Burton Albion’s success in avoiding a hangover from May’s League Two play-off final defeat to Fleetwood should surprise nobody who knows Gary Rowett. After all, one of the Football League’s bright young managers has a history of bouncing back which can be traced almost two decades to a conversation in Joe Royle’s office at Everton.
Rowett was 21 when Royle, his then manager, questioned his hunger as he sold him to Derby County in summer 1995. “He just said to me at the time, ‘I don’t think you’ve got the eye of the tiger right at this moment’,” Rowett tells The Independent. “Those words still echo in my mind occasionally and it really motivates me and inspires me to use that little bit of hurt and disappointment. He was right. At the time I wasn’t quite ready for it.”
Rowett, who had joined Everton from Cambridge United 18 months earlier, used Royle’s words as a spur as he went on to play Premier League football with Derby, Leicester and Charlton. Now the 40-year-old has put behind him the fresh pain of Burton’s Wembley defeat by overseeing their best start – four straight wins prior to Saturday’s draw at Newport – in 58 years.
“The disappointment last year was huge but it was also comforting to know that we’d had two years of sustained success which is what, as a manager, you are after,” he continues. “You don’t want to be a flash in the pan, have one season and then drop away.”
Rowett led Burton to the play-offs in each of his first two full campaigns after stepping up from the role of Paul Peschisolido’s No 2 in 2012 and believes he now has “probably the best group of players character-wise and ability-wise since I’ve been here” after summer additions such as the striker Stuart Beavon and midfielder John Mousinho from Preston and winger Lucas Akins from Stevenage. As well as providing that “extra athleticism” he considers vital in League Two, these are players with that “little bit of hunger” – the eye of the tiger, if you like. “We got quite a few who have League One experience and are desperate to get back there.”
Rowett has the same desire. “As a young manager you have got to work twice as much as anyone else,” explains the father of four. “It is a tough game to be part of and we are out most nights. If I am not watching games I will be watching at home on our scouting system but I love the game – I still can’t class it as a job, it is still a hobby.”
One perk of managing Burton is daily access to St George’s Park, where the Brewers train. Rowett, who has worked with the England Under-16 team and the Football Association’s coach tutor programme, takes every opportunity to learn from those who pass through. “There are so few higher-profile jobs available to young British coaches so any chance to develop is absolutely vital,” he says. He is also a keen reader of psychology books, as “understanding how people and players tick is a key to it all”.
Another learning opportunity comes with Queen’s Park Rangers’ visit in the Capital One Cup second round, though Rowett points to last season’s near miss against Fulham – who scraped past Burton on penalties – and this year’s first-round success against Wigan as evidence they will not be overawed. “Our record against bigger opponents has been really good. Usually we try to come up with a different plan than in a league game and it seems to work quite well. To come up against Harry Redknapp with the experience he’s got will be brilliant for me and I can only hope that I am able to get 10 minutes afterwards and pick his brain about one or two things.”