Burton-upon-Trent is one of those places that you associate with Britain’s commercial heritage. It’s a town of canals and breweries – at one time, Burton provided a quarter of all the beer being drunk in the country. It’s also renowned for being the home of the Peel family, of which one notable member, Sir Robert Peel, founded what became the police force. With some of its industrial architecture still intact – there’s a big warehouse right outside the railway station – Burton is reminding you that it has made a contribution to Britain’s industrial revolution.
Burton has also played its part in the history of football in Britain. Burton Swifts, who played at Peel Croft (no doubt named after the Peel family), joined the league in 1892 and then in 1901 merged with Burton Wanderers to form Burton United. The Wanderers were members of the league in the mid 1890s and then United played in the second division until 1907. This plethora of clubs (there was also Burton Town) failed to make football sustainable as Rugby Union was, for a long time, the lingua franca of the town.
Burton Albion became the fourth club from the town to play in the Football League when they won promotion from the Conference in 2009. I was reliably informed that “they have a new ground and it’s on one of those out-of-town sites”. Actually, that is not true, because the new ground is a 200 yards or so from the old Eton Park stadium, and while it is 20-plus minute hike from the railway station, it is very much still in town. They’ve been there since 2005 and the new ground has certainly acted as a springboard to better things. And in 2015-16, they will be playing in League One, the highest point of their history.
When Game of the People turned up in the town often known as “beeropolis”, Burton was in the grip of promotion fever. A week earlier, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s team had won 2-1 at Morecambe and clinched one of the automatic places. Hasselbaink, who took over in November, was an instant success and his success-rate before meeting Northampton Town was 61%. Burton had lost just three times in 28 games. They were not doing bad when his predecessor, Gary Rowett, left Burton, but Hasselbaink – one of the most direct and confident strikers in his playing day – injected some fresh impetus to the club that had lost out in the play-offs in the two previous years.
Burton started the season well with a seven-game unbeaten run, but then lost five out of eight fixtures between mid-September and late-October. From December, they went 13 games unbeaten before losing at Accrington in February. March and April saw them unbeaten.
When Northampton arrived, it was carnival time – the Cobblers (another great nickname that tells you a lot about the industrial history of that town) were really uninvited guests at a wedding. Burton Albion were determined to enjoy their first Football League promotion. “Today is all about being as loud and proud as you want to celebrate promotion to League One,” said the man on the tannoy, and the fans duly responded. Behind the goal, the “Burton boys” were bouncing up and down, waving flags and singing their heads off. They even – quite literally – played “keepy-up” as stewards threw giant inflatable footballs into the crowd for them to push around the packed terrace.
The Pirelli Stadium is a neat ground, typical of modern day “fit for purpose” football grounds. The frontage of the stadium is eye-catching, however, and cannot be missed. When the club moved there in 2005, they said goodbye to an old-style Southern League ground that could never have taken Burton to the heights they are currently scaling.
It’s also a friendly place. Admittedly, it’s easy to be “matey” when your club has won promotion and everyone is back-slapping each other, but it is the sort of town where you’re made to feel welcome. I was fortunate to sit next to a lady who introduced herself as Bobby Robson’s niece. What tales her uncle must have told her! Getting some insight into Burton made up for being constantly kicked in the back by a small girl who, if she ever decides to take up football, could have a stunning career, judging by the power of her kick!
The game got underway and Burton got off to a perfect start. They went ahead after four minutes, thanks to a poor clearance by Northampton keeper Shwan Jalal, sending the ball against Stuart Beavon and, as it was returned, a combination of Lucas Akins and Cobblers’ defender Zander Diamond deflected it into the net.
On the half hour, Burton added a second, Phil Edwards turning the ball home following a Nasser El Khayati corner. Northampton looked prime for a thrashing, and when Akins went sprawling in the penalty area (a dive from my vantage point), he got up to score Burton’s third from the spot on 41 minutes.
Home fans were confidently predicting the sort of scoreline that used to be written in words rather than figures on the videprinter, you know – Burton 7 (seven) to underline the sensation and to assure people it is no misprint. But in the second half, the game won and promotion in the bag, Burton found it hard to find their first-half flow. To be fair to Northampton, they also made a difference, and in the 53rd minute, Lawson D’Ath scored a spectacular volley for the visitors. How good was it? The Burton crowd applauded it, and it wasn’t to be patronising, it was a genuinely great strike.
But that was it – 3-1 to Burton Albion and the post-match celebrations could begin. They were hoping that the day could also end with the title, but Shrewsbury won 1-0 at Cheltenham. The destination of the silverware will be decided on May 2.
There was much to be impressed with at Burton. Nice stadium, good crowd (5,720) and a healthy respect for what has gone on before. Nigel Clough was given credit for his time at the club – laying the foundations, and it was clear that Chairman Ben Robinson is greatly respected. “To this man we owe it all,” was one banner at the Pirelli. Game of the People wishes them well in League One in 2015-16.