For a few hours this Sunday, Burton-on-Trent will matter to the outside world. Ever since its non-league football team was drawn against Manchester United in the third round of the FA Cup back in December, this sleepy town where nothing ever happens has been temporarily roused. Burton Albion’s ground, which holds 6,000, could have sold out five times over, and the media are suddenly interested in Nigel Clough’s side (it always helps to have a Clough). Burton exiles, like me, who haven’t lived there for a dozen years, are caught up in the excitement and rediscovering pride in our home town. But why?
Football fever is the obvious answer. How often do you get to watch Wayne Rooney warming the bench a few metres from the terrace where you’re standing? Yet most of those caught up in the drama have never been Albion or Man U fanatics, and the excitement is caused by something else. And it all comes down to identity.
Burton has always been synonymous with beer. Monks brought brewing to the area a thousand years ago; by the late 19th century the hard, gypsum-filtered water had established the town as the nation’s brewing capital, with 40 breweries supplying 3m barrels of beer a year. The famous Bass brewery made two thirds of that, leading it to copyright its red triangle in 1875, the first registered trademark. In the second world war, the euphemism “gone for a Burton” was used by RAF servicemen to mean shot down or missing, a nod towards the ruinous effect of Burton ale.
The beer references are still there. Albion are known as “the Brewers” and the fans like to sing “Burton-on-Trent is full of fun: full of beer, beer and more beer,” but today this is just nostalgia. Most of the brewing jobs have gone, replaced by posts in retail, distribution and service, and only two major breweries remain: Wolverhampton & Dudley, and the American conglomerate Coors, which bought out Bass and replaced the triangle with its own logo. Production of Bass bitter, made under licence by W&D, has declined to a mere 100,000 barrels a year. The nail in the coffin came last year when Tessa Jowell dropped by to rename the Bass Museum the “Coors Visitor Centre”.
AE Housman wrote in A Shropshire Lad: “Say, for what were hop-yards meant,/Or why was Burton built on Trent?” These days it would be hard to answer that question. So Burton is left clutching at straws marked, “Please make me interesting.” A recent feature in the Burton Mail about the new Pirelli calendar cited the town’s Pirelli factory as evidence of Burton’s “strong and significant connection with a plethora of supermodels”. It was a bit like suggesting that Heston Blumenthal is chef in residence at the Michelin canteen in Stoke.
This is where the Cup comes in. Burton may be a Coors town with the same Pizza Hut architecture as anywhere else, but on Sunday we will be the Brewers, an artisan David taking on Malcolm Glazer’s Goliath in an old-school football stadium housing three terraces. If the dashing winger (and part-time painter/decorator) Keith Gilroy can nick a goal against Rio, Rooney and Ronaldo, then, perhaps, on our ploughed field of a pitch, Man U will go for a Burton.
(This piece appeared in the Guardian on 6 January 2006)