Politics

Brentford’s fairytale rise one of great stories in English football

“Slough boy! Slough Grammar boy!” the video interviewer for Beesotted, the official Brentford FC fanzine, shouts at the club’s owner.

Matthew Benham grins sheepishly wearing a big, misshapen parka jacket from the Albarn era as a chorus of tipsy, elated fans cheer in the background.

There’s a row of gold-bricked houses behind them; this is the heart of London suburbia. It’s 2014, a few hours after ‘the Preston game’ and Brentford, the resolutely modest and happy-in-its-own-skin football club are going big time: they’ve been promoted to the Championship after a series of heartbreaking final day outcomes. The Beesotted man wants to ask Benham, the millionaire fan who became the club owner, how the moment feels.

“It feels f***** brilliant,” he says and the crowd breaks into a ragged encore of “There’s only one Matthew Benham”.

That was seven seasons ago and the secret about Brentford is out of the bag now. The Premier League season is only a few weeks old but already the season will do well to better last Saturday evening’s madcap six-goal draw between Liverpool, the famed aristocrats of English football, and Brentford, back in the top division for the first time in 70 years.

If beating Arsenal 2-0 on the opening night of the league – August 13th – felt slightly dreamy, it was accompanied by the nagging sense that the story was as much about Arsenal as the new boys.

But the sustained unpredictability of the 93 minutes against Liverpool – “a wild match” Jurgen Klopp said afterwards, eyes widening behind the famous frames – was more pleasing for the home fans because of what it promised of Brentford’s intentions and ambitions.

Brentford are the best thing to happen in English football in years because their transformation from being one of the dependable survivors of England’s football caste to this new, daring force seems unfathomable. Their emergence is the most vivid rebuke of the vanity and stupidity behind the ambitions for the Super League, the high-moneyed concoction that would seek to leave football clubs like Brentford existing in a permanent netherworld.

Last weekend accentuated the best of the old divisional structure of English league football. An old club reborn! It didn’t seem logical that Liverpool should teeter on the brink against Brentford. But: there it was, on live television, as glorious as it gets.

How have they done this? Nostalgia is the coal that keeps the furnaces of all sports clubs going. Brentford have survived for 130 years because of the settled nature of that part of west London; fandom inherited through the generations. There’s a series of fondly-shot films and tributes to what it means to follow the Bees. It’s not the stuff of supporting a club like Liverpool or any of the flagship clubs of London.

Founding fathers

Little over a decade ago the gate averaged 4,000 fans, many of whom speak fondly about being able to call a last pint at around ten to three, stroll up to Griffin Park, pay cash at the turnstile and wander in.

There’s something quaint and unthreatening and pure in the premise of all that; the uncomplicated joy of spending a Saturday afternoon showing up to see how the local team is getting on.

It aligns much more closely to what the founding fathers of the English league had in mind than the financial chicanery and manipulation of the serial trophy -grabbers. When you turn up winter after winter, decade after decade, to support a club through thin and thinner, you can silently applaud your noble intentions and loyalty.

The metamorphosis of Brentford is due to a combination of luck and ambition and very smart planning. The luck was that Benham, boy fan of early 1980s Brentford who graduated from Oxford in physics and went on to work in finance before applying that combined knowledge to make a packet in sports gambling, was willing to invest his money, starting with a £700,000 loan to bail them out of dire straits and millions since he assumed ownership.

The ambition lay in his belief that rigorous analytics when it came to the recruitment of players was the only way for a modest football club to progress and live among the giants.

The smart part was in keeping faith with Thomas Frank, the hyper-energetic Danish coach, after just one win from his first 10 games in charge of the club in 2018. Frank has since become the first Brentford manager to guide the club back to the top flight since Harry Curtis did so in the 1935 season.

Since promotion last May, Brentford have quite literally moved into a different league. There’s a spanking new stadium – gone is the timewarp delight of Griffin Park. There’s the sudden influx of television money, the €300 million that being in the Premier League generates.

Yoane Wissa of Brentford celebrates scoring the late equaliser against Liverpool at the Bentford Community Stadium in London. Photograph: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images
Yoane Wissa of Brentford celebrates scoring the late equaliser against Liverpool at the Bentford Community Stadium in London. Photograph: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

With that will come complications: the battle to hold onto eye-catching talents Ivan Toney and Yoane Wissa – not to mention Frank. The club is well-placed geographically, just eight miles from central London, to attract bright young talents and to maybe just establish themselves as the real thing.

Of course, none of this could have happened without money. But Benham is just a local boy made good. He is no oligarch. He cannot simply buy Brentford’s success. They are there on nimble, bold thinking and execution. It is early days; six games into the big time and just two victories but, crucially, just one loss. They are sitting ninth in the table with a cross-London trip to West Ham next up on Sunday.

It may offer a true forecast into Brentford’s winter. But their emergence, after decades of being happy in the shadows, feels authentic. You take all of that you can get.

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