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At Large | Premier League or not, Brentford have set a fascinating example

West London-based soccer club Brentford will leave their vintage Griffin Park home next season in the next phase of a unique project. The Championship playoffs mark an uncertain route to the Premier League but the Bees have shown remarkable ingenuity to compete.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large | Premier League or not, Brentford have set a fascinating example

Griffin Park hardly seems, at first glance, like a cauldron of innovation.

Nestled among rows of houses in an unassuming swathe of west London’s inner suburbs is the home of Brentford, a small English second-tier soccer club who have become perennial Championship promotion hopefuls. The venue may not look all of its 116 years, but for all of its charms, though, neither does it look like a professional soccer venue on the edge of the elite.

This season, its capacity of 12,763 was the second-smallest in England’s second division. It sits low beneath the steel and glass across the city, all concrete steps and corrugated iron roofs. Other arenas hail benchmarks in catering and concessions. Fans standing in the out-of-code terraces on the Ealing Road end here have a simple half-time choice: relief or refreshment, rarely both. 

The nods to modernity – pitchside LED boards debuted in 2017 – have been limited. The press boxes pin knees to hips. Some weeks in the past few seasons there, a grandee of British sportswriting, decades into a landmark career, has sat dictating notes to a cub reporter – fixing his eyes on the finer details of the game, rather than fine print.  

If Griffin Park sounds like a place out of time, well, it is. This has been its last year in use, its final days playing out behind closed doors since the Championship’s restart in June. 

From next season, after years of planning, the UK£70 million Brentford Community Stadium will be a reality. Built less than a mile east towards Kew Bridge and Chiswick, it is a monument to considered ambition. It will open with room for 17,250 spectators, including 2,930 premium seats. The limited existing hospitality, with its amateur clubhouse feel, is yielding to five high-end suites. A stadium campus will feature 910 new homes – part of the funding package, along with Griffin Park’s redevelopment – as well as sports, leisure and education facilities.

The new ground will host London Irish rugby union as well as games in a rescheduled Uefa Women’s Euro in 2022. As of last week, 10,000 Brentford season tickets had been sold for the 2020/21 season, with prices starting at UK£419 for adults and UK£74 for children, rising by 25 per cent should the club earn a place in the top-flight Premier League.

Ah, yes, the Premier League. 

Perhaps nowhere else in organised sport is the balance of risk and reward as extreme as the upper reaches of the English Football League (EFL). The temptation is always there: spend a little beyond your means for passage to that promised land. 

Clubs will factor sustained losses on player transfers and salaries into medium-term business plans; a few are fortunate enough to succeed. That demands some generous, patient backing, and even those who make it to the top can find the descent more painful.

It all underscores a wealth of ownership stories, both very good and very, very bad. In the Championship, this has been Leeds United’s season. 16 years after relegation from the Premier League, part of a steep fall brought on by quite insane levels of borrowing, they will swagger back with a brilliant side to what is arguably their natural level. The restoration has been guided by Aser Ventures’ Andrea Radrizzani, who completed a full takeover in May 2017 and installed the visionary Argentinian head coach Marcelo Bielsa a year later.

Promotion has brought refreshed horizons and a record Adidas kit deal, but Radrizzani has already called on other resources to realise Leeds’ potential. The NFL’s San Francisco 49ers paid UK£10 million for a ten per cent stake in 2018 and this week, Radrizzani said he expects further investment. Talks have previously been held with Qatar Sports Investment. Either way it should be sales of equity, not risky debt, that sustains their upward push.

That is one side of the coin. There is always another. Ten years into the tenure of Egyptian businessman Aseem Allam, who once held dreams of a global brand in the Premier League, Hull City will drop into League One after two relegations in four seasons. Relationships have frayed and supporters have stayed away from the KCOM Stadium amid declining results and complaints of under-investment.

Hull, and the sleeping giants who roll through cycles of overextension and disappointment, are comparatively lucky. Wigan Athletic, FA Cup winners in the last of their Premier League years in 2013, entered administration in July just a month after being sold to the mysterious, Hong Kong-based Next Leader Fund. A new buyer has been found but, pending an appeal, the resulting 12-point penalty means relegation. Following years of careful family ownership, their hollowing out has been traumatic, random, and a clear signal to the authorities of the need for change.

In the midst of all that chaos, the Brentford way of doing things, taking them to the brink of a first top-flight season since the 1940s, stands out further. Owner Matthew Benham – also a majority shareholder in Danish Superliga champions FC Midtjylland – moved towards his 100 per cent stake with a few years of seven-figure investment up to 2014. He has since centred their approach on ingenuity, rather than hard cash.   

On the field, the strategy is easy to describe but harder to execute. Brentford identify undervalued talent, loaning young players from bigger clubs or signing them on an upswing before cashing in. A ‘B’ team is favoured for prospects over a more expensive academy project. Head coaches have served short stints at times but the longer-term commitment to progressive, technically sound football has held. 

It has worked: not only have the Bees competed well in their six Championship seasons, they have been demonstrably astute. According to analysis by 21st Club, they spent 41 per cent less than market value on recruitment, saving about UK£20 million in transfer fees since 2013.

By definition, of course, not every organisation gets to outperform the market. Still, there are fundamentals to the Brentford model that can be widely followed. The initial capacity of the Brentford Community Stadium was set after examining the potential supporter base with the help of data-led sports marketing agency Two Circles. They detected pockets of local fandom still out of the grasp of nearby giants like Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal. These might be families looking for an affordable, welcoming experience, or blow-ins eager to check out a watchable London team on the rise.

A tailored sponsorship pitch is another part of the vision.

“Our new stadium is located on what we call the Golden Mile, from Sega down to Fullers’ Brewery in Chiswick,” explained chief executive Jon Varney, speaking to City AM in September. “We can deliver [locally based businesses] an unbelievable CSR platform right in the heart of the community they are embedded in.”

And while their old base is not the future, Brentford will want to retain a lot of what existed there. They are a friendly club and were hosts of an envied Championship away day, with an atmosphere more intimate than intimidating and a pub on every corner of the ground. Players would stroll post-match, washbags in hand, past groups of fans with pints.

As it happens, there will be one more game at Griffin Park. Brentford scorched through seven consecutive victories after the restart, eight in a row back to March, and threatened this week to usurp West Bromwich Albion in the second automatic promotion slot. Back-to-back defeats put paid to that – results are still the most fragile part of this business.

So a play-off semi-final will be the last competitive fixture before a new life begins. Brentford are exploring ways to give fans a farewell look at cherished surroundings once social distancing measures allow, though those might be one more set of memories never made in these extraordinary months. 

Should Thomas Frank and his team actually complete that final step there will be plenty said about miracles and fairytales but there should be talk, as well, of what it has actually taken to get there. Even if they fall short, theirs is an example to be studied.

Right now, the whole sports industry is working in a different time, if not a different place. There is value in reminders of what sharp thinking can accomplish.