Tuesday marked the 13-year anniversary of one of the most memorable matches in Burton Albion’s history. On 8 January 2006, the then-non-league side held Manchester United to a 0-0 draw in the third round of the FA Cup. It was a fantastic achievement by Nigel Clough’s men, who did not disgrace themselves despite losing the replay 5-0 10 days later. Burton were cheered on by 11,000 fans in that game, setting a new record for visiting supporters at Old Trafford.
The club’s supporters will be treated to two more encounters against England’s elite this month, with the Brewers set to take on Manchester City in a two-legged League Cup semi-final. The two teams play the same sport but operate in different stratospheres as far as finance is concerned; Burton may have been in the Championship last season, but their budget is still dwarfed by several of their divisional rivals in League One.
That Burton even made it to the second tier in the first place was a minor miracle. Clough’s first game in charge in 1998 was an FA Trophy qualifier against Grantham Town. Burton were playing their football in the Southern Premier League that season, with attendances hovering around the 500 mark. With several bigger clubs – Nottingham Forest, Leicester City, Derby County, Birmingham City, Aston Villa – just a train ride away, it was difficult to envisage too much changing in this corner of the East Midlands.
And yet Burton did make gradual progress, switching to the Northern Premier League in 2001/02 and winning it at the first time of asking. They survived in the Conference, finishing three points clear of the drop in their debut season at that level, then consolidated in mid-table thereafter. Clough set Burton on the path to promotion to League Two in 2008/09, departing for Derby midway through the campaign when the Brewers were 13 points clear at the top of the table.
Under the guidance of Paul Peschisolido, Burton secured an impressive 13th-place finish in their inaugural Football League campaign, before finishing 19th in 2010/11 and 17th in 2011/12. Gary Rowett took them into the play-offs in the two subsequent seasons, but it was left to Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to oversee promotion to League One in 2014/15. The former Chelsea and Leeds striker then set Burton on the path to the Championship a year later, with Clough returning to complete the job after Hasselbaink left for Queens Park Rangers in December 2015.
Burton survived against all the odds in their first season in the Championship, and were only relegated back to the third flight on the final day of last season.
“If you look at our wage bill then I think the next club spending more than we do are probably spending 50% more than what we do,” chairman Ben Robinson said last May. “Most clubs we are competing against are spending, two, three or four times what we do on the wage bill. We spent under £1m on the team last summer  and we recently played Middlesbrough, and were unlucky not to beat them, who spent £50m on their team – and that’s just one example.”
Robinson, like Clough, has had two spells at Burton, initially stepping down as chairman in 1984 before reassuming the role 11 years later. “It's not how much you spend, it’s how you spend it” is his mantra. Robinson is a chairman who always has the bigger picture in mind, and the fact that he has only sacked one manager in the last two and a half decades shows that he does not make decisions on a whim.
Clough and Robinson are thus a perfect partnership. The former has also taken charge of Derby and Sheffield United in the last 10 years, but the Pirelli Stadium is his home and he will be relishing the chance to pit his wits against Pep Guardiola on Wednesday night.
“We talk about the three things we want from the cup – glory, confidence and money,” Clough said after his side’s third-round victory. “We got the glory against Burnley, we certainly got some confidence and hopefully we might now get all three in the next round.”
“We'd like a big club at home or away. Revenue will be as important as anything in the next round. The Carabao Cup is right up there for us because of the confidence we can get from it.
“If the draw is kind we can earn some revenue and just the feeling it gives everyone beating a Premier League side is great as it has only happened once before in Burton Albion's history.”
Knocking Manchester City out of the competition and advancing to the final would undoubtedly be the best result the Brewers have ever achieved, but they can already be immensely proud of their League Cup run this season.
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