Brentford master community service

Click to follow
The Independent Online
It has been a busy week at Griffin Park: bingo and fitness classes for the over-50s; birthday parties and five-a-side for the under-15s; a ladies' gym; a beauty clinic; and a crche. There was supposed to be some good football, too, but Brentford's 2-0 win over Cardiff City on Saturday did not quite live up to expectations.

However, it did put the west London club back on top of the Second Division, and relegated their Welsh visitors. It also provided several hundred schoolchildren with their first taste of the unique atmosphere of a professional football match. And, though the game was rarely attractive or exciting, some of those youngsters will have been captivated, as their parents once were. The intoxicating mix of colour and passion, of hot dog smells and sudden crowd noises will entice them back.

Football has been poor at cultivating the supporters of the future. It seemed to believe its status as the national sport meant the game had an inalienable right to attract fans without trying. While that arrogance still pervades some clubs, decades of tumbling support and changing social attitudes have led to enlightenment at many. Membership schemes are everywhere and there are now awards and grants for clubs who involve themselves in their communities.

Brentford were involved in this before it became fashionable. Their community scheme has been running for nine years and is widely regarded as one of the best in the country. Unlike some clubs their philosophy appears not to be about maximising the amount of money they can make from each supporter, but about creating a bond between fan and club that goes beyond Saturday afternoon.

Thus schools and youth groups are being invited to send 50-strong parties to attend a match free of charge (only conditions: dress in red, white and black, and sing); youngsters can buy standing season tickets for about a pound a match; and a series of junior teams, for boys and girls - and not just the lite players - are run by the club.

These things, such as family discount and using local ballboys, do happen elsewhere, but few clubs run the range of schemes Brentford do. A few further examples: six pounds gets your son or daughter off your hands for six hours (well worth the money in the holidays) while they play football, have a pizza lunch, then watch the match.

Or there is the birthday party which includes a tour of the ground, being a mascot, playing football in the school over the road with your guests, and attendance for all at the match. This results in letters like the one in Saturday's programme:

"Dear Miss Kates. Thanks for my party at Brentford. It was good. Benny."

An accompanying letter from the mother noted that several of the 10 birthday guests had never been to a football match before, but most wanted to go back. Ah ha. So these are just ploys to attract future spectators - and their money.

But that does not explain the blind spectator scheme which includes two free tickets - for the spectator and their helper - matchday commentary, analysis from a first-team player (presumably one not on the pitch), and refreshments. Neither does it explain the schemes for older people, the over-50s fitness club, travel, bowls, bingo and dance.

This is where the local authorities have both helped and influenced. Ealing and Hounslow boroughs are heavily involved in the scheme. It is a three-way partnership, with each council paying its share to the annual £50,000 budget, a sum which is stretched further by the use of many volunteers. "It is not a cold and calculating thing," Lee Doyle, Brentford's Football in the Community officer, said. "We do not know how many of the kids come back, but we do get a big feedback."

Brentford, like many small clubs, are well aware that the average eight- year-old would rather paper his wall with Ryan Giggs and boast of 9-0 wins in the playground than follow a local team which has no glossy magazine or famous name to represent it.

ITV's television coverage of the Endsleigh League helps, and Brentford noticed the difference in public awareness when they were in the First Division two years ago. They are, again, going for promotion and have also hired a famous name to represent them in the schools. Stan Bowles' reputation is more likely to impress fathers than sons and daughters but Doyle notes: "Having someone of his quality in the scheme is great for both the kids and our coaches."

Judging by Saturday's display Brentford could do with someone of his quality on the pitch, too. They went into the game second from top, Cardiff third from bottom, but, once Cardiff survived an early onslaught, it seemed roles had been reversed. Brentford's 47-goal cutting edge, Nicky Forster and Bob Taylor, should have both scored early on. Taylor did so later but it was Forster, a close-season steal from Gillingham, who looked destined for a higher level despite an off day.

The previous week Brentford needed a last-minute equaliser against bottom- placed Chester and nerves again showed as Cardiff, with Cohen Griffith and Nicky Richardson prominent, played with the freedom of condemned men. They should have won but a harsh penalty and a late and appalling defensive mix-up sent them down. It also put Brentford in good heart for Wednesday's visit to Birmingham, a match that will probably decide the title, and the automatic promotion spot.

Should Brentford go up, major investment will be required at Griffin Park. The ground is neat and appears safe but it has few seats. Given that the team, too, needs money, the season could be a struggle even if David Webb, the manager, cites Reading's example. Brentford are unlikely to become a big club - as Saturday's sub-9,000 crowd indicates - but that does not mean the big clubs cannot learn from them.

Goals: 1-0 Grainger (pen, 66), 2-0 Taylor (81).

Brentford (4-4-2): Dearden; Statham, Bates, Ashby, Grainger; Mundee, Smith, Ratcliffe, Stephenson (Hutchings, 82); Taylor, Forster (Abrahams, 86). Substitute not used: Fernandes (gk).

Cardiff City (4-4-2): Williams; Brazil, Young (Adams, 85), Baddeley, Searle; Griffith, Wigg, Richardson, Millar; Bird, Dale (Oatway, 62). Substitute not used: Morris (gk).

Referee: M Pierce (Portsmouth).

Comments