How to run a football club – Burton Albion chairman Ben Robinson reflects o 45 years in the job

No one can accuse Ben Robinson of being in football for a quick win.

The long-serving chairman first took the helm at Burton Albion aged 31 some 45 years ago and is still going strong. 

Thanks to Robinson’s patient stewardship during two spells as chairman, the Brewers have climbed out of the Northern Premier League all the way to the Championship, before settling in League One.

Burton Albion chairman Ben Robinson first took the helm of the League One club 45 years ago

The club’s stability is in sharp contrast to what is happening at Derby County 12 miles up the A38.

Burton’s nearest ‘rivals’, command an average gate pushing 30,000 in a city of 260,000, but they have gambled hard on promotion.

Now, they are in administration with a debt of around £60 million and facing deductions that could rise to 21 points. The very future of the club hangs in the balance.

Derby’s plight has renewed calls for more regulation in the national game. And Robinson is the type of prudent and creative club custodian any regulator will want to encourage, if Government agree to introduce one in the months ahead.

For a start he has a forensic knowledge – and control – of every budget line, won’t gamble away the future by chasing short-term success and has put the community at the heart of the club.

‘I go round turning the lights off,’ Robinson confides with typical modesty as we settle into one of the nine comfortable executive boxes at their ‘new’ stadium, built 16 years ago.

While Burton have made steady progress, near-neighbours, Derby County, are in turmoil

While Burton have made steady progress, near-neighbours, Derby County, are in turmoil

I laugh at the thought of this charming, impeccably dressed 76-year-old, pinching a few pennies on the ‘leccy bill’. It’s not very football, is it?

‘I bloody do,’ retorts Robinson. ‘We have a £12,000-a-month electricity bill. When you’re at home you don’t leave them on when you go to bed, do you?’

FOOTBALL IS FACING NEW REGULATION

The government is expected to decide whether to introduce an independent regulator of football.

Ministers commissioned a ‘fan-led review of football governance’ earlier this year.

Under the direction of Conservative MP, Tracey Crouch, the former sports minister, an expert panel has been taking evidence from clubs, fans and the sport’s authorities.

The panel’s recommendations are expected at the end of October, but interim findings were reported to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport this summer.

Crouch has revealed she has reached one firm conclusion already: ‘In order to protect the future of key aspects of our national game a new Independent Regulator for English Football is needed,’ she stated bluntly in the first paragraph of her letter. 

Crouch added: ‘It is absolutely evident from our sessions that the football authorities have lost the trust and confidence of the fans as have, in a number of cases, clubs themselves…

‘This continuing lack of coordination significantly reduces my confidence in the football authorities being able to successfully address the problems identified.’

She is concerned about parachute payments for clubs relegated from the Premier League, which she thinks distort competition, Crouch is yet to settle on a solution and ‘strongly’ urged the top flight and EFL to ‘seek a viable achievable solution’ themselves.

I later recount this story to another EFL executive. ‘That’s why Burton has reached the level they have and can sustain it,’ he says without a pause.

Robinson would be far too modest to take credit for Burton’s success (‘it’s the coaches, isn’t it’, he says) and he doesn’t point an accusing finger at other clubs, but he would favour tougher regulation in football.

Last year, the Government commissioned a review of football governance and a report due later this month is expected to recommend an independent regulator is created. 

One issue likely to be high on the agenda of any regulator is the parachute payments paid to clubs relegated from the Premier League for a three-year period. The total figure spent is around £250 million annually, and it can be as high as £90 million per club over three seasons.

‘The payments should be squashed,’ said Robinson, whose club played in the Championship from 2016 to 2018, paying players on average £4,000 per week, compared to the league norm of £15,000 per week.

‘I get it. The Premier League want to protect their own and give relegated clubs a chance but straight away it gives clubs a massive advantage.’

The parachute payments have been blamed by some for triggering an arms race in the Championship in which clubs massively overspend in order to reach the Premier League.

The accountants, Deloitte, found that Championship clubs were spending 107 per cent of turnover on wages in 2019. Derby was one of those teams trying to buy its way out of the second tier.

Robinson would also favour more financial monitoring to ensure clubs live within their means.

Even during the Brewers’ spell in the second tier, Burton limited their losses to just £300,000, based on analysis from the Price of Football podcast.

It’s true that not every football fan craves a careful owner. Supporter’s demand success and sometimes at any cost. But Robinson’s ‘steady-Eddie’ approach is surely vindicated by the demise of Macclesfield Town and Bury, as well as the strife felt in Bolton and Wigan in recent years.

However, it is unfair to cast Robinson as a penny pincher.

Under his guidance, Burton have enjoyed four huge promotions rising from the Northern Premier League to the Championship and gates have swelled five-fold reaching an average of just over 3,000 in 2019.

Despite a sticky patch, they are stable in League One with an ambitious manager in Jimmy Floyd-Hasselbaink and returned to form with a 2-1 win over Portsmouth last week and a draw at Wimbledon on Saturday.

And besides, Robinson, who grew up on a local council estate and has earned a living as an insurance broker, serves Champagne to directors before games so he is hardly a scrooge.

Robinson believes tougher regulation is needed to secure the future of clubs like Bury

Robinson believes tougher regulation is needed to secure the future of clubs like Bury

In the Championship Burton Albion refused to go deeply into debt despite financial pressure. Source: Price of Football

In the Championship Burton Albion refused to go deeply into debt despite financial pressure. Source: Price of Football

The Brewers' wage bill was the smallest in the Championship, underlining the challenge. Source: Price of Football

The Brewers’ wage bill was the smallest in the Championship, underlining the challenge. Source: Price of Football

Traditionally, football clubs have avoided bubbles prior to kick off because it implies celebration, even before the match has been played. So, why this unlikely show of ostentation?

‘I love Champagne,’ he says simply, a twinkle in his eye. ‘And I like to welcome visitors with a glass.’

Robinson is good company, full of anecdotes after five decades in football.

He is also, progressive, committed and ambitious, in equal measure.

The chairman has made inspired managerial appointments, including Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, the current boss

The chairman has made inspired managerial appointments, including Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, the current boss

Of dual heritage, he is one of the few BAME chairmen in the football league and he has been a fierce advocate of equality in the game, long before it gained the rightful prominence it has today.

And no one could accuse him of gesture politics. He has stood up for equal rights even when it has been uncomfortable, up close and personal.

In the 1980s, Burton were playing away in the Northern Premier League at a club in North West. The Brewers’ company secretary – a woman – was barred from the boardroom of the home side because they did not admit females.

‘I took my directors straight out,’ said Robinson, still incensed 30 years on. ‘And we went to the social club where men and women can drink together.’

Robinson is the kind of chairman who inspires loyalty. And appreciates it.

That is a rare quality in football these days. In the 2019/20 season, Sky Sports estimated the average tenure of a manager was just 423 days and 75 of them lost their jobs that season.

In all his years at Burton, Robinson has only sacked two coaches he appointed  during his two spells as chairman, from 1976 to 1986 and 1995 to the present day; a total of 36 years.

In contrast, another near neighbour, Nottingham Forest, have said goodbye to 14 managers in the last 10 years.

Robinson has shown faith in his managers and has only sacked two in his time at Burton

Robinson has shown faith in his managers and has only sacked two in his time at Burton

‘THE BIG THING IS, HE TRUSTS ME!’

Burton Albion’s success has hinged on the recruitment of good coaches.

Chairman Ben Robinson has consistently searched for young managers wanting to make a name for themselves, at a price the club can afford. And he has shown great faith in them.

Robinson has given Neil Warnock, Nigel Clough, Gary Rowett and Jimmy Floyd-Hasselbaink, the chance to impress early in their careers.

‘It is what you see in people,’ said Robinson. ‘Their dedication and professionalism and the characters. Will they deliver and work hard every day of the week?

‘And if you believe in your manager, you give them time.’

The current boss, former Leeds United and Chelsea striker, Hasselbaink, is back for his second spell at the Pirelli Stadium.

First time around he took the club from League Two to League One, before leaving for QPR.

This time, he returned last season with Burton looking likely to go down, but he turned them around and achieved a comfortable finish.

‘Getting survival was tremendous,’ said Hasselbaink. ‘I don’t think people understand how big an achievement that was. It was about being hard to beat. You don’t want to lose that, but you want to add to it and get better on the ball.

‘It is getting the balance right and that at the moment is quite difficult.’

Burton started strongly winning three and drawing one of their first four matches. Since then the Brewers have struggled to find a win, before defeating Portsmouth 2-1 on Tuesday and they drew at Wimbledon on Saturday.

In the summer, Burton hung onto an experienced core of players and have brought in younger players to support them, including new recruits from the Spanish second division and Indian Premier League. 

Hasselbaink and the chairman remain confident in what they are doing. ‘He is very supportive,’ the ex striker, who scored 87 times for Chelsea, said of Robinson. ‘The big thing is, he trusts me.’ 

In his time, Robinson has made a string of inspired appointments that have helped him learn on the job and build the club up to the permanent fixture in the EFL it is today.

They include ex-Nottingham Forest and Manchester United forward, Ian Storey-Moore; Neil Warnock, now the Middlesbrough boss, who did five years at Burton; Nigel Clough, 16 years over two spells; Gary Rowett and Jimmy Floyd-Hasselbaink, who is now in his second stint.

The chairman’s first big appointment was Storey-Moore in 1978.

He was forced to retire from top flight football, where he played 236 times for Forest and 39 times for United, aged 28 due to injury.

Typically, Robinson spotted an opportunity. Long before we all had a mobile phones, the chairman found out where Storey-Moore was staying on his holiday in Mallorca and rang the hotel.

He got his man and brought him in as player manager, since performing in non-league football would not affect his football league insurance pay-out.

Ian Storey-Moore (right) was Robinson's first big appointment after the player's career was cut short at Manchester United. Pictured with George Best (left) and Bobby Charlton (centre)

Ian Storey-Moore (right) was Robinson’s first big appointment after the player’s career was cut short at Manchester United. Pictured with George Best (left) and Bobby Charlton (centre)

The ex-pro thrilled the Burton faithful and the chairman still recalls some of his best goals with wide-eyes and waving arms, including a brace against Winsford United in the FA Cup third qualifying round 41 years ago.

Robinson retains a youthful enthusiasm for the game, but he knows his place is in the boardroom, not the dressing room, which is surely the mark of every successful administrator. It was Storey-Moore and his assistant, Mick Hopkinson, who taught Robinson that lesson.

‘Mr Chairman, I can see by the look on your face that you are thinking what me and Ian are thinking,’ Robinson recalls Hopkinson telling him after knocking on the dressing room door following a particularly poor performance in the late 1970s.

Neil Warnock, pictured early in his career, was recruited by Robinson to manage Burton

Neil Warnock, pictured early in his career, was recruited by Robinson to manage Burton

‘WHEN I COUGH, START GROANING’ 

Neil Warnock learned the football management trade at Burton Albion – and showed his will to win form the outset.

On one occasion, the Brewers’ top scorer failed to turn up before an FA Cup tie.

The team sheet had to be submitted by 2.30pm and Robinson recalls that Warnock included the striker on the form, but when he still did not show 15 minutes before kick-off the young manager realised he would have to remove him and play someone else.

Since the team sheet could not be changed without the permission of the referee and the opposition manager, Warnock had to be creative. 

He quickly told another player to sit on the toilet with his boots visible beneath the cubicle door and when he heard his gaffer cough he was to start groaning and making noises to indicate he was suffering a severe stomach upset.

Warnock called the referee into the dressing room and coughed loudly. Groaning noises duly emerged from behind the door.

‘He said ‘that’s my top scorer behind that door’,’ recalled Robinson. ‘And he has got real problems. I am going have to ask you to change the team sheet.’

The referee, shocked by the appalling suffering evident within the cubicle, agreed to confer with the opposition manager. 

But in the meantime, the quick-silver centre forward rolled up and now Warnock had another problem. He was desperate to play the lad.

The official returned to the Burton dressing room as players prepared to take the field and announced that the other side had agreed the team sheet could be altered. 

‘I’ve been thinking,’ Robinson recounted Warnock as saying. ‘I’m going to leave it as it was. The lad has to play through the pain. He has to get out there and give me 100 per cent.’ 

‘You are thinking, the players are a disgrace and do not deserve to be paid this week. But you do not have to say anything, because that is what you pay us for.

‘And I have never done that again – before or since. He was right.’

The chairman’s eye for a fine coach was evident again in the recruitment of Warnock, whom he poached from the Lincolnshire club, Gainsborough Trinity, after Storey-Moore’s departure.

It was a colourful spell as Warnock, who worked as a chiropodist when not coaching, honed the sharp practices that have made him both hero and villain among fans in the football league.

The breakthrough came, however, with the recruitment of Nigel Clough, son of legend Brian, as his playing days wound down at Manchester City, eventually joining the Brewers as a player-manager in 1998.

Robinson was looking for a new man and took out an advert in the Daily Mail recruitment section, seeking a football manager.

‘It was out of the box,’ recalls the chairman. ‘And cost a fortune.’

However, it paid off handsomely. Clough, who was on loan at Sheffield Wednesday, called the club. When the call was put through Robinson initially thought it was a wind-up.

However, the pair hit it off and shook hands on a deal, an agreement that was kept on ice and secret for months until Clough had finished at City.

It was another inspirational piece of recruitment. Robinson saw the chance to bring in a thoughtful pro, who wanted to learn the management trade in the lower leagues and at the same time he could transform Burton Albion as a business.

Clough was a perfect match for Burton as he led them on an incredible journey from the Northern Premier to the football league after they were promoted from the Conference in 2009.

Ask Robinson how Burton have managed to scale the football pyramid and his response is immediate.

‘It was Nigel Clough,’ he says emphatically. ‘He has great skill in getting players to come and play and getting clubs to loan players.

‘Nigel raised the profile of the town and the team beyond all recognition. The club became national news overnight and that is how it all started.’

Robinson believes the addition of Clough and the profile that achieved secured significant commercial support, including locking in local tyre manufacturer, Pirelli, who are still sponsors.

Nigel Clough brought promotion to the football league after he took over at Burton Albion

Nigel Clough brought promotion to the football league after he took over at Burton Albion

A memorable night at the Pirelli Stadium saw Clough's Burton draw 0-0 with Manchester United in 2006 in the FA Cup third round. United won the replay 5-0, but the tie earned Burton £800,000, which paid off an overspend on the new ground

A memorable night at the Pirelli Stadium saw Clough’s Burton draw 0-0 with Manchester United in 2006 in the FA Cup third round. United won the replay 5-0, but the tie earned Burton £800,000, which paid off an overspend on the new ground

Former Nottingham Forest boss, Brian Clough, would watch son Nigel's team at Burton

Former Nottingham Forest boss, Brian Clough, would watch son Nigel’s team at Burton

Clough returned for a second spell as manager in 2015, overseeing the remarkable rise to the Championship. Robinson once told Brian Clough, who would attended matches, of the high esteem in which he held his son.

‘You know, there are two football geniuses in your family,’ Robinson said to the older Clough, who won back-to-back European Cups with Forest.

‘Oh!?’ said Cloughie with typical immodesty. ‘When you find the other one, let me know.’

It is not just on the pitch that good clubs have an impact.

Robinson was once praised by Clough senior

Robinson was once praised by Clough senior

During the Covid pandemic and in the aftermath of the European Super League ministers highlighted football clubs as ‘community assets’ with a significance beyond football.

And that is evident in Burton. The success of the football club has brought huge benefit to the town and it is clearly woven into the fabric of the local community.

Robinson speaks with joy about football, and with real pride about Burton and the role the club plays.

During the pandemic, one of the reception rooms at the stadium was converted into a vaccination centre, where 120,000 jabs have been administered.

The Pirelli has also become a base for midwives offering appointments outside of hospitals and the base for a massive operation coordinating the delivery of thousands of food parcels, home visits and phone calls to vulnerable people.

Robinson himself is president of the local YMCA and trustee of a host of local charities, as well as chairman of the Burton Town Development Board, which is coordinating £23 million of investment in community projects.

Under current boss Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Burton enjoyed a good start to the season

Under current boss Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Burton enjoyed a good start to the season

‘We have always been community focused,’ he says.

It comes naturally to Robinson and those he recruits. Earlier this month, the chairman, Hasselbaink and assistant manager, Dino Maamria, all turned up to a community fete on the morning of a game to lend their support.

Robinson is quick to pass off praise and highlights the work of his coaches and staff. But even the most exacting football man has recognised his skills and contribution.

In 2003, Burton then in the Conference, knocked Torquay United out of the FA Cup. Robinson had insisted the club push the boat out and stay overnight in a hotel in Devon ahead of the game.

Following a 2-1 win, the team was travelling home to Staffordshire when Brian Clough called his son, Nigel.

‘Dad’s on the phone, he wants to have a word with you,’ said the team boss handing over his mobile.

‘Mr Chairman,’ said Clough senior. ‘Give yourself a pat on the back.’

And that heart-felt sentiment is surely as valid now, as it was then.

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