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?

Everton, Milan, Real – football stadiums are back on the agenda

ON A weekend when Brentford will welcome another of the big six clubs to their home ground in the form of London rivals Chelsea, the club’s progress, allied to the opening of their new stadium, is a reminder that life has indeed continued during the covid-19 pandemic.

Brentford said farewell to their homely and atmospheric Griffin Park more than 12 months ago, but their arrival in the Premier League has been something of a breath of fresh air for the rest of top level football. The Brentford Community Stadium, a project that was talked of for some years, took roughly two years to build and cost £ 71 million, a fraction of some of the bigger Lego kits in football, but just about right for Brentford’s needs.

It’s good to see that the club was able to take its relocation to conclusion against a backdrop of confusion, economic disaster and social unrest. It is arguable that the realism of the club’s project enabled them to not only achieve their objectives but also generate success on the field of play. Brentford have already played host to Arsenal, Liverpool and now Chelsea – if anyone needed proof of the glamour of the Premier, the club has seen it in the first couple of months of 2021-22, and furthermore, they’ve only been beaten once in the league. 

Some stadium plans have floundered during the pandemic, or at the very least, proved more expensive or been rescheduled. Real Madrid have been working on a major refurbishment of the Bernabéu during the crisis and played their behind-closed-doors games at their training centre. This is a gargantuan scheme that will cost £ 700 million and include restaurants, a museum and a casino as well as retail outlets. It’s a project that will take three and a half years.

The 81,000 capacity stadium is aimed at improving efficiency, sustainability and provide more revenues streams. They wanted to include a hotel and shopping centre, but that didn’t get past the planners. In some ways, the pandemic has possibly helped Real push on as it was far easier to shift their games as spectators were not permitted.

Real Madrid are creating the ultimate digital stadium, which underlines that football at the highest level is warmly embracing new technologies. Already, some clubs have moved towards cashless stadiums, which makes sense for the transit of big crowds. KPMG Football Benchmark recently wrote about the speeding-up of the process of technology adoption: “Digitalisation not only improves guest experience but also helps these facilities comply with health measures by reducing human contact. Online ticketing, contactless entry, crowd control apps showing the fans the quickest route to their seats, pre-ordering food and beverages to your seat, among others, are here to stay in the long run.”

In England, the biggest transaction centres on Everton, who have started work on the proposed Bramley-Moore Dock stadium. The infill of the dock has begun, with sand collected from Liverpool Bay and the Irish Sea and piped into the dock via a dredger. This stage of the build, a huge maritime engineering project, is expected to last up to four months. While some fans have misgivings about the move away from the club’s ancient home of Goodison Park, the new stadium, there will also be funds to support the transformational regeneration of north Liverpool and south Sefton. Everton have also been granted a £ 30 million loan to contribute to the overall project. Everton have forecast the new stadium project will boost the local economy by more than £ 1 billion and attract 1.4 million visitors to the city.

This is important as the local council have made it clear they are not investing in a football club, but in the regeneration of a region of the city that was in poor shape. Finding big backers has become harder, but Everton’s major shareholder, Farhad Moshiri, has provided £ 100 million of the cost and the club is also hoping to tap the capital markets in the form of stocks, bonds and securities, with the assistance of JPMorgan and MUFG.

The other high profile deal that is far from settled is the new San Siro in Milan. Actually, the Milan scheme is one of several in Italy. KPMG pointed out that the average age of Serie A stadiums is 69 years, some eight years younger than the English Premier. KPMG added: “Italy’s strict regulations in relation to preservation of architectural heritage, combined with the economic hardships caused by the pandemic, may significantly postpone the realisation of projects being planned. For example, Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities (MiBACT) recently ruled that Fiorentina’s Stadio Artemio Franchi could not be demolished or undergo a major redevelopment due to its historic status.”

The delays with the San Siro are due to the local political calendar, differing agendas and council reticence, among other factors. There’s another issue that has emerged in recent weeks, and that’s the future of Inter Milan should San Siro go ahead. The new owners of Newcastle United, Mohammed bin Salman, has expressed an interest in acquiring Inter and a price of £ 850 million has been mentioned. If San Siro is rebuilt, opening the doors for greater revenue streams, the club becomes that more attractive. Apparently, Inter’s troubled Chinese owners, Suning, are looking for around € 1 billion. 

Meanwhile, the arrival of Saudi Arabian owners in Newcastle could mean St. James’ Park will undergo some refurbishment, along with the club’s training ground. This could merely be one of a number of major overhauls in the UK as a bid to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup is planned. 

The creation of bigger and more diverse stadiums may become more pressing as clubs move out of crisis mode and the damage of the pandemic is fully assessed. But where will the money come from? It has already become clear that alternative investors have become more interested in the game, such as hedge funds, private equity and family offices, but all come with a cost that can exceed conventional bank lending rates. Banks are less likely to lend to clubs in the current climate, but as we have seen in the case of Everton and Milan, they can still be accessible for the really big deals. And it should not be forgotten that a major US investment bank was instrumental in the aborted European Super League. Ultimately, stadiums represent assets that can be leveraged, financed, mortgaged and securitised. Money to be made.