Can Burton mix it with the big boys?

Today marks Albion's debut in the Football League, and their manager Paul Peschisolido's first game in charge of a club. Paul Newman meets an ambitious man on a mission

No wonder Paul Peschisolido jumped at Ben Robinson's invitation to take charge of Burton Albion.

In 24 years as chairman Robinson has never sacked a manager he has recruited and has launched some significant careers. His last two appointments were Neil Warnock, who stayed for five years and has gone on to manage eight League clubs, and Nigel Clough, who was in charge for 10 years before leaving last season to follow in his father Brian's footsteps at Derby County.

Now Peschisolido, who took over three months ago after Burton won the Conference, has the honour of leading the club into their first match in the Football League, away to Shrewsbury this afternoon. Warnock, who was Peschisolido's manager at Sheffield United, was one of several people the 37-year-old Canadian consulted about his first job as a manager after an 18-year playing career as a nimble and skilful striker. His assistant is the former Birmingham City and Derby defender Gary Rowett, who also played for Burton.

"Neil said to me that if I got the job here it would be like swimming the Channel," Peschisolido said. "But it's a great set-up. As a new manager starting out you couldn't wish to work for a better chairman. Look what he did for Nigel Clough. I'm thankful I've been given the opportunity, because I don't have a lot of managerial experience. I'd like to repay him with some success."

Peschisolido worked briefly last season as assistant to Jeff Kenna at the Irish club St Patrick's Athletic, having hung up his boots after scoring 118 goals in 447 appearances for nine English teams. The son of Italian immigrants ("My first name is actually Paolo, but nobody here ever calls me that"), he first made his name at Toronto Blizzard, where he was noticed by Roberto Bettega, the former Italy striker, who played for the Canadian side for two years. Bettega returned to Italy to work for Juventus and offered Peschisolido the chance to play there.

"It was a great opportunity and I did well, but I got homesick and came back," Peschisolido said. "My dad, who supported Juventus, didn't talk to me for a few months after that. Fortunately I then got the offer to join Birmingham. It was quite a culture shock, but I loved it. I got in the team relatively quickly and soon fell in love with the English game."

Peschisolido also fell in love with his boss, Karren Brady, Birmingham's managing director, and they married 14 years ago. He went on to play for Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion, Fulham, Queen's Park Rangers, Sheffield United, Norwich, Derby and Luton.

Among the highlights were reaching two semi-finals and the play-offs with Sheffield United in 2003 and an equalising wonder goal for Fulham at Liverpool in the League Cup in 1998. "Someone took a throw-in," he remembered. "I was about 30 yards out. I took the ball, turned and bent it into the far corner. I remember watching it on Sky afterwards and Andy Gray talking about the speed the ball was travelling. That was a special moment."

A popular figure with fans everywhere he played, Peschisolido has quickly settled into life at Burton. Most of last season's part-timers have signed full-time contracts and he has also recruited nine new players, a mixture of seasoned professionals, including Marc Edworthy, the former Crystal Palace and Derby defender, long-established Conference players and youngsters picked up on loan from bigger clubs. Russell Penn, a central midfielder, was signed from Kidderminster Harriers for a reported club record fee of £20,000, while Jacques Maghoma, a 21-year-old, joined on a free transfer from Tottenham Hotspur.

Peschisolido admitted his knowledge of football at this level was limited, but stressed: "I think football is similar at any level. You'll have different qualities in different divisions, but success anywhere is standard. To be successful you need to be organised, to work hard, to have the right mentality."

He has not been afraid to seek advice. "I've been fortunate in that I've had a lot of clubs and I have a lot of contacts in high areas. I've had advice from some top managers and top chairmen. I think it's important you take all the advice you possibly can. I've lost count of the managers I've played under – maybe 19 or 20. I've played for some great managers. I've learnt a lot from the good ones – and from some bad ones."

Who are the managers he particularly enjoyed working under? "Neil Warnock stands out for me in terms of his man-for-man management, which is superb. Then there's Billy Davies' fantastic attention to detail, George Burley's coaching, Kevin Keegan's man management and enthusiasm, Jean Tigana's technical excellence, Barry Fry's bright character. I hope I can take the best from all of them."

Peschisolido's main goal will be to preserve the League status it took Albion 59 years to win, although there is a long a tradition of football in the Staffordshire town. Burton Swifts were founder members of the Football League's Second Division in 1892 and Burton Wanderers joined them three years later. The two clubs amalgamated as Burton United in 1901 but dropped out of the League in 1907 and folded in 1940.

Albion, who were formed in 1950, were for many years one of the country's best-supported non-League clubs. Nicknamed the Brewers (Burton upon Trent has long been the country's brewing capital thanks to the quality of its water), they made their big breakthrough when they sold their former home, Eton Park, and built the new Pirelli Stadium, which they moved into four years ago. It was designed to League standards, has a capacity of nearly 7,000 and boasts impressive conference and banqueting facilities that bring in valuable income.

Although ambitious and progressive, the club maintains a homely feel. The captain is 33-year-old Darren Stride, who was born in Burton and has made a club record 646 appearances since joining 16 years ago. A part-time builder, he helped to construct the new stadium.

Robinson, whose daughter Fleur is the club secretary, is another who was brought up in the town. He joined the board in 1974, is in his second stint as chairman and is proud of the club's sound financial footing. While making the playing squad full-time is a major financial commitment, budgets have been based on last season's attendances (which should improve significantly in League Two) and the players have contracts under which their pay will be cut if the club is relegated.

"We have a £7.4m stadium and no debts," Robinson said. "We have a venue here that can cater for 300 people and enables us to stage all manner of commercial activities. We have that revenue stream that a lot of other clubs obviously haven't got, so we have every reason to feel we'll be successful in the League."

Robinson, nevertheless, will take nothing for granted, given Burton's extraordinary campaign last season. Under Clough the club set a Conference record of 12 successive victories, went 15 points clear at the top of the table and looked such promotion certainties that one bookmaker paid out on them with two months of the season remaining.

Clough left for Derby, however, and after Roy McFarland was appointed caretaker manager in January their winning touch deserted the team. Losing eight of their last 13 matches, Albion very nearly blew everything on the final day. Needing just a point to make sure of the automatic promotion spot, they lost 2-1 at Torquay and needed the help of Altrincham, who denied Cambridge United the victory they required to overhaul Burton.

Robinson, a lifelong supporter who remembers going to matches at Albion's first home in Wellington Street, which they left for Eton Park in 1958, will not be setting any specific targets for his team. He said: "Throughout the 10 years I worked with Nigel Clough we always said: 'Let's go for promotion this season. And if it's not this season we'll make it the year after or the season after that.'

"I don't think it's realistic to expect things every season. It doesn't work out like that. The most important thing for us is to stay in the division because there's a massive difference financially between playing in the Football Conference and playing in the Football League.

"When you've been involved for as long as I have, getting into the League is a dream come true. When we finally did it, Neil Warnock sent me a text saying that when he was our manager at the old ground all those years ago he never expected to see us in the Football League."

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