Forget Leicester City for a moment, we have heard all there is to hear about their miraculous title bid. By now we know all about Jamie Vardy’s rags-to-riches story and Riyad Mahrez’s journey from the obscurity of the French second division to the summit of the Premier League. Let’s give another midlands club who are having a Cinderella season of their own some much-deserved respect.
Burton Albion went to Port Vale on Saturday, a side that have lost once at home all season and are just outside the playoffs, and hammered them 4-0. A win that maintains their six point advantage at the top of League one and edges them ever closer to back-to-back promotions.
For those unaccustomed to lower league football this may not seem particularly impressive, and it certainly does lack the glamour and excitement of the Foxes title bid. However take a closer look and it becomes clear what a remarkable achievement this is. The Brewers’ average league attendance was just 2,713 in the 2014-15 season, they have spent a mere six years in the Football League and adapted seamlessly to the loss of manger Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and winger Nasser El Khayati to QPR mid-season.
Just glancing at some of the potential match-ups for Burton underlines the absurdity of their impending Championship status. Memories of rivalries from the not-so-distant non-league days against Gresley Rovers and Nuneaton Borough are fading and are being replaced by the prospect of derby games against regional heavyweights Aston Villa, Derby County and Nottingham Forest. Visits to some of England’s most iconic stadiums such as St. James’ Park and Elland Road are also on the horizon.
Yet while their lack of history and small-club status makes their promotion push seem so improbable, longer-term viewers will see it as a deserved victory for one of England’s most well-run clubs. Burton’s unlikely rise through the footballing pyramid is the result of careful planning. The fact that Burton has constantly been able to find excellent managers is testament to this fact. Despite losing Nigel Clough in 2008, who presided over 10 years of success in non-league football, they achieved promotion to League 2 under caretaker boss Roy McFarland in 2008. Gary Rowett then took them on two surprising playoff campaigns before leaving for Birmingham City in 2014. Hasselbaink eventually took them into League One as champions last season and then moved onto QPR in December. Clough, who originally set Burton on this upward trajectory, is now back at the helm and has them on the brink of the Championship. The loss of three successful managers would have derailed most sides but Burton had the infrastructure in place to cope, without succumbing to the on-pitch effects.
It’s odd too because promotion bids from smaller sides tend to be almost fluky, the result of one or two very good player hitting form and firing them up in the play-offs – see Charlie Adam for Blackpool in 2013 or Wilfred Zaha and Yannick Bolasie for Cystal Palace in 2013 – but Burton’s organised and balanced style means it is hard to pick out any stand-out performers. No player has more than eight goals this season. Burton fans see the hard-work and energy of Stuart Beavon as integral to their promotion bid, but given that Beavon is essentially a journeyman striker you have to assume that it is Burton’s system that has contributed most to his success this campaign. Forward’s Mark Duffy and Luke Akins are also deserving of recognition for their vital goals, while the all-action midfield performances of Calum Butcher, and the hard work of players like John Mousinho, have provided an enormous boost too. Although you also have to credit the rock solid defence that has conceded the fewest goals in the division, the difficulty in pinpointing Burton’s player of the season merely reemphasises why the Brewers have been so successful this term. By placing emphasis on the collective rather than the individual they have managed to overcome teams like Sheffield United and Wigan Athletic whose financial capability dwarfs their own.
Of course the Brewers could still be caught by Walsall and Wigan, anxiety remains strong for Burton fans due to their lack of depth and financial strength, but this season will be regarded as a success regardless. It represents a victory for hard-work and smart tactics over competitors with far more resources. Mirroring what Leicester is doing, albeit on a smaller stage.
Football League Round-Up
Championship: Derby County beat Nottingham Forest in the East Midlands Derby and regained the Brian Clough Trophy thanks to a late strike from Markus Olsson. The win is a major boost to their promotion hopes while the problems persist for Forest both on and off the pitch. At the bottom Bristol City pushed away from the dropzone with a 6-0 drubbing off Bolton Wanderers who are now 16 points adrift of safety. An important win too as Rotherham United continue their electric form, they won 1-0 at playoff chasing Ipswich Town, which makes it four wins out of five under new manager Neil Warnock.
League One: Walsall scored twice in the last two minutes to beat Colchester United 2-1 at The Bescot Stadium. That’s three wins on the trot for the Saddlers since dispensing with manager Sean O’Driscoll. Meanwhile Doncaster Rovers continue their slide towards the fourth tier, a last minute Ricardo Santos strike gave Peterborough United all three points and consigned Donny to their fifth straight defeat.
League Two: The good times keep on coming for Bristol Rovers; they moved into the automatic promotion spots with a 4-1 win at Newport County and are dreaming of back-to-back promotions. They leapfrogged Plymouth Argyle who lost at home to inform Luton Town. At the foot of the table York City and Dagenham and Redbridge both lost (again), and both look nailed on for relegation.