Nobody wants Brentford to disappear from the top flight

BRENTFORD FOOTBALL CLUB have become a neutral’s favourite over the past couple of years and they have also been called one of the best-run clubs in Britain. They have provided an alternative to corporate football, although they do have generous ownership in the form of professional gambler Matthew Benham, who has injected over £ 100 million into the club. Benham, an advocate of Moneyball-style data analysis to build teams and identify talent, also owns Danish side FC Midtjylland.

Brentford, once something of a forgotten little London club, are now seen as progressive, extremely likeable and decent. They have a foppish looking Danish manager, Thomas Frank, who seems to embody the laid-back and approachable style of his compatriots, and they have become rather good at discovering talent and making a decent profit from selling players. On top of that, they have a new stadium that will hopefully ensure the rise of Brentford will continue into the future.

Brentford started the 2021-22 season as the 50th club to play in the Premier League. They opened the campaign with a 2-0 victory against hapless Arsenal and were unbeaten in their first four away games. They enjoyed exciting games against Liverpool (3-3) and West Ham and it all seem to be achieved with a smile on their faces. Since then, their form has evaporated and they’ve lost six in the last seven Premier League games. They could still survive comfortably as there are some very average teams beneath them, but the smiles are not quite as beaming.

Staying in the Premier League is a tough task for any promoted club, but Brentford seemed to have come so far in a relatively short space of time and a life of transition may be catching up on them. Week-in, week-out, they are up against Premier-hardened teams with experience of scrapping away at the foot of the table. It’s a big challenge, just look how teams like Fulham, West Bromwich Albion, Norwich and Watford have fared after coming up.

Let’s not forget, though, the top flight has been graced by the Bees before, completing four seasons before world war two and one afterwards, in 1946-47. The post-war boom saw average crowds of 26,000 at homely and much-loved Griffin (a pub on every corner) Park.

That’s all history now and the gap between the Premier and Championship is widening. Brentford are clearly trying to build something they hope will be sustainable and they moved into the Brentford Community Stadium in September 2020. Avoiding the drop is vital if they are to become part of the establishment and benefit from the substantial financial advantages the Premier and its lucrative broadcasting deal provides. 

The club’s financial statements for 2020-21, their promotion-winning season, have just been released and it is easy to see how the economics of football can be transformed by an extended run in the Premier League. As an example, Fulham when they were promoted in 2018, earned £ 38.3 million but in the Premier (a relegation year), their income totalled £ 137.7 million. Likewise, Norwich’s revenues when they were relegated in 2020 from the top tier were £ 119.4 million, but in 2020-21, they dropped to £ 57 million. Although parachute payments help to cushion the blow of relegation, the sudden change in financial status can be crippling.

Brentford’s turnover in 2020-21 was £ 15.3 million, an increase of 10% but way below what they can generate in the Premier and far lower than most of their Championship rivals. Given their matchday income was next to nothing, this was attributable to media revenue of £ 10.7 million and £ 4.5 million from commercial activity. Brentford made a pre-tax loss of £ 8.5 million, a reasonable deficit given what normally goes on in the Championship, a division renowned for excessive spending as clubs gamble on trying to reach the promised land. Brentford’s wage bill went up from £ 26 million to £ 41 million in 2020-21, but a big slice of that included promotion bonuses. This amounted to a wage-to-income ratio of 270%.

Nevertheless, Brentford have only made a profit once in the past decade and they are very dependent on player trading. In 2020-21, for example, they made £ 44.3 million in profits on outgoing transfers, notably in selling Ollie Watkins to Aston Villa for £ 28 million and Säid Benrahma to West Ham for £ 21.7 million. At the same time, they picked up 24 year-old Ivan Toney from Peterborough for a mere £ 5 million and he had netted 33 goals by the end of the campaign. He has scored six of Brentford’s 26 league goals this season.

Goals have been hard to come by in recent weeks and Brentford’s fortunes have taken a downturn. If other strugglers bolster their ranks in the January transfer window – Newcastle surely will for one – then the Bees might find themselves sucked into a relegation battle. Thomas Frank, who may be under more pressure than he was in August, has just signed a new contract that will keep him at Brentford until 2024-25, so his employer clearly has faith in him.

Nobody really wants to see their Premier League life fizzle-out after one season. If nothing else, we need the likes of Brentford to prove there’s room for all kinds of football institution in the modern game. Otherwise, what are we left with, a dozen top-heavy giants bashing each other around the head with their 24 carat gold maces?

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