The town of Burton upon Trent has a long sporting history. One of the world’s oldest rugby union clubs, Burton RFC, was established in October 1870. Cricket was played professionally in the town at Burton Cricket Ground from 1840, and league association football arrived in the town in 1892, when Burton Swifts joined the Football League.
Early Football Clubs
Burton Swifts were one of the first football clubs to be established in the town in 1871. They played their home games at Peel Croft, sharing the ground with the rugby club. They joined The Combination, an early precursor to the Football League, in 1890. They then moved to The Football Alliance, a rival league to the Football League in 1891. The Alliance merged with the Football League the following year, and Swifts were placed into the Second Division. They reached the FA Cup First Round Proper three times, losing out to Preston North End, Blackpool and the fledgling Liverpool F.C. In 1901, they merged with Burton Wanderers to form Burton United F.C.
Burton Wanderers were founded in the same year as Swifts, 1871. Their home ground was the Derby Turn, which was a short-lived football and athletics stadium located just off Derby Road. The Derby Turn ground was bought by the Midland Railway in 1901 and it disappeared when they expanded the Dixie railway sidings. Nothing remains of the old ground, although the name lived on in a now-demolished pub, and the area nearby is still referred to as the Derby Turn to this day.
Wanderers played in the Midland League, a former feeder league to the Football League. They became the first club in Burton to win a league title, claiming the Midland League in 1894, in spite of a points deduction for fielding an ineligible player. They were then elected to the Football League Division Two that year, where they spent three seasons before finishing second last and failing to gain re-election. They spent the remainder of their days back in the Midland League before merging with Burton Swifts to form Burton United in 1901.
Burton All Saints (later Burton Town) joined the Birmingham & District League in 1921, though I don’t know if they were formed in the same year. In 1924, they renamed themselves Burton Town and continued to play in the Birmingham & District League, winning the title in 1928. In the 1931-32 season, they reached the Third Round of the FA Cup, where Blackburn Rovers ended their dreams of Wembley glory with a 0-4 defeat. They joined the Midland League for the 1935-36 season, where they remained until World War Two broke out, when they re-joined the Birmingham & District League, replacing their reserve team with the first team. It was their final season, as they were never re-formed after the war.
Burton United were borne out of the merger of Swifts and Wanderers in 1901, and took Swifts’ place in the Football League Division Two, as well as their ground at Peel Croft. They failed to set the heather alight in the League, never finishing higher than 10th out of 18 clubs. In 1906-07, they reached the First Round of the FA Cup, losing to New Brompton after a second replay following two 0-0 draws (no extra time or penalties in those days). That same season, they finished stone last in the League, and were not re-elected. After three seasons in the Birmingham & District League, finishing last in the third season, they threw in the towel and merged with Burton All Saints in 1910.
After a decade with no major football club in the town, Burton Albion were formed in 1950. They initially played at the Lloyd’s Foundry ground on Wellington Street in the town. The site of that ground is now occupied by the recently-built premises of Ischebek Titan. In 1958, with crowds being too large for the Lloyd’s Foundry ground to cope, a new football park was built at Eton Park, just off Derby Road and close to the former Horninglow railway station.
The club began life in the Birmingham & District League, finishing second in 1954. In 1956, they reached the FA Cup Third Round, the furthest they would get in the competition until 2011. Charlton Athletic were the villains of the piece, crushing the Brewers 7-0 at The Valley. After two decades bouncing between the Southern League’s top two divisions, Albion were moved to the Northern Premier League in 1979. A young manager called Neil Warnock (who went on to manage a number of Football League clubs) led the club from 1981-86, taking the team to the FA Cup Third Round, where they lost out to Leicester City in a game ordered to be replayed after crowd trouble. In 1987, they headed back down south to the Southern Premier. Around the start of the millennium, Burton twice finished as runner-up in the Southern Premier, being denied a place in the Football Conference by Boston (2000) and Margate (2001). A switch to the Northern Premier bore fruit, as Albion cantered to the league title in 2002 and gained promotion to the Conference.
After initially struggling in the fifth tier of football in England, Albion found their feet in the late 2000s, losing in the play-off semi-final in 2008, and then winning the Conference in 2009, having led the table for most of the season. A late season wobble meant that it went down to the final day of the season, but Albion’s victory took them into the Football League, the first time in over 90 years that the town had hosted League football.
Albion’s first three seasons in the Football League saw them survive at that level. In 2013, they reached the promotion play-offs, only to lose to Bradford City. The following year, they went one better, reaching the play-off final, which they lost to Fleetwood Town. In 2014, former Leeds United and Chelsea striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was appointed as the manager, and led the club to the 2014-15 League Two title. Unbelievably, the Brewers were promoted again the following season, this time with Nigel Clough back as manager, after Hasselbaink’s departure to Queen’s Park Rangers.
Burton Albion survived their first season in the Championship, playing against the likes of Newcastle United, Leeds United, a local derby with Derby County, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest. They actually finished above former Premiership champions Blackburn Rovers and twice European Cup winners Nottingham Forest. In their second season in England’s second tier, they were relegated in the final few minutes of the final day of the season. The following season, 2018-19, saw the Brewers reach their first national cup semi final, as they dispatched Aston Villa, Burnley, Nottingham Forest and Middlesbrough en route to facing Manchester City in the two-legged EFL Cup semi final. The first leg in Manchester finished with a 0-9 reverse, and the Brewers were unable to make up the deficit in the return leg at the Pirelli Stadium, losing 0-1. They have since been mid-table in League One, but look likely to be relegated in 2020-21, in spite of the return of Hasselbaink as manager.
Eton Park was a typical small non-League ground, with three stands of terracing and one main seated stand. There was a club shop and food outlets. I personally never visited the ground before it closed, although I did plan to, but I never got around to it. It closed in 2005 when the new stadium was constructed, and was demolished in 2006. Housing and a Co-op supermarket occupy the site now, with one of the streets being named Clough Drive after the former player and manager Nigel Clough, who served the club over two spells from 1998 – 2009 and again from 2015 – 2020.
When Burton Albion decided to move from Eton Park to a brand new ground, many sites were considered around the town. In the end, they moved across the road from Eton Park to the site of the former sports and social club belonging to the tyre manufacturers Pirelli, who have a factory in the town. Pirelli agreed to sell the land to Burton Albion in exchange for the naming rights to the new stadium.
The ground was built from 2003 – 05. It consists of three terraced stands, with the most vocal home support being located in the West Stand behind the goal, and the away support housed in the East Stand, with seating available for away fans in part of the Main Stand. The Main Stand, as the name suggests, is the largest of the stands and the only seated area in the ground. It also houses the changing rooms, offices, executive boxes and conference suites.
My first visit to the ground for a match was in October 2011, a thrilling 3-2 win over AFC Wimbledon in the Football League Two. I’ve been to a few matches since then, although not many of them lived long in the memory. The pick of the bunch was probably a 1-1 draw with Carlisle United in 2015.
Peel Croft has had a chequered sporting history. It was occupied by Burton RFC from 1888 until 1890, when they were thrown out after a disagreement with the owner. Burton Swifts, as mentioned before, took over as tenants in 1890, and after a merger with Burton Wanderers to form Burton United, the new club played there until they merged with Burton All Saints to form Burton Town in 1910.
After a nomadic existence at various venues in the town, Burton RFC presumably patched things up with the owner, and returned to the ground in 1910, remaining there until they moved to their new ground at Tatenhill in 2020. Peel Croft is a rather ramshackle old ground, with one grandstand and terracing surrounding the rest of the ground. At the time of writing, there are plans for a new Lidl supermarket to be built on the site. A fire was started in the derelict grandstand in October 2020, which will only hasten the demise of this historic sports ground. Demolition looks imminent at the time of writing (February 2021), with a wooden paling erected at the Lichfield Street end of the ground.
St. George’s Park National Football Centre
After almost ten years of delays and the cancellation and resurrection of the project, the FA’s National Football Centre, St. George’s Park, was opened in October 2012 by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The site is where the England men’s and women’s football teams train, from the lowest age level to the senior teams. Other clubs from all over the world have used the facilities for their pre-season training, including FC Barcelona, Galatasaray and Steaua Bucharest. Burton Albion also use the facilities to train. The big teams’ players usually stay on site, which is a pity. I would have liked to have seen Lionel Messi queuing up at Birds’ bakery for some delicious pastries.
The site is located several miles west of Burton on Trent, in Needwood, on the site of the former stately home Byrkley Lodge, which was latterly owned by the Bass brewing family and demolished in 1952. It consists of 12 pitches and modern gym facilities, as well as video analysis, physiotherapy and all the other facilities that football teams need these days. It is not open to the general public.