Nigel Clough sounds frustrated.
Partly, because he’s speaking to the Totally Football League Show the morning after his Burton Albion side threw away the lead twice against Oxford United, having to settle for a 2-2 draw after a 91st minute equaliser.
But he also sounds pretty frustrated with the business of being Burton Albion manager: or, perhaps more accurately, being the manager of a club the size of Burton Albion.
After relegation from the Championship in 2018, the Brewers finished just outside the League One playoff places last season but this term have found it a little more challenging. They’re staunchly mid-table, with a slim chance of reaching the top six but not much more, having lost top-scorer Liam Boyce to Hearts in the January transfer window.
But such is life at a club with an average attendance of a little under 3,000. Clough’s sentimental attachment to Burton is obviously strong, the place where he started his managerial career and has been for just over 14 years over two spells. But it doesn’t take a huge amount of reading between the lines to think he might fancy a new gig.
“No, not actively seeking [a new job], but if one comes up, and the chairman [Ben Robinson] said all along he wouldn’t stand in our way,” Clough told the Totally Football League Show this week. “He’s been brilliant over the years like that. But it’s got to be a reasonable job to tempt us away from here, because we work with one of the best chairmen in the country and we’re allowed to get on and do our jobs and manage.
“I think Sunderland made an inquiry when that vacancy came up a few months ago, but that didn’t go anywhere in the end and they got Phil Parkinson in. So it would take, I think, a situation like that.
“I think it would take other clubs maybe to recognise the situation in which we work here, which is tough, with the financial restrictions. But we keep trying to put good teams on the pitch that play football – it doesn’t always work, I have to say what, but we try and play good football.”
That frustration also comes through when he discusses the Oxford game: not necessarily that they didn’t hold onto the victory, but that it was a familiar story, with familiar failings, and always with the sense that there’s only so much you can do with the players available to him at a club the size of Burton.
“[It was] devastating, because of the manner in which it happened. Whenever you concede late on, it feels like a defeat. It certainly did last night, and we’ve done it too many times this season. It’s the reason why we’re halfway down the league and not challenging for the top six at the moment. When you get to mid-February, we should have eradicated those sorts of mistakes that were made last night.
“There is naivety at times, inexperience with a couple of young players. It’s so strange and frustrating because on Saturday in the game against Gillingham, with 10 men for the last half an hour, we defended brilliantly under a lot of pressure, and then we weren’t under that much last night. It’s possibly a concentration issue and different factors come into play, but there was no excuse for conceding that goal last night.”
I think Sunderland made an inquiry when that vacancy came up a few months ago, but that didn't go anywhere in the end and they got Phil Parkinson in. So it would take, I think, a situation like that.
Clough also spoke about losing Boyce, the sort of situation that adds another layer of exasperation.
“We pretty much knew it would happen if somebody came in with a reasonable offer when he’s got four or five months left on his contract, then as a club and the financial position that we’re in, then he was going to go.
“But it’s frustrating. It’s one of those of being a small club like Burton Albion in League One. You know, our crowd last night was less than 3,000, and I think the majority of Conference clubs get bigger crowds than us [actually only the top six or seven do, but the point stands].
“It’s not a criticism – that’s just the size of the club that we are. So it’s a practical problem – we don’t have outside investment, so we live within our means and the club’s been very successful doing that for 25 years while the chairman’s been here.
“I think if you ask every manager at any level, they’d like another player or two “let’s spend a little bit of money.” And the supporters would like that too. But the realism of the situation is that we can’t do that.
“I think in our squad now we’ve only got one player that’s cost money for the club and Lucas Akins, who cost about £20,000 eight years ago. So we have to work very hard with our academy, we have to work very hard with our recruitment, especially in the loan market to be competitive at this level.”
This might be painting quite a grim picture of life at Burton, but it’s not all gloom. One positive has certainly been Jamie Murphy, who arrived on loan from Rangers in the transfer window, trying to resurrect his career after a knee ligament injury ruled him out for nearly 18 months. Having already played under Clough at Sheffield United, Burton was a natural place for him to get some games, and he’s made quite an impact.
“He’s been brilliant,” said Clough. “When we heard that we might have a small chance of bringing him in, we just did everything we could to get him down here. I think he’s got three in five now or something.
“He’s a game-changing player. We’re extremely lucky to have him in our squad in League One because he’s at least a Championship player and he’s proved that. But coming back from injury, he just wanted to come somewhere that he knew that he knew, he knew the people and he was guaranteed to play. He’s back enjoying his football again and scoring goals. That’s brilliant, and will set him up for next season wherever he goes.
“We would love to [keep him next season], but he’s got a year left at Rangers. In this sort of form I’m sure they’ll be keeping an eye on him and think he can do a job for them. If not, I would think a Championship club [will come in for him] at the very least.”
You can’t really blame Clough if he is looking elsewhere. But even if he does leave, he has an eye on the future of Burton.
“We try and leave the best possible squad in place, whoever’s in charge – get players under contract, get the young players tied down. I think that’s what you’ve got to do. As much as being a manager is such a short-term thing now, you’ve still got to make the right decisions for the club, whether you think you’re going to be there or not.
“That’s sometimes a difficult thing to do because it is so short-term. You could say “I’m not interested in the academy, I’m not interested in younger players because I won’t be there to see them come through,” but you still have responsibilities as a manager to to keep an eye on that and to do everything you can to produce.”
The full version of this interview is on the Totally Football League Show, which you can listen to here, or even better you can subscribe here. If you wish to reproduce any of the material in this article or from the podcast you are very welcome to, but please credit The Totally Football Show and include this link.