The Oxford & Cambridge Hotel over to Clifden House. Benn’s Field to Shotter’s Field. Cross Roads to Boston Park and York Road. Griffin Park and along the River Thames to the Gtech Community Stadium.
You could walk from the various former homes of Brentford Football Club and on to their current ground in little over 30 minutes. Considering space in London is and has always been at a premium, that’s a pretty impressive feat. It’s a minor miracle a triangle of land was even available on Lionel Road – tucked neatly between Kew Bridge, a railway line and the M4 overpass – to build a stadium fit for the Premier League.
Brentford marked the 134th anniversary of their first football match last Wednesday with the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate their founding on the former site of the aforementioned Oxford & Cambridge Hotel.
It’s incredibly fitting that the old hotel where breakaway members of Brentford Rowing Club voted on the formation of a football team nearly a century-and-a-half ago is only a two-minute walk from the Gtech Community Stadium, and by far the closest of any ground the Bees have inhabited in their history.
“I suppose there’s not nearly enough time to stop and admire the club’s progress,” Brentford CEO Jon Varney exclusively told 90min at the event, admitting it can be hard from his position of power to focus on anything other than moving forward.
“We’re in a super competitive league which means we have to be on top of every aspect of organisation, whether that’s Thomas Frank and the playing department delivering what they need to deliver, the staff from an off-field perspective, the fans on weekends. It’s wonderful to spend time today with like-minded Brentford souls reflecting on a wonderful past, an incredible present and looking forward to the future.”
Prior to the showcasing of the plaque, Brentford invited fans to celebrate the club’s unique history back over at the Gtech Community Stadium. A mini-museum of old shirts, old programmes and old remnants was put together in one of the ground’s luxury lounges, while the likes of legendary PA announcer Peter Gilham, author Jonathan Burchill, historian Brendan Nevin and Bees United Chair Stuart Hatcher led presentations charting 134 years of memories and memorabilia.
“When I first took over as chairman of Bees United, one of the other members made a point which really stuck with me – this club has been in this community since 1889. It’s not just about the football, it’s got a real social history. It is the community piece. We’ve not got complacent or over-excited because we’re in the Premier League, we understand where we come from,” Hatcher told 90min.
It may be a little cliche to suggest that fans are at the heart of club X, Y or Z, but as Hatcher said, Brentford are unlike any other Premier League outfit in their own idiosyncratic way.
“I think most fans know where we’ve come from. Most Bees United members remember the days of bucket-shaking and people walking from Brighton or involved in council campaigns just to try and save the club. We need to remember those times,” Hatcher continued.
“We were almost taken over by QPR in 1967 and fans stepped up to stop that, then when Noades threatened to wind the club up Bees United was formed and bought the club with Matthew Benham also stepping in to support – this club has a history of fans stepping up whenever it’s been in threat. We need to remember those sacrifices.”
Owner Benham is a lifelong Brentford fan, as is CEO Varney. The Bees supporters of today still recognise each other even from the days of League One and League Two matches at Griffin Park.
“We are a club where you see every Saturday afternoon when we have a game here, there’s generations of families attending,” Varney pointed out. “I think that’s super important to keep. It’s getting harder, we’re in the toughest league in the world where you have to be competitive week-in week-out.
“But I think one of the club’s great strengths is the great alignment, from the owner through the players through the fans and through the staff.”
Frank’s press conferences consistently feature the phrase ‘confident but humble’. It came up verbatim several times in the day’s presentations.
“We should be confident,” Varney asserted. “You go back to the alignment, as a football club we know where we’ve come from. We’re aware we’re on a massive growth journey and we’ve got a very well-thought through plan. We need to be ruthlessly focused on executing that plan.
“There’s so much noise around football and it’s very easy to get distracted, but if we stick to our plan then we’ve got every chance of succeeding.”
But with that extra scrutiny and attention brought about by the Premier League and the associated perks and riches, does that make it harder to stick to your guns at board level?
“I don’t know about that,” Varney replied. “I think one of the great strengths of this football club is the fans and the community, the unwavering view and strength of our core principles – togetherness, progressive, respectful.
“Togetherness is about our community. Respectful is about our community. Being progressive, I don’t think anyone can accuse Brentford of being anything other than progressive.
“I think we’re in a world where there’s lots of noise made and actions speak louder than words. You can see from the smiles we put on faces. The fact for the last two years in the Premier League we’ve won ‘best matchday experience’ shows how important it is for us to look after our fans and give them a wonderful occasion.”
Brentford finished a club record-high ninth in the Premier League last season, missing out on a first trip to Europe by just two points. It’s going to be hard to consistently punch above their weight when the last remaining teams above them in the English football pyramid are almost infinitely wealthier. And yet that in itself is reason to be positive.
“There are some fans that have only ever known success. It’s important to go back to history and say to remember that while these times are great – the incredible jobs of Matthew, Phil [Giles, director of football], Lee [Dykes, technical director], Cliff [Crown, chairman], Jon, Thomas, all the players and staff – but this has not been ‘normal’ over Brentford’s history,” Hatcher capped off.
“I think some of us old heads need to remind people to enjoy it but maybe think about the criticism given to players sometimes – they are some of the best players to ever play for our club. We’ve now got a challenge moving forward about who’s going to be in our hall of fame!”
Brentford have found comfort reminiscing about the good-old-days while simultaneously living in the good-old-days. They are humble and confident for fair reason.