What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.
The above, written by the late, great Sir Bobby Robson a year before his passing in 2009, rings true to this day. It eloquently sums up the simplicity and majesty of our beautiful game, and its unique way to grip you for a lifetime.
Some 172 miles away from Robson’s beloved Newcastle, over a decade on, his words couldn’t be truer.
“We get lots of good feedback from people coming here to Burton Albion,” Chairman Ben Robinson says proudly, in an immaculate office overlooking the Pirelli Stadium pitch. “From the moment they get out of their car in the car park, they get a smile. They get someone who listens to them; someone who deals with them professionally and efficiently, they get someone on the front desk who will be a smiling face.
“Nothing is too much trouble, and that’s what we try to instil. It’s a basic philosophy; your clients and customers are so important and you have to try to set standards to make sure that’s always recognised. The way you deal with and treat people is key.”
It’s clear upon entering the stadium that BAFC is a club full of TLC, filtered down right from the very top. Robinson’s long-standing association with and love for Albion began just 25 years after its formation in 1950 and shows no signs of slowing.
Having initially joined the board in 1975, he was named Chairman at the age of just 31, just a year later. In the time since his appointment, Robinson has seen it all, from the lows of relegation and narrowly missing out on a place at Wembley to the highs of reaching the Sky Bet Championship in 2016 and Carabao Cup Semi-Finals just last season.
“I think that’s the problem here at Burton Albion, both for the fans and myself, we’ve been spoilt by experiencing so much success with Nigel Clough,” he adds with a smile, typically. “It’s been incredible. That’s why, over all these years, we haven’t stopped pinching ourselves. Look at last season and that historic run in the Carabao Cup, where we got through to the Semi- Finals against Manchester City.
“If you look at that, it was some achievement: we beat Shrewsbury Town, Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough and Burnley. It was quite something to maintain that level of performance through so many games. We held the mighty Manchester City to 1-0, despite their big-money signings, it was amazing.
“The year I joined the board, we got to the FA Trophy Semi-Final against Matlock and I remember it well. We went over for the first leg and witnessed rain, snow and sunshine... and we beat them 1-0. We thought we were almost there, at Wembley, but that was a real baptism. We had a great team, but lost 2-0 at home in the return leg. It was my daughter’s first birthday that day, and I remember going to the ground and dreaming of Wembley, we wanted that fairytale and that experience. I said, from that day onwards, that I’d never let a result get to me like that again, and it hasn’t.”
Key to Burton’s success has been Nigel Clough, a man who has carved out his own legacy in serving as the club’s manager for over 15 years and across two spells.
“I was at my office on the high street one day and I had a client who used to call up, throw his voice and pretend to be someone famous,” Robinson remembers with a chuckle. “One of my staff would come through and say ‘Ben, I’ve got whoever on the phone’ and I’d tell them it was another wind-up. One day, exactly that happened.
“They came through and said ‘Ben, I’ve got Nigel Clough on the phone’ and I said ‘you’re kidding me; go on, put him on’, and this time it was him. We spent a lot of money advertising for a manager in the paper, but I met Nigel and we got on really well; he felt that Burton was a good place to start. He’d heard good things about the club and didn’t live too far away, but was coming to the end of his career with Manchester City so needed to tie up some loose ends there. I shook on a deal with him and had to keep it to myself until he’d finished at City.
“One of the first things he did when he arrived was get rid of his big car because he didn’t think it was in keeping with the image of a non-League manager. From day one, we’ve seen extreme loyalty and a fantastic approach to everyday business. We’ve worked together for a long time and I can say that whatever we’ve achieved here is down to Nigel Clough. Fortunately, he chose us as the destination to start his managerial career. When he first came as a player, I said that watching him was worth the entrance fee alone, he still had so much skill and ability.
“Over my years working in business, I can say that it toughens you up. In that process, you get to know a lot of people and it’s about finding out who you can trust and rely on. I think that experience gives you an insight into people. In business and in life, it’s about sussing people out.”
While theirs is a relationship that has worked wonders on the pitch, it’s away from the madness of matchday where the two have also won the hearts of the town. Robinson is President of the Burton YMCA, trustee of a local addiction centre, and chairs a separate charity too. Awarded an MBE in June 2019, it’s helping the community which remains the most rewarding aspect of his role.
“What’s given me as much satisfaction as all of those memorable experiences and successes is our Community Trust, which is all self-funded and delivers 50 projects a year,” he adds.
“They do some marvellous work. Nigel has committed himself to the community and supported the work too. I remember an away game against Crawley, and this family from South Derbyshire who were massive Clough fans. The father in the family was really poorly, and asked if Nigel would pop in and surprise him on the Saturday night – and Nigel said he would. The game ended up being cancelled, but Nigel still went at 9pm that night, and that is Nigel Clough the man.”
Putting people first is at the forefront of what Robinson and Burton Albion do, and his 44-year involvement with the Brewers has yielded many lessons. These days, the club is competing in Sky Bet League One, and harbours ambitions of “having another crack” at the division above, something its Chairman will work tirelessly to achieve.
One thing is for sure, no matter what happens this season or in those to come, Robinson will enjoy the ride.
“Whatever I’ve done with my life, that work ethic is down to my mum and stepfather. She taught me never to be something that you’re not, and that hard work means you can achieve almost anything you set out to do,” he says.
“When I first joined the club, people would say to me ‘this is a big town, the potential is phenomenal and the town would support a Football League club’, so it was always in my mind even back then. I thought ‘let’s see if one day we can achieve that’.
“Football is a great sport, you know, a big family. Whatever happens here, a friend of mine used to say, ‘always take time to stop and smell the roses along the way’.”