Burton Albion manager Gary Rowett on his plans for the new season
- Credit: Archant
As the new football season gets underway Nigel Powlson talks to Gary Rowett, manager of Burton Albion and former Derby County player
Any football manager would be proud to lead the side he has built out at Wembley but after a second consecutive promotion chase with Burton Albion, Gary Rowett’s big day in the spotlight ended in disappointment.
He’s now hoping to use the experience of losing in the League 2 play-off final to galvanise his players for another promotion push in what will be his third full season in the manager’s chair at the Pirelli Stadium.
There’s every reason to believe that the Brewers are capable of going one better after falling at the play-off semi-final and final stage over the last two years.
Gary’s added to the core of the squad that came so close last season and has learnt from the experiences of his two full years in charge at Albion. He says: ‘We would have loved to have got promotion last season but we always, as a club, have to think of what we have achieved. We took a gigantic step getting into the play-offs two seasons ago and perhaps surprised a few people on the outside. The challenge then was could we go one better and in some ways we did, getting to Wembley, which provided everyone with a memorable day and one which the players and staff will learn from.
‘We were disappointed but when you get to Wembley there’s an element of luck and good fortune about going the next step and Fleetwood got that on the day.
‘I was proud to walk out at Wembley, mainly because of the players I was leading. We work with them day-in and day-out and know what they are about. It was a difficult season in many ways, a sporadic season where we did quite well, then slipped back. One or two signings didn’t work out so to end it leading a team out at Wembley was a proud moment. It’s just that we have a winning mentality at the club so that pride was tempered by not getting the result on the day. Some people say that they would rather lose in the semi-final than at Wembley – but I wouldn’t agree with that. It’s not the nicest place in the world to lose – but that’s life.’
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Albion bowed out 1-0 to Fleetwood thanks to a late winner just two days after Derby County suffered heartache at Wembley, missing out on promotion by suffering a similar fate against QPR.
Gary says: ‘It was a fantastic weekend for the whole area with Derby getting there as well. It’s not something that’s likely to happen again in most of our lives. So it will be remembered but, like Derby, we aren’t happy with second best. I said to our players that they have to take that hurt and disappointment and use it this season to do even better.’
There were some fans at other clubs and people within the game who expressed surprise that a relatively small club like Burton Albion, who were in the second tier of non-league only 12 years ago, could mount a sustained challenge for two seasons but Gary isn’t bothered by that.
‘The people who were surprised perhaps under-rated the players we have at the club and what we have done. We are convinced that our methods are good enough to be successful in whatever league, with whatever team we have got.
‘We know last year we had to go down a different, perhaps not as attractive, route as we lost Jacques Maghoma and Calvin Zola (two flair players who were regularly on the scoresheet for Albion). When people came away eulogising about the play it was probably due to a bit of brilliance from one of those two rather than the team as a whole. People get blinded by a couple of great moments in a game and don’t notice the team didn’t play that well and there wasn’t a huge margin between the sides.
‘Last season we had to be stronger and have more of a defensive base and we were quietly confident that we would be just as good but in a different way.’
Albion did, however, score fewer goals than any of their promotion rivals, so this season Gary has looked to address the balance between attacking flair and defensive resilience.
He says: ‘We are asking whether, with the addition of one or two quality players, we can combine the two and be a little more complete as a team. That’s the challenge for us. But if you speak to any top manager, regardless of the culture of the club, they will say that defensive solidity is what a good team is based on even though we want to be better going forward. We have worked on that over the summer and in recruitment and I think we will get that balance.’
Gary has improved the team dramatically from the one he inherited from Paul Peschisolido in 2012. Gary, whose final club as player was Burton Albion, was appointed assistant manager to the popular former Sheffield United and Derby striker when the Brewers entered the Football League in 2009 and said goodbye to Nigel Clough.
When the Brewers went on a disastrous run at the start of 2012 that saw the team flirt with relegation back to non-league football, Gary was given the task of rebuilding and quickly proved his own man. In his first couple of months he managed to keep the Brewers above the drop zone and since then has only looked up.
He has won more than 40 per cent of his games in charge at the Brewers, a record that stands the test against any manager, and has assembled a tight knit backroom staff and a set of players who buy into his ethos and way of thinking and who work tirelessly on and off the pitch.
Not every signing has worked. Rene Howe, a striker with a goal scoring pedigree, was among those that came and went quickly but, more times than not, Gary’s transfer dealings have paid off.
He says: ‘On the whole our percentage rate of bringing players in who have had an impact on the team has been very, very good. We have had some excellent players we have got in permanently and on loan, all on a very similar budget to when I took over. We haven’t done it by spending more but by working a little harder in attracting them.
‘Last close season in trying to get in better players perhaps I took my eye off the ball a little in terms of the character we required, maybe thinking our methods would do it anyway. This year we have been far more stringent in terms of the requirements. We want more athleticism. So if talented players have come up who aren’t as athletic as we would like, we have let them go.
‘Also, if we know the players don’t have the right character, than we haven’t followed it up. We have become tougher with our requirements and when your team is a good team you have to be more demanding as you can’t afford to get it wrong.
‘We can’t pay the most in the division. We aren’t the biggest club, we don’t have the biggest fanbase, so we have to be different to other teams – that’s our method, that we train at St George’s Park and that we can be a better unit. Therefore every player has to fit into what we want.’
Gary doesn’t expect that it will get any easier this season, with many pundits predicting that League 2 will be even more competitive.
He says: ‘There are a few teams who have chucked a bit of money at it and signed good players at this level and Luton coming up have the power perhaps to drive on. The division also changes based on footballing trends. The first season I managed, a lot of teams played four-four-two with a target man and were direct. Last year there was more four-three-three and teams tried to pass a bit more, perhaps on the back of watching clubs like Barcelona. This year I can see teams playing with a back three. So it’s hard to predict. I also think that teams will give us more respect than three years ago and we will have to work harder to win games as a result.
‘We won’t put the pressure on ourselves by saying we are going to do this and that, we just want to be as good a team as we can be and we will see from there. The chairman doesn’t put any pressure on us either. Of course we want to be in the top three but if the team’s flourishing and the fans are happy, that’s half the job.’
The fans and the whole town of Burton got behind Gary’s team in the play-offs and the thrilling victory against Southend that set up the Wembley final and there are hopes that that will spill over into this campaign.
Gary says: ‘The fans can make a difference. We are realistic and know we can’t suddenly expect 5,000 turning up at home games. We are grateful for the fans we have. We are a small town. We want to keep attracting new fans and making them excited about what we do. The fans have always been supportive of me and the team. I can’t ever remember us being jeered off. We are very lucky. Yes I’m greedy and want more fans and atmosphere but I’m grateful for the efforts the fans we have make.
‘I hope they are excited about the season ahead and believe we can achieve something again.’
Gary Rowett’s playing career saw him turn out for Cambridge, Everton, Birmingham, Leicester and Charlton before a knee injury forced his premature retirement from the professional game. But he chalked up the most appearances for Derby County – between 1995 and 1998.
Gary still lives in the Derby area and keeps a close eye on Rams results. He says: ‘They were unlucky at Wembley. My 16-year-old boy went and he said the atmosphere was incredible but when that goal went in he turned around and saw grown men crying, which was a new experience for him.
‘I have a huge affinity with Derby as a club. It was one of the best times of my career and I went back there and coached the under 14s and under 18s full-time. I live in and around the area and talk to people there and desperately hope they can kick on from what was a magnificent end to the season. From Christmas, Derby were the best team in the Championship and were unlucky that they didn’t go up.
‘As with us, they found that small margins can be costly and little errors creep in with tired legs and that ends up defining the season, which is such a shame.’
Gary knows just how much Premiership football means to the fans, having played in the top flight as part of Jim Smith’s much-respected Rams side of that era. He says: ‘When I first joined Derby I had come from a fantastic club in Everton and had seen what passion there was, working class fans predominantly who deeply cared for the club. I came to Derby not expecting that in some ways as I didn’t know the club that well. But the year we were promoted out of the Championship, when Jim Smith took over, we went on a 20-game unbeaten run and you went down town, to the shops and you could literally feel the excitement, atmosphere and buzz around the football club. For three years the people fed off what was a very good time for Derby County.
‘If they can get on a run again and get back in the Premiership then the added bonus for the fans and the city is huge. It’s a fantastic club with a fantastic fanbase.’
As Burton Albion boss, Gary has a good working relationship with the Rams. He says: ‘We have always known the staff there and the chairman has good links. That’s huge for us to have a link with a bigger club and offer a chance perhaps for their younger players to come on loan.
‘But when Derby are doing well it has a slightly adverse effect on us as there is a crossover of fans who go and see Derby. We are aware of that. But all we can do is keep playing as well as we can and keep fostering that relationship with Derby as they are a terrific club.’