Jake Buxton on his Derby County career and taking over at Burton Albion
- Credit: Richard Holmes
Derby County favourite Jake Buxton on his Rams career and a move into management
If there had been any justice, Jake Buxton’s big day at Wembley would have ended in his Derby County side winning promotion to the Premier League.
Instead, this proud moment on 24th May 2014 ended in defeat, despite the Rams having 68% of the play, all the best chances and clearly being the best team. In football terms they were robbed – going down to the only goal against a 10-man QPR side with Bobby Zamora scoring in the 90th minute with their only shot on target in the whole game.
It was the closest the Rams have come in 12 long years of waiting for a return to the Premier League.
For Jake, it was a lost chance to play in the Premier League, the ambition of every professional footballer in the country.
‘Even if it had been for one second – just to say I had played in the Premier League would have been enough,’ says Jake.
‘I think some of the lads who play there week-in, week-out don’t know what non-league players would give for an opportunity to say they had played in the Premier League and I’m one of them. I would have loved to have played there.
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‘I have played in non-league, Leagues One and Two, the Championship and I would have been one of not many players who have graced that pyramid of football leagues.
‘Going into the play-offs we had been on a great run. We were in great form, had beaten Brighton home and away in the play-off semis, and although we were a bit edgy at the start at Wembley, we grew into it and dominated the game, only to concede a crazy goal right at the end.’
Jake still regards it as one of his most memorable games in a Rams shirt despite the cruel end.
‘It was still a proud moment to play at Wembley and for my family to come and watch. Not being an international player, I got the opportunity to sing the National Anthem at Wembley in front of my dad and that was an amazing feeling. It was a great day spoilt by those couple of minutes at the end.’
Derby County have been knocking on the door of the Premier League consistently but haven’t found a way back since relegation 12 years ago.
‘The closest point was when Nigel Clough had built a squad over a three or four-year period and we had great team spirit and togetherness and were knocking the ball about brilliantly,’ Jake adds. ‘Steve McClaren came in and took us as close as any Derby team has come in over ten years.
‘We were all similar sorts of players, similarly paid, and very much a unit and that’s what Nigel had achieved, and Steve got a chance to build on that.’
Jake got the opportunity to play for the Rams in 2009 after following manager Nigel Clough from Burton Albion to Pride Park; the latter having capped ten years at the Brewers by guiding them to the brink of promotion to the Football League when he was offered the Derby job.
And Jake had just enjoyed an outstanding campaign, being named Player of the Season in the process, but admits it was still a surprise that he was the one player from that group considered good enough to make the three steps up to Championship football.
‘It was a massive surprise when the call came,’ he recalls.
‘I had interest from other clubs stepping up to League One but I was at home with my wife and Nigel rang and said I would be sixth choice centre back as he already had five in place but that I would get an opportunity. From the moment I put the phone down it fuelled the fire in me to embrace the challenge and prove people wrong again as I have done all my career.’
It’s fair to say Jake had to win over some of the more sceptical Rams supporters upon signing.
‘I left on unbelievable terms with the supporters, but it wasn’t always that way. Times weren’t always great at the start and I got a bit of stick. They wanted a marquee signing and Jake Buxton comes in from little Burton Albion!’ adds Jake with a smile.
That changed in the 2011/12 season when he grabbed the glory against the old enemy.
‘Shaun Barker got injured and I had been a bit part player for 14 months and came on and scored against Nottingham Forest. Shaun was on gas and air and obviously struggling with his knee so I felt for him that day, but I also remember the kit man saying ‘you will be a legend now’. I didn’t think anything of it, but we played Doncaster on the Saturday after Forest on the Tuesday and I stepped on the pitch to warm up as always and the stadium erupted with 2,500 fans singing my name. It was a great journey from that point and the relationship I built with the supporters. It took a lot of hard work to get to that moment, but I just grafted as hard as I could to make sure I was proud of my performances and people were proud of me.’
Jake Buxton’s position as a Rams favourite is secure and he is always assured a warm reception.
‘I scored a last-minute goal away at Leeds which also helped and had a spell of scoring five in seven games which also helps as a centre back! It all increased my status with supporters and that relationship started to grow; I appreciated them and that bond.’
Jake left Derby in 2016 after seven years, moving to play for Wigan before returning to Burton Albion a year later; taking another giant stride this summer after replacing Nigel Clough as manager of the Brewers.
He hasn’t hung up his boots just yet and will, like Clough when he joined the Brewers in 1998, begin as player/manager.
Management is something he has been building towards throughout his football career. Jake has always been the leader of the group, a captain at all levels, and has had a key role under Clough at the Pirelli Stadium mentoring the younger players.
‘I started as a young lad at 18 in Mansfield Town’s first team but also taking the Level 2 qualification and coaching at Mansfield Town Centre of Excellence. From a young age I knew the natural step for me after playing would be to stay in football.
‘I have always had that interest in being a manager, so I did my B and A licences while coaching in Derby County’s Academy. I’ve also worked closely with Dan Robinson and his staff at our Academy with the under 18s when gaining the A licence.
‘I had also been given the chance to take defensive duties during training, which will stand me in good stead.’
Jake had an opportunity to take on a player/coach role at Derby under Gary Rowett, whilst he was playing for Wigan, and last season had a chance to work with Darren Wassall with the Under 18s for the Rams, but each time chose instead to carry on with his playing career.
‘They were brilliant offers, but I had loyalty to Nigel Clough for what he has done for my career and to Burton too and although I thought about retiring from playing, the manager convinced me to carry on; as he said to me, you’re a long-time retired.
‘Now, I can be on the grass each day with the players as well as having been in that dressing room for the past three seasons.
‘In terms of me playing, I don’t hide away from the fact that I am slowing up and I will not play every week but there might still be a time where I might be needed to help the team.
‘I have given everything I have for the previous manager when I played and, hopefully, I can continue to do so if required. But I also know that when I can’t play, I will still have to rely on a captain and senior players on the pitch.
‘I know it will be a massive challenge but one I’m really looking forward to.’
Buxton has paid tribute to departing Brewers manager Nigel Clough and the impact he has had on his career and life.
‘I’ve played for Nigel for the best part of half of my professional career,’ he says.
‘I wasn’t around in the early days at Eton Park but Nigel staying more than ten years and achieving what he did on and off the pitch set the foundations for what the club has become.
‘I was a piece of the jigsaw at the end of that first period and the team I joined was better than the one I was playing with in League Two and I dropped down a level as I knew the gaffer had a team that would be easily competitive in the Football League never mind the Conference and that year we went on to win the league.
‘I didn’t get off to the best of starts and received from him the shortest and best rollicking I have ever had at Kettering away in the FA Cup. I can recall the entire episode and often do. It, along with lots of others, has stood me in good stead.
‘After meeting the gaffer as a young player I knew from day one he was a manager I wanted to play for. He had an aura about him and the way he carried himself around the club; I knew I had a proper manager.’
Jake will want to make his own mark in management but knows he has learnt a lot from Nigel Clough that he can take forward.
‘I can see the influence he had around the building, not just on the training pitch. How he carries himself has had a massive impact on myself as he has always been respectful of everybody. His influence is always with me.’
It’s never easy taking on your first job in football management, but Jake knows he also has the extra challenge of facing the uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
The long-term impact is expected to be huge, with clubs having to make big adjustments after a massive financial hit.
‘It’s changed everything for virtually everyone in the world.Jobs will be lost and that will be reflected in all aspects of life. Sport won’t be immune and we won’t go back to the finances pre-crisis,’ Jake concedes.
‘It will hit the supporters hard and with jobs lost it won’t be easy for fans to still afford to watch football so it’s even more important that we give absolutely everything for them. That way it can hopefully become once again a wonderful release from everyday life or problems on a Saturday afternoon.’