As Bad As Things Got: Brentford – 19th January 1967
On the morning of the 19th January 1967, Brentford supporters awoke to a rather unpleasant surprise. ‘Brentford May Die in Take Over’, read the headline in the Daily Mail, and other newspapers were also sharing similarly bleak progoneses for the club’s future. The club’s chairman had announced that he was putting his shareholding up for sale a month earlier at the club’s AGM, but there had been no indication that his exit route would be this destructive.
To understand how we got to this point, though, we need to rewind a little, to the start of the decade. Brentford had ended the 1930s as a solid First Division club, but the return of League football after the war saw them relegated at the first attempt, with a second relegation followed in 1955. By the start of the following decade, the club had changed their colours from their familiar red, white and black to yellow, blue and black. After ending the 1960/61 season in 17th place in the Third Division, though, they reverted back to their traditional colours.
Jack Dunnett joined the board of the club that summer. Dunnett was working his way up the greasy pole of politics, with positions on both Enfield Borough Council and Middlesex County Council, and by the end of the year he was the majority shareholder and chairman of Brentford Football Club. On the pitch, though, his tenure didn’t start well and Brentford ended the 1961/62 season in 23rd place in the Third Division, relegated again.
Dunnett decided to go big on promotion straight back, spending lavishly and reaping the rewards in the form of promotion back to the Third Division at the first attempt. His career took another step forward when he was elected as the Labour MP for Nottingham Central in 1964, but Brentford stagnated and were relegated back into the Fourth Division in 1966. Since the club’s first relegation into Division Four in 1961, Brentford had a net loss in the transfer market of £84,000. Brentford’s average attendance in 1959/60 had been 11,912. By the 1966/67 season it had almost halved, to 6,663.
In a time before TV money or the significant commercialisation of the game but after the end of its maximum wage, when gate receipts meant everything, Brentford were in trouble. The club was losing £400 a week – £6,167, adjusted for inflation to 2021 – by the end of 1966, and at that December’s AGM Dunnett confirmed not only that the club had lost £20,000 in the previous year, but also that he was putting his shareholding up for sale.
On the 19th January 1967 they found out who he was selling to, and the answer was horrifying – Jim Gregory of Queens Park Rangers, Brentford’s local rivals. The plan was straightforward enough. Queens Park Rangers, whose own Loftus Road ground had barely been touched in years, would move into Griffin Park, and Brentford would cease to exist. The supporters were mobilised by Supporters Club Chair, Peter Pond-Jones. A fighting fund was set up to rescue the club which raised £8,500. A walk was held from Brighton to London to highlight the supporters’ plight.
And perhaps most significantly of all, Jimmy Hill, a former Brentford player, managed to persuade the BBC to broadcast Pond-Jones and Dunnett discussing the proposals, live on Grandstand. Pond-Jones ran rings around Dunnett’s arguments, challenging him to negotiate with the group that was coalescing to buy the club. This, of course, was hardly good PR for a sitting MP and national exposure for Brentford’s plight. Ten days later, Dunnett agreed to sell.
Peter Pond-Jones, however, would not be part of the group to take over the running of the club. The new chairman was the former Plymouth Argyle chairman Ron Blindell, and he couldn’t get on with Pond-Jones, who resigned his position with the Supporters Club the following year after they were banned from the club. He would return to serve on the board of directors twice, during the 1970s.
Brentford started the 1967/68 season with just 16 players and a new manager, Jimmy Sirrel. The club’s financial position started to improve, and by the end of the year the club was trading profitably, with a bridging loan from Blindell of £104,000, which had been critical in securing the sale earlier in the year, remained outstanding amid total debts of £135,000.
In March 1968, though, Blindell had a further bombshell to drop. Brentford were to leave Griffin Park and move to ground-share with Southern League club Hillingdon Borough at their Leas Stadium under the name of “Brentford Borough”. Once again, Brentford’s angel of death was the Queen Park Rangers chairman Jim Gregory had revived his interest in Griffin Park, offered £250,000 for the use of the ground, if the club moved to Hillingdon. QPR were on the point of promotion to the First Division, and Loftus Road needed a lot of work.
Again, though, rescue was at hand and Brentford were saved when former director Walter Wheatley gave the club a £69,000 interest-free loan, repayable in 12 months. Blindell died at the start of 1969, and his loan was paid off with the proceeds of a run to the Fifth Round of the FA Cup in 1971. Although there was much boardroom shuffling around the club throughout the 1970s, the club did at least stabilise a little. After a promotion in 1973 that was followed by relegation straight back, Brentford finally clambered out of Division Four in 1978 and reached the second tier in 1992. They’ve been back to the fourth level again, as recently as 2009, but they will start the 2008/09 season in the Premier League, their first season of top flight football in 74 years.
Jack Dunnett wasn’t done with his football career after Brentford. Despite the fact that he’d offered to close his club and sell its ground to their biggest rivals, Dunnett was elected President of the Football League and a Vice-President of the FA between 1981 and 1986, and again from 1988 to 1989. Dunnett had repaired his reputation at Notts County, where Jimmy Sirrel had joined him shortly after his arrival in 1969 and the club had risen from the Fourth Division in 1971 to the First Division a decade later.
In 1977 Dunnett, representing the Football League’s management committee, negotiated a deal with Michael Grade under which London Weekend Television gained the rights to televise all Football League matches, cutting out the BBC – the still-infamous “Snatch of the Day”. After questions were raised in parliament on the subject and with a media storm in full flow, the Office of Fair Trading vetoed it. He remained an MP until 1983.
By the time Dunnett moved on from Meadow Lane in 1987, though, Notts County were £2m in debt and no longer playing in the First Division. He sold up to Derek Pavis, who oversaw the redevelopment of the ground during the 1990s but named one of the stands after himself and then sold the club on to Albert Scardino, an American businessman who almost tanked Notts completely at the start of this century. From there on, via another supporters trust rescue and the incredible Munto Finance scandal, the club faced an ultimately inexorable slide into the non-league game, where they remain to this day.
Jim Gregory, the man who tried to make his local rivals homesless twice in just over a year, stayed in the game for the next two decades. Loftus Road was redeveloped bit by bit, completing by the end of the 1970s. By the time it was completed, it was one of the most modern grounds in England with its artificial pitch, and by the 1980s Queens Park Rangers were an established First Division club.
Towards the end of 1986, though, Gregory was advised to ease up by his doctors. Even in his departure from QPR, though, he had a sting in his tail. In February 1987, it was announced that Gregory was selling up to Marler Estates, who already owned Fulham. They intended to move Fulham to Loftus Road under the name of Fulham Park Rangers, and Fulham would cease to exist.
There was, of course, immediate outcry and there were demonstrations at both Fulham and QPR at their first home matches after the announcement was made. QPR’s home match against Manchester City was delayed by thirty minutes because of a sit-in in the centre circle by supporters before kick-off. Fulham supporters also protested during their match that day, invading the pitch at half-time. Their opponents that day knew Jim Gregory all too well. Their opponents that day were Brentford.
Fulham were eventually rescued by a consortium led by Jimmy Hill, while Marler Estates collapsed into liquidation when the bottom fell out of the housing market at the start of the following decade. Gregory took the chairmanship at Portsmouth, but died in 1990. Brentford, meanwhile, would continue to tread rocky paths until into this century. A consortium led by manager David Webb bought the club in 1997, but that group’s failure in turn led to the club’s relegation and a buyout from Ron Noades.
Noades was well-known to everybody, having been prevously involved at Southall, Wimbledon and Crystal Palace. He’d sold Palace earlier that year to Mark Goldberg and paid just £650,000 to buy Brentford, where he installed himself as manager. Spending heavily on the team, Brentford did win promotion at the end of his first season in charge, but Noades quit as chairman after losing at home to non-league Kingstonian in the FA Cup in 2000.
Brentford flirted with administration in the fallout from the collapse of ITV Digital in 2002, and Noades eventually sold his shareholding to the Bees Trust, who were assisted by loans and donations from supporter Matthew Benham, in 2006. Benham himself took control of the majority shareholding in the club at the end of the 2011/12 season. A decade on, the club has a new stadium and is preparing to start their life in the Premier League.
There is a striking irony to the fact that Benham, a fan of the club, has been able to achieve all of this at Brentford when so many others, who likely considered themselves to be the great and the good of English football at the time, failed so consistently. And those among us who romanticise football’s past are best reminded of the fact that while the likes of Dunnett, Gregory and Noades endlessly portrayed themselves as the elder statemen of the game in this country, there were plenty of occasions when their grubby business tactics pushed clubs closer to the edge than they ever needed to be.