“For me it’s as much about the social, about my friends, about my family, about all of us still upholding the traditions.”
Brentford’s recent upturn hasn’t changed a thing for faithful fans like Nick Bruzon.
The owners may have torn up the rule book, but some bonds transcend such bureaucracy, as lifelong fan Bruzon explains: “We could be top of the Premier League or bottom of League Two, it wouldn’t matter.
“We would still come because it’s the club we have followed for years through thick and thin.”
I went down to Griffin Park for Middlesbrough’s visit to discover what it’s like when owners come and improve a club far beyond the sum of its parts.
But with the Bees’ maverick owners, it is not just what they’ve achieved, but how they’ve achieved it.
The club came together on the day to remember Robert Rowan, their 28-year-old technical director who recently passed away, with a heartfelt minute of applause before the game.
The poignancy of the moment could not be overlooked; Rowan was the man who oversaw a major part of Brentford’s innovative approach to life in the Championship.
As chants of ‘there’s only one Robert Rowan’ rang out in thick Fife accents, it was clear the club would forever hold a place in its heart for the man behind the famed ‘B-team’.
Since Matthew Benham took over the club in 2012, the Bees have found a way to compete with clubs above their standing on a shoestring budget.
Benham made his money as a wildly successful professional gambler, but he has has taken all the risks out of betting on Brentford and is playing with house money these days.
The club replaced its academy with a B-team, or ‘second first team’, and recruitment is done almost solely on the back of data analysis.
Moneyball has come Hounslow.
These recruits, many of whom have been released by Premier League academies, regularly play teams from the likes of Man United, Liverpool and Bayern Munich in far more competitive fixtures than those of your average Championship academy.
The result is a steady stream of players transitioning from the ‘B team’ to the first team with great affect.
Something the club struggled with when their academy had to compete with the other London clubs for young talent.
Many clubs around the country have been ruined by irresponsible ownsership.
Benham is a shining example, even if his methods are somewhat unconventional.
Having a man who has been a fan of the club since he was 11 in charge means the Griffin Park faithful can rest easy knowing decisions are taken from a fan’s perspective.
Even the controversial decision to replace the academy, removing a key pillar of Brentford’s connection with the local community, was completed openly and with maximum transparency.
The fans have appreciated how Benham has created an open dialogue for a decision which may not have pleased everyone – an approach in stark contrast to the likes of Newcastle or Charlton.
“It’s a fan owning the club and even when he’s had to make decisions that might rub people up the wrong way he’s always been very transparent about it,” said Jake Shoolheifer.
“The whole structure of the club is very open and honest and they have a lot of fan forums – it’s all very approachable.”
Benham has not only brought unheralded success for the club – they finished in their highest ever position of fifth in the Championship in 2015 – but they’ve done it in style.
Prior to their promotion in 2014 Brentford’s natural habitat had been floating around the third division.
And the club have come a long way from the brink of administration in the early 2000s.
The attractive football is a huge area of pride among fans who relish their position as the minnow in a league full of big reputations and even bigger chequebooks.
“I’m very proud,” said Shoolheifer, who I met at the Princess Royal. “It’s easy to look at our form and think things haven’t gone to plan but it’s important to remember how far we’ve come.
“I remember coming here when I was younger with half-full stadiums and being bottom of League One.
“It’s a completely different club and it’s right to say we are punching above our weight.”
Brentford never managed a full season in the Championship without being relegated before 2015.
So it’s understandable the fans have not been demoralised by a slight downturn in form in recent weeks.
In the grand scheme of things, they are still performing way above expectations.
“When you see what’ve done, to all of a sudden be where we are now is fantastic.
“It’s phenomenal and it’s still exciting even now, five years in,” said Bruzon.
Groundsman John Mcgill, a Bees stalwart who attended his first game in 1979, explained how the owner’s approach has only brought positives.
“I think they are one of the most forward-thinking clubs in the country at the moment,” he said.
“We can’t compete with the big boys, with the big spenders, so we have had to look at a different way to do it and I’m fully behind it.
“Without that we would have been in real trouble.
“The new owner took over, bought the land for the new ground, paid off our debts, and it’s nothing but positives.”
At the end of next season, Brentford will swap the ground they’ve played at since 1904, nestled in west London streets, for a new home funded by Benham.
Regrettably, it means they will lose one of the most distinguishable aspects of their identity – the all-welcoming pubs on every corner.
We visited them all one last time, for research purposes, of course…
- Pub No1 – The New Inn – on the corner of New Road and Ealing Road
Over 21s and cash only bar, does what it says on the tin. 6/10.
- Pub No2 – The Princess Royal – on the corner of Braemar Road and Ealing Road
First pub you see on arriving at the stadium, the closest to the main entrance, large inside area and big screen. A solid 7/10.
- Pub No3 – The Griffin – on the corner of Braemar road and Brook Road
- Pub No4 – The Royal Oak – on the ‘fourth corner’ of New Road and Brook Road
Brentford are proving that among football’s Goliaths, David can still triumph, and it doesn’t have to be at the expense of the fans.
READ MORE FROM FOOTBALL’S FRONT LINES:
- Luton Town — a vessel for far-right hate, or a likeable club with an unfair reputation?
- What’s it like to be held hostage by the worst owner in the country?
- The man behind football’s greatest miracle was so much more than just an owner
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