Fan Ownership: Brentford’s Brian Burgess On the Reality of a Fan-Run Club

Brentford FC

Analysing the supporter-ownership model, as we’ve been doing over the past few days, is fine, but it’s no substitute for getting stuck in and looking at the experience of the challenges first hand, as we look at today. Brian Burgess has been involved with Brentford’s Supporters’ Trust from the early days, sat as vice-chairman of the club and was recently elected to the Supporters’ Direct board. Gary Andrews headed to Griffin Park to meet him.

If part of a successful football club is down to luck that the right people inhabit the boardroom, then Brentford can feel luckier than most that Brian Burgess decided to get involved with their supporters’ trust, Bees United. It may have not always been plain sailing for the Bees since the Trust took over but, for the time being, the club’s future and ground is assured. Pitch Invasion caught up with Brian at Griffin Park following his recent election to the Supporters’ Direct board.

There’s a nice anecdote that gives you a clue to Brian Burgess’ way of viewing the boardroom at Brentford. Soon after Bees United assumed control of Brentford in 2006, a friend of the family congratulated him on taking over as vice-chairman. “You own your football club!” she said, excitedly. “No,” he corrected her. “The fans own my football club.”

I remind Brian of this as we settle into the directors bar at Griffin Park. Typically, rather than reminisce about the takeover, he uses it to to illustrate why the fans are so important in the running of Brentford.

“That’s right,” he nods. “The club members vote on issues. There’s a good example of that this summer. Because of the financial costs of competing in League One and the teams we have to compete with this season – the Leeds and the Charltons – the club needed a lot more cash and we couldn’t really borrow any more. The club has borrowed up to its limit. The debts are secured against the value of Griffin Park.

“It really needed a cash injection which the Supporters’ Trust just doesn’t have and cannot provide. A deal was done by Bees United with a very wealthy supporter called Matthew Benham who had already lent us significant sums of money to refinance our previous debts. I think he’d refinanced around four million pounds worth of debt, which is interest free, he took out a loan from Barclays that was two million, for example. So, instead of paying interest on that two million we have that interest free, which has been a huge boost to the club’s operating expenditure.

“But that wasn’t enough so he’s agreed to put more money in as preference shares. He’s agreed to put in a million pounds a year for the next five years. During that period Bees United will retain the majority shareholding. At the end of it there are options, so there are three possible outcomes of what could happen at the end of five years. For five years at least the situation is stable, it’s stable financially, it’s stable in terms of the ownership model because Bees United will be the majority shareholder.

“No one was able to sign that deal until we’d had a vote of the members, so all 1700 voting members had a say in that and 1200 of them voted in it, which is around 70%”

That’s a pretty impressive level of engagement, I say, given the apathy and disinterest many fans have in the off-the-pitch actions, let alone the idea of voting.

“Yes, and 99% of them voted in favour of the deal,” he says. “But the point is it was the fans, those members, who were in control of the situation. If they didn’t want to take this money from the wealthy supporter, if they didn’t want that deal, they could have voted it down. The point is, the club can’t be sold now without the approval of the members.”

Burgess’ may have now relinquished his vice-chairmanship but he still remains a key part of Bees United and recently was elected to the board of the nationwide organisation Supporters’ Direct. Indeed, his interest in fan ownership started back in 1967, when he was a young Bees supporter growing up in Hounslow. At the time Brentford’s owner was Jack Dunnett, a Labour MP for Nottingham, who decided he’d rather own Notts County than the Bees, and decided the best way to dispose of the club was to sell it to QPR. Brentford FC would have ceased to exist.

Although Burgess was too young to get involved in the campaign to save Brentford, the idea that supporters should own their club stuck with him and was the driving force behind him signing up to Bees United in 2001 when the club was, yet again, going through one of their regular periods of financial crisis and losing Griffin Park was a real possibility.

Burgess was living and working in the Midlands at the time and getting heavily involved wasn’t practical, but he soon moved into a consultancy role and returned to London. At the same time, Bees United were looking at possible plans for a new stadium. With a background in engineering, Burgess thought he could help and stood for election to the Trust board. Within a year, he’d been elected chairman.

At that time, there was an option agreement with Ron Noades, the majority shareholder, to buy the club for two pounds providing the Trust also relieved Noades of the bank guarantees he’d used to fund the club, which totaled around four million.

After several years of raising the cash needed to buy the club off Noades, the Trust finally took control on January 20th 2006. Burgess took the role of vice-chairman after tracking down former BBC Director General Greg Dyke, a Brentford and Manchester United fan who’d been on the board at Old Trafford, and persuaded him to take over as chairman.

All the time, though, the Trust had their eye on a new stadium. Often when new owners come in and talk about a new ground, it’s cause for eye-rolling. But in Brentford’s case, it’s acutely needed.

“All the time the long-term strategy was to try and develop the new stadium because we knew we’d never really be sustainable as a business here at Griffin Park. We budget to lose around half a million pounds a year in order to give us even a reasonable playing budget, let alone one that can compete in League One. There’s no commercial facilities here, nothing.

“It’s very difficult for us to earn any kind of serious revenue because there are no corporate boxes, no hospitality suites. During the week we don’t have conferencing and banqueting facilities that would enable us to make commercial revenue. It’s always been the plan to build a new stadium. I’ve been working on it all the way through and at the end of 2007 we did a deal with Barratts to buy this site at Lionel Road and it was obvious then it would become a full-time job.

“We formed a new subsidiary called Brentford FC Lionel Road limited just to focus on the stadium and that subsidiary, 99% of the shares are held by Brentford FC and the other 1% is a golden share for Bees United so that the site can’t be developed for anything else without Bees United’s approval. The idea of that golden share is to give Bees United a veto over that project being scuppered in years to come by the property developer – it’s got to be used as a stadium.”

But a mixture of the recession, a crash in the housing market affecting the new stadium – “Having got so close, it’s desperately disappointing the external economic environment has put a hold on it” – and bad manager choices took their toll on the Bees and held up the stadium, which is where the Matthew Benham deal comes in.

“We started on a high and it went downhill quite seriously for a couple of years – it just shows the importance of having a manager who can spend your budget wisely. I think if you’ve got a good manager you’ve got to give him a budget that’s good enough to compete – no one can work miracles without a sufficient budget. But beyond that, throwing an ever bigger budget at the playing squad doesn’t bring you success unless the manager is really good, so you need both.

“You need the manager and you need a sufficient budget and we had neither for a couple of seasons. Since we’ve got Andy Scott, Andy obviously has done a really good job with a limited budget, got us up as Champions last year.

“Now the standard’s higher, we’re playing against bigger clubs like Leeds, Norwich, Southampton and Charlton and you need more money. Bees United couldn’t raise the kind of money we needed to compete. If we had serious aspirations to get promoted from this league into the Championship you need the Matthew Benham deal, we needed that extra million pounds a year.”

Although the Benham deal creates a Trust-single owner hybrid, Burgess is adamant this is the best deal for the Bees and can see other clubs following suit. “I think it’s quite a good model for other Trusts because we have to live in the real world. The economics of football as much mean it’s very difficult to compete under the current regime with the big clubs and clubs who’ve got wealthy supporters putting in loads of money. So you need to do this sort of deal and at least we’ve got some safeguards in with the golden share particularly.”

One area where Burgess will readily hold his hands up to getting it wrong is in his choice of managers. After Martin Allen left in 2006, Brentford went through three managers in one season, when Leroy Rosenior, Scott Fitzgerald and Terry Butcher all took the hotseat as the Bees struggled at the wrong end of the table and eventually went down to League Two.

“We didn’t have anyone on the board, including me, who really had a clue on how to pick a good football manager. It’s such a big decision. If I had to say ‘what is the one single most important decision a football club board has to take, it’s the choice of the manager. And obviously we got it wrong three times.

“The fourth time we got it right! We could have appointed Andy Scott the first time and avoided three disasters and two years of relegation. Had we got Andy Scott first time round, perhaps we’d have been if not in the Championship, at least pressing for it now. So it set us back a couple of years.”

Burgess is not fond of the culture that calls for managerial sackings every ten minutes but recognises this is part of supporter expectations. “I think in general, there won’t be a majority of supporters who would support taking a long-term view and saying that’s it’s much better that the club survives even if it has to go down to the Conference, rebuild and come back up again – it’s actually much better to be sustainable and running sensibly, than it is to try and get lots of money from somewhere and push for success.

“Trust members might make the long term view. Not all of them though – I think even some of them would want to take the short term view. But you’re always going to be under pressure to get short-term results, not to accept relegation as part of a longer-term strategy. So the short-term aspirations of supporters for success is always a limiting factor, I think, in terms of how sustainably you can run the club.”

Unsurprisingly, Burgess also calls owners who throw vast sums of money at clubs “unsustainable” but also recognises that as long as this continues, smaller clubs are limited as to how far they can compete, but he is also a mixture of realistic and optimistic as to how far Supporters’ Trusts can go.

“One glib answer is it can go as far as Barcelona and Real Madrid because they’re owned by their fans, so in a way there’s no limit. However, you have to look at where you’re starting from and the days where Wimbledon came into the league and were able to rise up into the Premier League and win the FA Cup — in those days anything was possible. And it could be lovely to see AFC Wimbledon do that again.

“But for clubs like us with legacy and debt that we’ve got and the legacy of people on the board who are there not because they believe in the Trust model but because they put money into the club previously and are entitled to a seat on the board you’ve got that legacy that holds you back from fully exploiting the trust model.

“The biggest issue is finance – just how do you finance a competitive playing budget when you haven’t got access to non-football income of one kind or another, whether it’s generated by a new stadium with lots of revenue earning facilities, or whether it’s sponsorship or TV money or just soft loans or equity from wealthy individuals?  I think the best hope for the Supporters’ Trust movement is if the regulatory regime changes.

“I was very interested to read Lord Mawhinny’s speech recently saying that things had to chance, the distribution of wealth, the totally unequal distribution of wealth between the big clubs and the smaller clubs couldn’t really continue, something had to be done to try and even it up otherwise too many of the smaller clubs would go to the wall.”

But for all the talk of what Supporters’ Trusts can achieve, Burgess is quick to point to a very specific legacy of Bees United: putting a roof on the Ealing Terrace, a project that had been talked about to Brentford for around 20 years, and one the Trust-owned club managed in two. It was, as Burgess puts it, physical evidence that the club was progressing.

Even so, the new stadium at Lionel Road remains a key part of Brentford’s future and one Burgess sees as the key if the club is to progress. “I don’t accept there that there’s any limit as long as we get a new stadium. I’ve always accepted we’ll never really succeed above League One if we stay at Griffin Park.

“I first got involved to help out on the new stadium, and that’s always been part of this. It was a strategy when we took over, it’s the strategy now, I don’t really see any alternative to having a new stadium on a new site, which generates a lot more income back on match days and non-match days. But if we get that then I think, well I’d like to think, we can create another Barcelona. I don’t see that we have to limit our ambition.

“It will take time, maybe generations, but as long as we’re financially sustainable in a new stadium with non-football revenue generating facilities, I think it can be done.”

As we’re leaving, Brian insists on taking me to his office so I can get an aerial view of the new stadium. It’s gloomy but the shape of the area that needs developing can be just about made out. Will it have the same intimacy as Griffin Park, I wonder, a stadium where the fans are close to the pitch creating a cathedral of noise? Absolutely, he assures me. This intimacy was one of the top demands Brentford fans put on a new ground. Lionel Road, he says, will not be another identikit stadium.

At Brian’s urging, I walk a different route back to the train station, past the proposed Lionel Road development. What currently resides there is a mixture of waste and industrial land. It is not particularly attractive to look at but it’s easy to see how this could be transformed into something far more useful. It is, perhaps, an apt metaphor for the Trust movement as a whole.

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