By the time I took over at Burton (above), I’d had six or seven years of coaching experience. I felt like I saw the game with a strong mentality, but I knew that the only way you can really see if your ideas work, if the environment you want to build is the right one, is if you’re the manager. The number one.
There were times early on, though, when I definitely remember thinking to myself: “I don’t think this is going to work very well.”
A month after taking over from Paul, we lost 7-1 at Bristol Rovers. It was an unbelievable game. I think, for their sixth goal, my centre-half and goalkeeper banged heads with each other, fell on the floor and left their centre-forward free to run through the middle and score in an empty net. It was like Billy Smart’s Circus.
The following season, my first in permanent charge, we had another 7-1 beating, this time at Port Vale.
Yeah, we had some testing moments.
That same season, we reached the League Two playoffs. We lost in the semi finals, to Bradford, and at the start of the next year I remember speaking to the chairman, Ben Robinson.
Ben had been chairman of the club between 1976 and 1986, before leaving and returning in the 1990s. It had always been his ambition to lead Burton to Wembley, he told me. The first season after he left, Burton reached the FA Trophy final.
He told me how disappointed he had been that we’d missed out on the playoff final the year before.
“It’s human nature to always be thinking about what the next challenge might be – that’s why I took the Birmingham job”
By the end of that season, we’d done it. We beat Southend in the semi finals, and would face Fleetwood in the final.
It feels strange, looking back. Having missed out the season before, the relief we felt at reaching the final felt like a kind of success in itself. Our ambition had been to get to Wembley. Really, that ambition should have been to win promotion.
Maybe that took the edge off at Wembley. But we had a few things against us that day, too. Our star striker, Billy Kee, was playing with a knee injury but didn’t say anything because he wanted to play so much. His wife had given birth the night before, and he’d only had about two hours’ sleep. Two or three others were playing with knocks too – that’s the kind of desire you get at that level.
As soon as the Fleetwood goal went in, I started the process of thinking about what I would do if we lost the game. I hoped that wasn’t going to be the case, of course, but it was. Rather than be disappointed, I knew that how I reacted then was going to be integral to how we started the next season.
I got the players together.
“Listen, it’s a final. There was nothing in it. We made one mistake, we lost the game, but we can’t see this as a massive failure. What we must do is learn from it. I’m staying out here, and I’m going to watch them pick up the trophy (below). I’m going to feel that little bit of pain, but I’m going to remember that and use it next season.”