About to begin life in the Premier League, boasting a squad bristling with talent and housed in a brand-new stadium, there was a time when life at Brentford was far less rosy than it is today. Almost twenty years ago the club was facing a very uncertain future. And if wasn’t for the actions of the fans, who knows where the Bees would have ended up.
Brentford FC have never been one of London’s big beasts. Despite a history that stretches back to 1889, the club has rarely lingered amidst the loftier heights of English football. Their best period was in the 1930s, when they spent a few seasons in the old Division One, even managing a couple of top six finishes before the Second World War interrupted their mini golden age. Since then, the club has spent most of its time hovering between the third and fourth tiers of the Football League.
Despite the lack of on-field success, for much of the club’s history, those in charge at Brentford faced little in the way of organised opposition from the fans. They might have struggled financially and had limited horizons in terms of football success, but for the most part, the fans left the board to run the club as they saw fit. However, few things last forever and, in keeping with the rest of the game, this benign environment started to disappear during the 1990s.
The first signs of fan activism at the club came with the establishment of the Brentford Independent Association of Supporters (BIAS) in 1998, formed in response to the way that the club was being run by the owner David Webb. Not long after taking control, Webb initiated the sale of any player he could get rid of, including leading goalscorer Carl Asaba. Although the whole spine of the team was eventually ripped out, the combined deals only recouped £1.2m. To the fans ire, despite claims to the contrary by Webb and his chairman Tony Swaisland, the money wasn’t reinvested in ‘quality replacements’ (that is, unless you call a few non-league hopefuls and some Spurs reserve players ‘quality replacements’).
BIAS began life as a single-issue pressure group, an organisation whose sole purpose was to rally around its ‘W£bb Out’ campaign and agitate for the removal of their owner. And they got what they wanted, when Webb eventually had enough and sold up in 1998 to Ron Noades. Like many new owners, Noades arrived with big talk and big promises, claiming that he would push Brentford up to the First Division. As many fans have experienced, ‘big talk’ costs nothing and is pretty pointless if not backed with investment, good players and the appointment of a manager who knows what he’s doing.
At first, it looked as though Noades was covering at least two of these factors. Money and players arrived, banishing memories of the Webb years. The only issue that appeared was the owner’s very unusual decision to manage the club himself. But, to the surprise of the supporters (and many interested neutrals) this decision turned out to be a shrewd one (in the short-term at least). During his first season at the helm, Noades guided Brentford to promotion, ending the campaign as Division Three champions. He even managed to bag himself the manager of the year award for good measure.
‘For a while, everything was very positive. After the horror of the Webb years, it was a good time to be a Bee again’ says David Merritt, until 2019 the supporter elected non-executive director on the club’s board.
But the good times were not to last. Unlike his predecessor, Noades was not averse to a gamble. Regardless of the unusual step of managing the club himself, his model for progression up the pyramid differed little from that adopted by most owners in football: spend more than you have and hope for the best. Brentford’s promotion in 2000 and their ability to progress further was fuelled by borrowing. By the time Noades eventually parted company with the club, Brentford would owe millions.
‘I think his plan was always to borrow some money, chase success, get us into Division Two and then sell our ground to cover the debt, hoping that progression on the pitch would convince the fans that he knew what he was doing?’ says Donald Kerr, current vice-chairman of the club and until recently, secretary of Brentford’s supporters’ trust.
It might have been a bit run-down, but Griffin Park was a piece of valuable real estate in South-West London, worth millions to whoever owned it. To a businessman likeNoades it probably made perfect sense to sell it, realise its value, and then move to a new ground.
‘The problem for the fans’ Kerr continues, ‘was the owner’s desire to sell up before an alternative stadium was built. We were facing the prospect of our owner selling our ground and then tying us into a ground-share with Woking. And who knew how long that would have lasted?’
The campaign against the Woking ground-share was led by BIAS, for whom the move acted as the perfect recruiting tool. Along with conventional tactics, such as leafleting, picketing, and raising the issue in the local media, BIAS also attempted to rally support from around the world of football and started to lobby Football League officials, as it would be that organisation that would rule on the move.
At the same time, occurring to David Merritt, the idea of forming a supporters’ trust started to be talked about amongst those more activist members of the Brentford faithful.
‘I think one of our members, Brian Burgess was the first to mention the idea but a lot of people who’d been either involved with BIAS or who were simply concerned about what was happening at the club were intrigued by this new form of collective action. You also have to remember that Supporters Direct had not long been formed and they were pushing trusts as the best way for fans to organise. The idea began to germinate in a lot of people’s minds that if we had a stake in our club then maybe in the future, fights such as these could either be avoided or at least if they occurred then the fans would be in a stronger position to negotiate.’
After an initial public meeting in the spring of 2001, during which the response to the concept was favourable, the fans behind the original idea started to work with Supporters Direct to put together a constitution and prospectus for what would become Bees United.
Although they didn’t know it at the time, the foundation of the trust in 2001 would prove to be timely. Despite Noades’ best efforts, the Football League ruled against the Woking move in June of that year. Not long after that, another proposed ground-share, this time with Kingstonian, also floundered. With his plans scuppered and the club’s debts mounting, in 2003 Noades announced he was cutting his ties with Brentford and selling the club. But with a tired ground, massive debts, and a wage bill that was exceeding annual turnover, it wasn’t as though people were queuing up to bite his hand off. The club faced something of an impasse. On one side, their owner wanted to sell and was unwilling to put any more cash into the club. On the other, no-one appeared to be riding to the rescue.
‘It began to dawn on many of us that the obvious answer to this problem was the Trust’ says Kerr.
Although Ron Noades is held in low regard by many Brentford fans, for Kerr, his approach during the negotiations to sell the club to Bees United should be appreciated.
‘He was very helpful, working with us to make the takeover happen. That’s something that’s not always highlighted. I always got the impression that he wanted the fans to be the next owners rather than just another private owner like himself.’
To acquire Noades’ 60 percent controlling stake (owned by his holding company Altonwood) the Trust had to arrange a financial restructuring of the club’s debts and release Altonwood from its £4.5m worth of bank guarantees.
‘To achieve this outright alone would have been impossible, simply beyond the means of the fans’ admits Kerr.
To accommodate this problem, the Trust managed to secure help from several outside sources, such as Barclays Bank and Hounslow Council. Interestingly, according to Kerr, they also received help from Noades too.
‘Altonwood offered to provide a £1m interest-free loan for three years and to maintain a £1m bank guarantee against a reduced level of bank borrowing of £2.5m. Proof I think of Ron’s desire for the supporters to be part of the solution.’
The Trust was then faced with the prospect of raising £1m towards the buyout, which was a large amount but not one beyond its abilities.
‘Along with membership subs, loans from supporters, and all kinds of fundraising events, like sponsored bike rides, raffles, and jumbles sales we eventually got there. Combined with the help we were getting, this enabled us to buy out Altonwood’s shareholding in the club and effectively become the majority owners of Brentford FC’ says Kerr proudly.
But although the acquisition by the supporters solved the impasse created by Noades’ desire to sell up, it didn’t necessarily solve the other problems that Brentford faced under the previous owner. The club remained heavily in debt, saddled with an over generous wage bill, and was also the proud owner of an aging ground through which they were unable to raise much commercial revenue. Griffin Park might have had character by the bucket-load but it was also the only stadium in the Football League which had a pub on every corner. While this might be a ‘traditionalists’ idea of heaven, for the club it meant that trying to raise money from selling food and drink on match-days was always going to be tricky.
‘We also only had average gates of around 4000 and our members could only provide us with so much to keep the club going. There simply wasn’t enough coming in to cover what was going out’ admits Kerr.
During that period when the Trust was in charge of the club, Brentford lost around £300,000-£400,000 per year. Although these financial issues face many lower league clubs, the problem for the Bees was the absence of a ‘sugar daddy’ to take up the slack.
‘The financial situation at the club’ continues Kerr ‘effectively meant that the fan-owned version of Brentford was better suited to a lower league, one where our incomings more accurately matched our outgoings. And that’s a hard thing for any football fan to come to terms with. Fandom is about upward progression, wanting your team to compete and finish in the highest position possible. By contrast, we were facing the prospect of putting a cap on our aspirations.’
Given the problems that the club had encountered with their previous two owners, selling Brentford to an outsider was not something that many fans considered a tenable option, even if the alternative was watching the club slide inevitably towards non-league football. But the club got lucky for once as a candidate emerged who not only had the financial muscle to power the club forward but also appeared to possess that vital connection to Brentford and the fans.
In 2010, Bees United handed control of their club over to local businessman Matthew Benham, a long-time supporter and someone who had provided the club with financial assistance during the era of fan ownership.
David Merritt. ‘It took us a long time to get to the stage where we were happy giving Matthew the majority ownership of Brentford. We went through years where he just had some loans to the club (he helped us get rid of the debts to Ron Noades), then years of a partnership deal where we retained ownership while Matthew put more money in, and got more influence. Eventually, though the Trust reached a point where we were comfortable enough with Matthew (and Matthew was comfortable enough with us) to move to a situation where control was transferred. I guess the conclusion is that Matthew is a pretty exceptional guy and we went through a long period of getting used to each other. It also helped that there are Brentford fans who remembered him attending games as a kid, so he had a good pedigree!’
Despite this, ever conscious of what had happened in the past, the Trust retained key protections such as board representation and ownership of a Golden Share (protecting against the sale of the stadium).
Under the deal offered by Benham, in return for an initial stake of 35 percent in the club, representing the non-Trust shareholdings of former chairman Martin Lange (25 percent) and the Whetley brothers (10 percent), he would invest a minimum of £1m per year for the following five years. This investment gave him operational control at the club. At the end of those five years (2014), Bees United had the option to repay the loans that they already owed Benham (amounting to £4.5m) and buy out his stake in the club. If they choose not to do this, Benham would then be provided with the opportunity to take over control of Brentford FC by buying most of Bees United’s 60 percent shareholding.
Donald Kerr says that it was an agreement that most people involved with the Trust were happy to approve.
‘We put the deal to a vote and 99 percent of those who turned up backed it. No agreement to sell our stake in the club was ever going to be risk free but we thought that it was a good one and that there were enough safeguards in place, such as having the first refusal on any future sale, to ensure that the fans remained part of the decision making process of the club. In all honesty, we never really imagined we would have been able to pay back the money he had invested. And in 2013, sure enough, we agreed, with the consent of our members, to grant Matthew early takeover of our share, in order to facilitate the purchase of the land for a new stadium.’
The members of Bees United were faced with a problem common to any group of supporters that ends up running a club; is their model of ownership strong enough to accommodate the expectations of the fans? In their first full season involved with the club, Brentford suffered relegation to League Two, at one point going sixteen games without a win.
‘It might not be kind to say this, but the quality of football in the bottom tier leaves plenty to be desired’ thinks Kerr. ‘As a fan, you want to watch good football and feel that your team has a chance of doing well. When the Trust was in charge this simply wasn’t the case. If anything, the club seemed more likely than ever to drop down into the Conference. How long would it have been before our supporters began to become disillusioned with Bees United? If we’d found ourselves in non-league football, something that without Matthew Benham’s input I think could easily have happened, would the Trust still be seen as the saviours of the club? I doubt it. I’m a huge supporter of the ‘trust model’. Without it, we couldn’t have got out of the impasse that Ron Noades faced us with. But after that, it was clear that supporter-ownership would only work at Brentford if the fans were willing to accept us playing at a much lower level. I for one wasn’t and I’m eternally grateful that Matthew Benham came along and, so far at least, has proven to be a man of his word.’
The above is an edited extract from Punk Football: The Rise of Fan Ownership in English Football