson.
“It was more than nervy by that stage. It was desperation. All anyone cared about was inching over the line.”
Harrad adds: “I think there was a little bit of feeling sorry for ourselves.
“It just seemed that all the luck and all the results were going against us.”
At the death, however, fortune smiled on the Brewers. Cambridge, previously so relentless in their pursuit, had slipped up at Altrincham. A 0-0 draw left Gary Brabin’s side two points adrift.
And Burton, despite ending their season with a third straight defeat, had limped painfully into the Football League.
“The clock was ticking down,” says Harrad. “There were rumours here, there and everywhere about what was happening at Cambridge. It was nerve-wracking, but the joy when the result was confirmed was like nothing else. I’ve never had a better feeling in my career.”
The long trip home up the M5 has gone down in legend. Most of Burton’s players could barely stagger down the steps when they returned to the Midlands.
Later, at Webster’s testimonial, Clough returned and took his place alongside McFarland for a celebratory team photo.
“It wouldn’t have been right without him,” said Harrad.
For McFarland, though, there was scant celebration. “I’m just pleased I didn’t let anyone down,” he admitted. “Had it not happened, it would have been the lowest point of my career and I’m not sure how I would have recovered.”
Pearson, too, had his elation soured. “At the time, there was no feeling of sweetness,” he says. “It was relief, and mainly frustration. Even now, looking back, that’s the overriding emotion.
“We’d done so well, we had a great group of players. At Christmas, we looked like breaking records and we didn’t do it. It still rankles, but we got the job done. When you see where the club is now, that means a lot.”
Just a year after celebrating their 100th anniversary, south-east London club Fisher Athletic folded. The club was wound up by the High Court in May 2009 after failing to repay its debts. Meanwhile, fellow Conference South club Team Bath resigned their place in the Non-League Pyramid at the end of the 2008-09 season. The Scholars had attracted significant media attention in 2002 when they became the first university team to reach the first round of the FA Cup in over 120 years.
Rushden & Diamonds secured their biggest ever victory when they won 9-0 at Weymouth in February. The Terras had to field their youth team after members of the first team went on strike. The match was subsequently investigated by the FA for betting irregularities after bookmakers lost over £1 million on the game when eagle eyed Non-League fans rushed to bet against Weymouth after hearing news of the strike.
A young Lee Novak enjoyed a breakthrough season as he topped the Conference North goal- scoring charts to help Gateshead win promotion. The Newcastle-born frontman has gone on to enjoy a successful career in the Football League, representing the likes of Huddersfield Town and Birmingham City.
Conference North side Blyth Spartans welcomed Premier League club Blackburn Rovers to Croft Park in the 3rd round of the FA Cup. The Green Army put in a battling performance but were edged out by a second half free-kick from Chilean international Carlos Villanueva. The midfielder seemed unfazed by the arctic-like conditions in Northumberland, which represented somewhat of a contrast to his coastal hometown of Viña del Mar.
Despite sitting at the bottom of the League Two table, Luton Town pulled off a shock 3-2 victory over Scunthorpe in the final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. The Hatters prevailed thanks to an extra-time goal from striker Claude Gnakpa.
Newcastle United suffered their first-ever relegation from the Premier League. The Magpies turned to club legend Alan Shearer in a desperate attempt to avoid the drop; however the former striker was unable to prevent Newcastle from crashing out of the top flight.
Tony Adams lasted just 14 weeks as manager of Portsmouth before he was sacked as Pompey plummeted towards the Premier League drop zone.
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday
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