Burton Albion: Vying for the second-tier for a second time, in Hasselbaink’s second coming
Formed little over 70 years ago, the story of Burton Albion remains one of the English football’s more interesting, more inspiring and unlikely stories.
Burton Albion’s introduction into the English Football League is even more recent than their 1950 formation, coming back in 2009 after several years of competing at the top of the Conference and having since achieved back-to-back promotion to land them in the Championship come the 2016/17 season, before their first relegation in nearly 40 years beset them in 2018.
Today, Burton Albion compete in League One and under a familiar ally in Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. It’s a second coming for the Dutchman who had guided the Brewers to promotion from League Two in 2015 and set up the side to go one better under Nigel Clough the following season. Hasselbaink left to take over at QPR in December 2015. A 3-0 win away at Gillingham was the final result of his first stint at the club and he left them four points clear at the top of the League One table after 21 games.
Clough’s Burton Albion somewhat limped over the line to promotion that season, and hung on to their Championship status in the 2016/17 desperately, albeit bravely, beating the drop by just the single point before a 23rd-place finish the following year. Since, a 9th-place finished was secured in the 2018/19 League One season before a 12th-place finish in the curtailed 2019/20. Last time round, Jake Buxton was the man in charge and the man to see Burton into their most perilous position in the third-tier. Burton sacked Buxton late in December last year with the club rock-bottom of the League One table and six points adrift, with Hasselbaink coming in for his second stint in charge just days later.
A familiar face returned in a move that was already familiar to the club. Clough enjoyed two stints in charge and enjoyed relative success in both, with the re-appointment of Hasselbaink surely made with a similar fever in mind. For both Burton and Hasselbaink, a reunion has since brought stability in both’s fortunes – Burton obviously coming as close to relegation from League One as they have done since since breaking into the Football League, with Hasselbaink taking the plaudits for that and setting his own managerial career back on track.
QPR perhaps proved a job too big and too soon for the former Chelsea man. He lasted 11 months there, but 10 months later in September 2017 he was back in work with Northampton Town. The aim was of course to replicate his previous heroics at Burton Albion but again for Hasselbaink, it wasn’t meant to be – he was sacked before the end of the season with the Cobblers going on to be relegated into League Two. Burton didn’t hesitate in bringing him back to the club despite his struggles since previously leaving and Hasselbaink showed no hesitation in returning either. For whatever reason, footballing or non-footballing, Hasselbaink and Burton Albion just seems a match which brings out the best in both and that’s shown so far this season.
Despite now being winless in their last four League One fixtures and winless in their last five in all competitions, Burton Albion sit in 7th-place of the League One table. They started the season with three wins in a row, seeing them into an unexpected 1st-place and with only the one goal conceded. Burton are competing in arguably the most fearsome looking League One table we’ve had to date yet still they prevail as early top-six contenders, having certainly carried their form from the second half of last season into the start of this – Hasselbaink oversaw 13 wins in League One upon his return, taking the club from last-place into 16th-place come the end of the season.
The summer just gone was a prosperous one too. They released eight players and would go on to sign 10 free agents – all of them under 30, with the bulk of them having played at League One level or higher previously in their careers. Conor Shaughnessy has slotted into the heart of defence nicely having played every minute of the season so far, with Cameron Borthwick-Jackson also cementing his place in the side. It was in the loan market though where Burton had the most success – their signing of Harry Chapman on loan from Blackburn Rovers looks a really keen move and their capture of Daniel Jebbison on loan from Sheffield United is equally as impressive, with a number of sides having looked into a deal for the young striker who made his debut in the 1-1 draw v Gillingham yesterday, coming close to sealing a late winner as well.
The Pirelli Stadium has seen highs and lows since its construction in 2005. In the last 10 or so months alone the club has sat at both the foot and the top of the League One table. But the optimism is and always seems to be rife among Burton Albion fans, and for good reason – the footballing philosophy at the club under Hasselbaink and the way things have been conducted off the pitch throughout the pandemic are both things to be admired, and so too is the general competition that a club of Burton’s age and stature provides in a League One roster including names like Sunderland, Sheffield Wednesday, Portsmouth and so on.
Burton achieved the unthinkable when they earned promotion to the Championship back in 2016. Now though, under the second reign of Hasselbaink the club are vying for a second, but this time less unlikely and much more sustainable promotion into the second-tier of English football.