I would like to tell you the story of Bees United, a case study of a partnership between fans and an owner and I believe a model of good governance.
20 years ago this month Bees United was registered with the official title ‘The Brentford Football Community Society’, I should say from the start that I don’t take any credit for this. 20 years ago I had a very full time job running ITN. But when I became Chairman of Bees United just over two years ago I set about understanding the history and we even published a book about it. We called it ‘Bees, Battles,Buckets and Ballot Boxes’. Let me explain why:
The story starts with a man called Ron Noades, the name may ring a bell. By the time of his death in 2013 he had been the Chairman of no fewer than four football clubs, probably best known was his time at Crystal Palace. His last stop was Brentford where he managed the first team himself for one season and got them promoted from what was then Division Three. But his real love was property deals. His “investment” in Brentford consisted of running up debt for the football club and getting tax breaks for himself off the back of it. He kept trying to pull off a deal involving Griffin Park, the club’s ground in the heart of a residential area at the start of the M4 in West London. He kept failing and the club was sinking further into debt.
In 2001 The Brentford Supporters Club, known as BIAS, created Bees United as a separate pressure group with three aims:
- To strengthen bonds between the club and the local community.
- To seek the election of a supporters’ representative onto the board of the club.
- To raise funds and invest as a stakeholder in the club.
Soon a fourth ambition surfaced;
To campaign for a new Community Stadium for Brentford in Brentford. In 2002 fans took that battle to the ballot box. A single issue political party stood in the local council elections and defeated the incumbent Labour councillor. Local politicians took note.
in 2006 Ron Noades gave up on Brentford and pretty much handed over majority control of the club to Bees United or BU as it is often known. The fans were now in charge. They proved to be pretty good at running a football club within its means. Fans collected donations in buckets. But they would admit that they weren’t always that good at running a football team.
Off the pitch, they ran a good campaign for a new stadium but knew they didn’t have the cash to fund it.They brought in as Chairman Greg Dyke and he knew of a man called Matthew Benham who had been a significant donor to ‘BBC Children in Need’ when Greg was Director-General.
Matthew had been to his first Brentford game at the age of 11. He agreed to put some money into the club without asking much in return. He said if he was prepared to put a lot more in but would want more control.
That’s when a crucial deal was done:
Bees United was prepared to sell majority ownership, indeed go one better and persuade the minority shareholders to sell too.
But in return they wanted a director on the board and a ‘special’ share, sometimes called a ‘golden share’ to stop any asset-stripping. Griffin Park couldn’t be sold unless there was a new stadium which met certain conditions.
The deal was done.
Matthew Benham took control, BU got their seat on the board and their special share.
Over the next decade and a half, Brentford moved up the leagues and a triangle of railway lines with a wasteland in the middle was turned into that dream of a Brentford Community Stadium. And yes it did meet the conditions of the special share.
All four ambitions had been achieved;
- Ambition Number One:Links with the Community have never been stronger. By September this year nearly 1,000 boys and girls will be attending weekly football training sessions run by the Community Sports Trust. The charity offers multi-sport activities across 100 local schools and 20 housing estates. It also provides social services to three London boroughs.
- Ambition Two:BU still has a director on the club board, that’s me. The FSA believe that I am the only director of a Premier League club chosen by fans.
- Ambition Three: BU did raise funds and invest that money collected in buckets. With Matthew Benham’s take-over BU was able to exit as a shareholder with a healthy contingency fund in case it is ever needed again.
- The Brentford Community Stadium is open, if only to limited crowds because of COVID. The supporters love it, so do the fans of our tenant, London Irish Rugby Club.The development of the stadium area and the re-development of the Griffin Park area are creating over a thousand new homes.
And finally there was a fifth ambition which no Brentford fan would have ever dared put in writing 20 years ago: promotion to the Premier League.This was achieved last month in the Play-Off final at Wembley. Brentford were back in the top tier of football for the first time since 1947, which just happens to be the year I was born. So it has taken my life time. Just as my father introduced me to the joys of the Third Division South in the 1950s, my daughter and son were with me at Wembley to herald Premier League football for Brentford.
And most important for this story, promotion was a fitting 20th birthday present for Bees United.
So what do we conclude from this? I’m speaking now very much as Bees United, I can’t claim to speak for the FSA, Brentford Football Club or the Premier League.
The Brentford model of engaging with fans and the local communities works. Specifically the governance model of a fan director and other non-execs is a real benefit to the club. The golden share is an important fall-back in times of trouble. So why not copy these, indeed why not mandate them?
None of Brentford’s success would have been possible without the supporter activism of 20 years ago. And it definitely wouldn’t have happened without an owner prepared to invest and to see a route to payback. At one point Matthew’s investment exceeded one hundred million pounds.
So our hope -put simply -is that your review will recommend new structures and controls to limit ‘bad’ owners but not recommendations that will deter ‘good’ owners. Ones who want their clubs to rise up that famous pyramid and have the funds and skills to do it.
Any new system needs incentives as well as sanctions, carrots as well as sticks.
Tracey Crouch has invited fans of all clubs to send in their own evidence to her inquiry at firstname.lastname@example.org