David Conn: Spirit of the Beehive offers shining example to football's many drones

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When Southampton's millionaire players and Barbour-jacketed chairman roll up to hemmed-in Griffin Park for Tuesday's FA Cup fifth-round replay against Brentford, they may just make out an insistent noise, background music to swathes of English football, but still alien to Premiership ears: fans rattling buckets.

When Southampton's millionaire players and Barbour-jacketed chairman roll up to hemmed-in Griffin Park for Tuesday's FA Cup fifth-round replay against Brentford, they may just make out an insistent noise, background music to swathes of English football, but still alien to Premiership ears: fans rattling buckets.

For the Saints, the Cup is a mere distraction from their fight to remain in the Premiership, whose fabulous riches are all their chairman, Rupert Lowe, has ever known in football. For the Bees, despite the rancour caused by ticketing cock-ups before last Saturday's 2-2 draw at St Mary's, their heroic Cup run has been a huge boost, the earnings a leg-up in the perpetual struggle just to stay in business.

There are two ways to look at how the west London lower division stalwarts arrived at their recent desperate straits. Not in dispute are the facts: Ron Noades took over in 1998, flush with the £17m he was paid for Crystal Palace by the hapless Mark Goldberg, although Noades retained Selhurst Park, for which Palace still pay his company, Altonwood, a meaty rent, and a slice of the catering receipts.

Brentford's home is squeezed into the densely populated London Borough of Hounslow, where land is at a premium. All agree they need a new, modern stadium to compete robustly in the Football League.

Noades appointed as his manager the man he believed was best suited to the job - himself, then signed good players, including Hermann Hreidarsson from Palace for £750,000, to win Brentford instant promotion to the Second Division.

Noades sold Hreidarsson to Wimbledon in October 1999 for £2.5m, but as the transfer market collapsed, no similar fees could be commanded for others like Lloyd Owusu, Ivar Ingimarsson, or the goalkeeper Paul Smith, and most of the top-earning players left at the end of their contracts. Noades stepped down as manager when he lost the support of the fans, but Brentford have run up a £4.5m overdraft, guaranteed by Altonwood, with interest running at £300,000 a year.

Noades then scared the fans to their backbones. His plan was to sell Griffin Park and groundshare with non-League Woking while an alternative site could be identified and a new stadium built. Lifelong Bees fans organised to oppose passionately the move, then became an early trust formed with the help of the Government initiative Supporters Direct, eventually electing a representative to the board, John McGlashan, in the summer of 2002. The following year, Noades told them they could find out what it was like and run the club themselves, and gave them an option to buy the club, including Griffin Park, for £1, if they can free him from his £4.5m guarantee.

One interpretation of this calamitous tale casts Noades as the cold-hearted, money-making, serial club owner, the chairman's equivalent of Paul Gascoigne's soulmate Jimmy Five Bellies - Ronnie Two-Grounds, who bought Brentford for an ego trip and is still calling the shots while playing the benefactor. Brentford fans have long memories and ever since Jack Dunnett, later the Football League's president and owner of Notts County, took them over in 1965 wanting to merge them with Queen's Park Rangers, they have been wary of property men arriving bearing plans. The idea of having no ground but Noades making £10m from the sale was not the stuff of their dreams.

Noades himself supplies the alternative reading. He became the manager because he had always scouted at Palace - spotting Geoff Thomas, Chris Coleman, Mark Bright and others - and was tired of justifying himself to managers. His tactics for the ground have more than an echo of Wimbledon, the club he owned before he bought Palace. He says his plan was to sell Griffin Park and move to Woking as a provocation, forcing the local council to find Brentford a site and bring them back to Hounslow. Under his former partner Sam Hammam, Wimbledon moved away from their Plough Lane ground, also to become Noades' tenant at Selhurst, to play similar hardball with the London Borough of Merton - they never went home.

"Brentford fans kept saying my plans were another Brighton [still homeless following the sale of the Goldstone Ground in 1997]. It was different; our debts would have been paid off, and the £10m would have sat in the bank waiting to put into a new stadium."

Noades insists that he had protected the club from asset-stripping - and the former chairman, Martin Lange, retains a veto on a ground sale. However, the fans' hostility to the Woking move, according to Noades, prompted him to give Brentford up and hand the club's running to the 1,200-strong Bees United trust.

"I said, go on, you can have it for a quid if you refinance the overdraft. But I don't get much thanks for it."

Cue the bucket collections, music nights, hundreds paying monthly standing orders of £10, and the 286-mile sponsored walk by five besotted Bees, to last Tuesday's away fixture with Hartlepool. The aching, triumphant fans raised £10,000, and Brentford lost 3-1. "Brentford fans' commitment has been unbelievable," John McGlashan, the executive director elected by Bees United, told me. "They love this club, as I've done for 40 years."

With four out of seven directors now appointed by Bees United, Brentford have tried to cut the wage bill while backing the manager, Martin "Mad Dog" Allen, to nurture this season's strong over-performances on the field. Fans' fury at last week's ticketing fiasco, in which the club failed to take their full allocation, then did not give priority to season ticket holders, has taken the gloss off some fine achievements.

"We've made mistakes. Having addressed the finances and playing side, we have to professionalise the club's administration and will be appointing a chief executive," McGlashan told me.

Short term, they want to redevelop Griffin Park to allow some money to be made from catering and hospitality. They are desperately seeking a few wealthy supporters to invest, enable them to pay off Noades and get ownership of the club. Long term, lies the mammoth new stadium development, possibly at Lionel Road, which they hope will make the football club a real sporting and cultural centrepiece in Hounslow.

In 2002, they even formed a political party, ABC, A Future for BFC in your Community, whose candidate for the Brentford ward, Luke Girton, became the first local councillor ever to be elected on a pure football ticket.

"Given the fans' commitment," McGlashan said, "the will and imagination, we can make the new stadium happen. People underestimate Brentford; the catchment area takes in a million people in Hounslow, Ealing and Richmond. This club has huge potential."

Of most immediate concern is the overdraft interest, without which they would be breaking even. Fans' fundraising efforts, bit by determined bit, have mounted up to £400,000, most of it eaten up by the bank - "sickening," according to McGlashan.

So perhaps Lowe, who was paid £397,189 last year as chairman of Southampton, plus another £53,312 in dividends, might see his way to put a bob or two in a bucket on Tuesday night. Or Southampton could do Brentford an even saintlier favour - lose. The winners play Manchester United at home in the quarter-final, and that could really cheer everybody up in Brentford.

Ron Noades the dealings of a serial London club owner

Age 67.

Occupation Property developer, company Altonwood owns four golf courses in Surrey.

1974 Took over non-League Southall.

1976 Bought Wimbledon for £2,782, took them into Football League following year.

1981 Sold Wimbledon to Sam Hammam for reported £100,000.

1981 Bought Crystal Palace, planned to merge them with Wimbledon, but stayed to build teams, two new stands and see Palace at Wembley five times.

1998 Sold Palace to Mark Goldberg for £22.8m, with option to buy Selhurst Park for another £7m. Goldberg paid him £17m, and never bought Selhurst Park, which Noades still owns.

1998 Bought Brentford, made himself the manager. Planned to sell Griffin Park and move club to Woking.

2003 Handed running of club to supporters' trust, who have an option to buy it for £1 if they can release Noades from £4.5m overdraft guarantees.