Greg Dyke: Bees are better than United
As their fourth-round FA Cup tie against Chelsea looms, the BBC's former director general tells Glenn Moore why Brentford's 'real football' means being chairman at Griffin Park is preferable to being a Manchester United director
Being chairman of a football club brings all manner of perks. Not only does the car park stay open for Greg Dyke as we talk into the night, it transpires he and his directors once had a pie-eating evening. "We're known for our pies in the directors' box at Brentford," he recounts. "One week there was a problem with the delivery. We ended up taste-testing a load."
It has not all been fun, however, since Dyke swapped the BBC, where he was director general, for BFC in 2006. "There have been board meetings when we had to have a whip-round to keep the club alive. The arrangement was we could put a bit of money in but not tell the wives – I had an arrangement with my wife where whatever I put into Brentford she could spend on something else. We got most of it back in the end, but not all of it."
Those days have gone as Brentford now have a benefactor, betting website tycoon Matt Benham. His investment has helped Brentford plot a stadium move, plan a scond-tier academy, and, under manager Uwe Rösler, push for promotion to the Championship.
On Sunday that target will be set aside for 90 minutes as Brentford host near-neighbours Chelsea in the FA Cup fourth round. It is a meeting which will bring Dyke face-to-face with the modern game he helped create, but now has grave reservations about.
As managing director of London Weekend Television in 1990, Dyke was one of the first to appreciate the potential of live televised football and it was the meetings he set up with the chairmen of the then Big Five (Manchester United, Arsenal, Spurs, Liverpool and Everton) which led to the formation of the Premier League.
"I remember the five clubs decided they would only break away if they could get the FA onside. They went to see Bert Millichip [chairman] and Graham Kelly [chief executive], who didn't ask for anything. They so hated the Football League they were just happy to shaft them. It was ridiculous; they could have had anything – a league of 16 clubs, players released for England, a quota of English players…I'm surprised the FA hasn't tried to assert itself since a bit, but there are moments and – like the RFU when rugby became professional – they missed theirs."
Thus, as Dyke prepares to welcome Roman Abramovich, Rafael Benitez and Fernando Torres to Griffin Park, he admits: "I don't think it was ever the intention the Premiership would be owned by foreign owners, managed by foreign managers and played by foreign players, yet that is where we have ended up. It is a great league, but I don't think it is great for English football.
"A number of foreign owners don't understand either the culture or history of the game. I think that is worrying, but I'm not sure anything can be done about it. I remember when Manchester United changed the badge and took the words 'Football Club' off. The supporters said, 'But we are a football club'. They went ahead anyway."
Dyke was a director of United from 1997-99, the sole one to oppose the Murdoch takeover (later vetoed by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission). He had to step down when he took over at the BBC but was considering an offer to return before the Glazers bought the club, a move he would have opposed. "I thought the way the Glazers were financing it was pretty suspect. It required the club to generate so much cash each year but you only had to have a couple of years when you were not in the Champions League and your money went down dramatically. But they kept Alex [Ferguson] and he has kept them financially secure."
Dyke supported both clubs as a boy, but was his time at Old Trafford good preparation for Brentford? "Not really; the two are so different." It is certainly hard to imagine the Glazers testing pies – or dipping their hands into their own pockets – and they will not have the encounters the engaging Dyke has enjoyed.
"We won League Two three years ago. I was taking the trophy out to give to the captain. A fan came up and put his arm round me. He said, 'You're effing wonderful, Mr Dyke, effing wonderful you are, look at what we've done'. Then he said, 'Mind you, last year I thought you were a ****'."
The difference, however, was not just down to Dyke. Benham had begun investing. "It didn't really work being a fan-owned club," says Dyke. "The trouble is football does not survive on its own income, it survives on rich people by and large. The fans couldn't put any money in and it became a problem. We were lucky when Matthew came in. He's a lifelong fan and he's paid for the land for the new stadium but he doesn't want to be chairman and he doesn't want his name on the stand. To have a supporter like that, you thank your lucky stars."
The game, he admits with a degree of sadness, is now about money, which is ironic since Dyke's intervention accelerated that process. "Everywhere I go I ask, 'What's your wage bill, and who puts the money in?' Most of the time the wage bill correlates to the league position. Martin Allen [the Gillingham manager, who twice led Brentford to the play-offs] was here recently. He said, 'You've some good players here now'. I said, 'We can pay more money now'."
Not that the Bees are in clover. The stand roofs at Griffin Park have long been used for advertising by airlines as it is on the Heathrow flightpath, but Qatar Airways now gets free exposure. Its deal expired a few years ago but their name remains, said Dyke, "as we can't afford to paint over it".
The Chelsea tie is a windfall in part as ticket prices have been raised. There was some discontent but, said Dyke, "we then told everyone all the extra money is going to the playing budget. That shut everybody up. Uwe is delighted. He's very good at sticking to the budget, but he'd spent it all." Brentford are not a rapacious club. "As a Christmas present we said for the Stevenage match fans could pay what they want – the minimum was £1, with anything extra going to charity. We sold out. Then we had to call it off because of the weather. It was so sad."
We have been talking after Tuesday's 2-2 draw with Leyton Orient. The match, or maybe the pies, had attracted the chairmen of the FA and Football League, David Bernstein and Greg Clarke, but they have long gone, as has everyone else, with Dyke being left the key "to lock up". A call reminds him the car park is also waiting to close so we go into the cold for a photograph.
We look around. All being well, Griffin Park, 109 years old, will be superseded in 2016 by a shiny stadium nearby where Brentford will seek to market themselves to fans disillusioned with Premier League prices and to an Asian community under-represented in their crowds. The aim is to double the gates, become a Championship club, and dream of emulating the likes of Swansea City and Reading, both recent peers.
But Griffin Park is where Dyke came on the bus as a boy, initially because his brother was on Brentford's books, to watch the "terrible twins" of the Third Division South, George Francis (Gerry's uncle) and Jim Towers. Dyke's brother did not join them in the pro ranks. "I remember Bill Dodgin Snr [then Brentford manager] coming round. My brother was about 15. Bill said, 'We need you, son' but my dad was very suspicious. Those were the days of £20-a-week but today I'd still be suspicious because so many kids get signed and so few make it. You have to make sure they have an education. You are giving kids expectations most will never realise. The big clubs hoover up talent yet none of them get in the first team. I find some bits of football depressing."
So what was more fun, being a director at Manchester United, or chairman at Brentford? There is a long pause, then Dyke says: "This is more fun because it is real football. It is not the beautiful football you see at Old Trafford, but it is real football. I love this."
My other life
What with being chairman of Brentford, the British Film Institute and the children's TV company HiT Entertainment (makers of Bob the Builder, Thomas & Friends and other favourites), Dyke does not have that much spare time. He is also Chancellor of the University of York, which he attended 40 years ago, and was there this week making a speech to mark the 50th anniversary of the university's founding.
Dyke, 65, switches off by gardening (including with a chainsaw), horse-riding and walking.
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