THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

The name Clough is becoming as much a fixture at the Pirelli Stadium as it was at the City Ground. Nigel warms up for his 11th season as Burton manager with a game against his old club and it's a friendly that lives up to the name, thanks in part to fans who are savouring slow progress, writes Pete Green

Some friendlies have always belied the name. The Manchester United fans playing up at Altrincham the other week have continued a long tradition of friction at non-competitive fixtures that dates back to the rioting spectators who knocked a Preston player unconscious at a kickaround against Aston Villa in 1885. Here at Burton Albion, some Derby fans were thrown out last week after contriving to pick a fight with some other Derby men. But midway through this gentle workout against Nottingham Forest I realise that this is the safest and least threatened I have ever felt at a game of football. I even leave my nerdy indie specs on in the half-time queue for a pint.

Why? Maybe it’s the Brewers’ squeaky-clean new-generation stadium, whose exterior gives barely a hint of football. Approaching its shallow sides, light grey cladding and smoked glass, you could be in a business “park” on the humdrum periphery of Coventry, Reading or anywhere, en route to a soporific seminar about leveraging cross-platform revenue channels via outside-the-blue-skies deliverables. Predictably, given its location more than a mile beyond the centre of a small town – and fittingly given its naming after a multinational tyre-producing sponsor – just about everyone drives here. No sign of road rage, though, and the unusual patience of Burton fans – another explanation for the relaxed ambience – is a breath of fresh air.

The rest of us, with our accelerated culture and abbreviated attention spans, grow increasingly itchy when nothing very much happens to our clubs for a year or two. No matter if we’re punching above our weight; never mind if the manager is still the one who got us promoted to this level – one season too many of ­mid‑table ­eventlessness and he’s looking at the chop. Burton Albion, however, have existed only since the 1950s. Their predecessors played League football, but it took until 2002 for Albion to reach the Conference. Nigel Clough has been here for ten years now and there is not the merest flicker of impatience among supporters as the club progress slowly upwards through the league table. Six seasons to move from 16th place to fifth would have most fans squealing for a sacking; not in Burton.

And if the stadium’s exterior exudes corporate listlessness, the club have at least eschewed the ridiculous vanity of building an all-seat ground for non-League football. Forest fans are tempted along by not just the nearness but the chance to stand on terracing. They know more than most, tragically, about the need for all-seat grounds at the highest level, but contrast their club’s footballing fortunes before and after the Taylor Report – as insignificant as this is in the context of Hillsborough – and it’s clear why they might be more ­nostalgic than most as well.

 To begin with, at least, Forest’s players share the fans’ summery repose. On Albion’s right wing is an Australian trialist who spent last season down the road at Tamworth, Jonti Richter. Though his impact proves insufficiently seismic to win a contract, he creates a few early tremors, dispossessing Forest’s left-back Joe Heath, twice crossing splendidly, and finding space on the edge of the area for a shot on goal. New signing Jody Banim looks perky as well, but it’s Michael Simpson who gives Burton the lead they deserve with a close-range tenth‑minute header while Calderwood’s defenders ­reminisce about their holidays.

All the while, though, pacy Nathan Tyson has been poised ominously on the ­shoulder of the last Burton defender, thwarted only by the linesman’s flag. But the travelling fans’ first sign of excitement shows when Wes Morgan, penned into a corner at his own end of the pitch, teases a Burton forward with the old toreador bit (the sort of risky flair you might only see in a friendly these days). Once, twice, thrice – and a misplaced pass has the home support hooraying back. It’s all delightfully good-natured: cheers that never hint at jeers. You half-expect the Albion fans to rush the away end en masse and offer them all a cup of tea.

The mood stays sweet when the equaliser comes. Arron Davies, troubling Burton with some good lateral movement between the front line and the left, tries a dipping 18-yard shot, perhaps clocking Saul Deeney a little too far forward; Deeney’s stretching hand alters the arc of the ball but only delays its arrival in his net. “You’re not singing any more,” offer the Forest fans, presumably with heavy irony, once they realise they’ve scored, while Calderwood remains displeased, leaping off his bench to bellow angry instructions through the quiet. When the hush resumes the crowd seem slightly embarrassed, like parents ignoring a tipsy uncle mumbling obscenities at a kids’ party.

Other than a moment of near-serendipity when the sun bursts out from the clouds low above the home end as Burton nearly score, that’s about it for the first half. Clough has clearly instilled a keep-it-on-the-deck ethic that’s unusual for their level: they hit it long from the back only under pressure, when there’s no time to sight up a short pass (I counted three times in the opening 45 minutes: a much lower hoof rate than several Premier League sides). Once their big-city visitors wiped the sleep out of their eyes, though, the Brewers mostly lacked the guile to turn chances from their possession.

At half-time, the bar below the main stand seems a million miles from the mêlée and crush of the standard 15-minute-pint rush. There are more than 2,300 in the ground and only about four of them are waiting for a beer; far more form a very orderly queue for pies and chips. The bar staff are as friendly and smiley as the turnstile operators were earlier and, best of all, the ketchup is in a squirty bottle instead of rubbish little sachets. I get chatting to a Burton fan and decide to test the evidence for their remarkable stoicism, talking up their chances next season. Could the Brewers finally make the big jump and win promotion to the League at last? The fan grins into the middle distance. “Well, if they do, they do. If they don’t, they don’t.”

Many parents have brought their kids, who inevitably are wearing every replica shirt imaginable bar that of their own team – in a five-minute period I register product from Arsenal, Aston Villa, Barcelona, Chelsea (two), Manchester United and Portugal – but at least it’s only the kids here. Many smaller clubs are plagued on match days by infiltrators who are old enough to know ­better than wearing Premier League polyester, and I pledge support to the first that forces them to watch from the away end.

It’s only two minutes into the second half when Forest take the lead with a nice solo goal from Lewis McGugan, a teenage midfielder who stands out strongly tonight. Both sides loosen up a little and look for adventure. Burton’s half-time sub Shaun Harrad strikes just wide from 20 yards and Forest respond quickly with two more shots of their own before Harrad releases Banim on the overlap, who flits past two defenders to line up another effort on goal. At the other end Tyson tries for a penalty and a sending-off with a wretched dive as Deeney rushes out from his goal, then lays off the ball to McGugan with the outside of his left foot in the most skilful moment of the game.

 For the remainder, the busiest man is the fourth official, struggling to keep up with all the substitutions. Before it all disintegrates, Burton take off their best defender, Ryan Austin, but create a little period of pressure, with good crosses from Richter and part-time left-back Andy Corbett. Restless Forest fans give an airing to “We hate Derby and we hate Derby... we are the Derby haters”; the home support declines to join in, and a family behind me twitters amiably about people they remember from school. With ten minutes left Tyson wraps it up from close range, but it takes another six or seven minutes before the Burton fans start to drift away – the latest early leavers I’ve ever seen and further, final proof of their granite-like durability.

Perhaps taking their cue from the stands, the players keep at it, too. A superb ball from the middle reaches Burton’s Matt Bailey out on the left, who wins a corner from another good cross. For Forest, Davies finds the time to try one more dive: you really have to wonder about the thought processes that motivate a player with a newly promoted, former European Cup-winning club to cheat when his team are 3-1 up in the final minute of a friendly against non-League opposition.

Burton fans indulge Davies’s antics with good-natured mockery, the ref blows up, and sweaty officials present a trophy linked to the charity that benefits from tonight’s game. It hasn’t quickened the blood like your average derby, or even just your ordinary league fixture, and you wouldn’t want your football quite so polite every week. Sure, the pulse will pick up when the season starts. But in a firm but friendly way, tonight beats the hell out of police escorts and punch-ups.

From WSC 259 September 2008

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