Peter Lumley has been a regular contributor to this column recently and his razor sharp reminiscences of over seventy years of watching the Bees are always welcome and of great interest.
Today he has used the knowledge gained from his professional experience of being a local journalist covering the club and then a public relations practitioner to provide his viewpoint on Brentford’s current PR stance and approach.
Peter, as always, holds strong opinions and trenchant views, and it is perfectly obvious that there is much that has happened at the club over the last twelve traumatic months that has certainly not been to his liking and which has left him feeling angry, concerned and confused.
There has been much debate recently regarding Brentford’s expertise (or lack of it) in communicating with various media outlets – newspapers, radio, television and social media in general. It is a subject that is close to my heart in that I have had the privilege of working on both sides of the fence, so to speak.
My first job on leaving school at the age of sixteen was to join the Middlesex County Times at Ealing as a trainee cub reporter with a special interest in sport. At that age I had already been a Griffin Park regular for six years since my first visit in 1942.
I should point out that the newspaper had a weekly circulation of over fifty thousand copies and covered an area embracing Ealing, West Ealing, Hanwell, Greenford and Northolt – a very fertile catchment area for Brentford fans at a time when the club encountered so many severe financial problems.
One of my primary objectives was to help the club by trying to expand the coverage and gain greater support. I also wrote a weekly column covering a range of local sports activities – similar to a blog in modern parlance. One regular feature of that column was references to Brentford of which at least ninety percent could fairly be described as more than favourable or positive.
Among my many sources of information were a number of players with whom I formed a friendship and who were always interested in what I had written about their performances and those of their team mates. And I can honestly claim that I never betrayed a confidence nor did I compromise their relationship with Griffin Park officials.
For all these reasons I looked forward to establishing a close working relationship with senior club officials to share in a common cause. But subsequent events proved otherwise. There were two local newspaper rivals at that time. One was the iconic George Sands, of the “Middlesex Chronicle” a lifelong bachelor who devoted much of his life to Brentford and covered every Bees game, home and away for season after season. The other was Ernie Gifford, of the “Brentford and Chiswick Times”. Both gave the impression that they watched Brentford through red-and-white tinted spectacles.
This quite naturally endeared them to the Brentford management, particularly the club’s General Secretary, the late Denis Piggott, who was also General Manager/Secretary for a brief period. And it was this fact that led me into my first confrontation with club officialdom. Regularly on Thursday mornings I phoned Mr. Piggott to try and glean any information of potential interest to my readers before going to press later on in the day.
Invariably Mr. Piggott was less than enthusiastic about giving any information away even though he was well aware that my intention was to try and whip up interest among potential supporters for the next match.
Mr. Piggott seemed much more interested in complaining about any criticisms I had levelled against Brentford performances in the previous week’s edition. The fact that I had significantly extended the coverage of Brentford games went utterly unappreciated.
On one very memorable occasion, when I had written an article that club officials took particular exception to, I walked across the Braemar Road forecourt to be confronted by the then manager, Malcolm MacDonald, who threatened to punch me on the nose if I ever repeated the perceived offence.
And my alleged criticism that caused so much consternation would look like praise compared to some of Greville’s critiques of recent Brentford performances, particularly the one at Brighton!
But one Brentford Official who did appreciate the extra coverage given to the Bees, warts and all, was the late, great, Eric White who for a number of years acted as the club’s Press Officer. We became firm friends right up until his sudden and untimely death.
Another was no less than Mr. Jack Dunnett, who as Club Chairman invited me and other journalists to his luxury home for a pre-Christmas party for players and club officials. Mr. Dunnett was later to become a villain among Griffin Park fans as he prepared to sanction a takeover by West London arch rivals, Queens Park Rangers.
Fortunately the club was saved from extinction by another wealthy benefactor, Mr. Ron Blindell who succeeded Mr. Dunnett as Club Chairman. Mr. Dunnett later moved to Nottingham on becoming their Member of Parliament.
My years covering Brentford games spanned the years 1948/64. It was a period that produced an exciting but nerve-racking roller coaster of a ride but was also dramatically newsworthy for a young local journalist.
1) There were two relegations from the Second Division to the Fourth and promotion back to the Third.
2) The retirement of that great manager, Mr. Harry Curtis, who in the pre-war days took Brentford from the Third Division to the First.
3) England international Leslie Smith, hero of Brentford’s two-nil victory over Portsmouth in the London War Cup Final at Wembley in 1942, returned to Griffin Park for a short spell on being released by Aston Villa.
4) Perhaps my favourite player of all time, Ken Coote, completed more than 500 appearances for the club.
5) The defection of two of the stars of that wonderful half-back line of Tony Harper, Ron Greenwood and Jimmy Hill.
6) The great Tommy Lawton was Player/Manager for a brief period.
7) The skill and artistry of wonderful players like Johnny Brooks, Peter McKennan, Johnny Rainford, Dai Ward and John Dick.
8) Starlets Peter Broadbent and Jimmy Bloomfield, plus the Terrible Twins Jim Towers and George Francis, who were both so deadly in front of goal were all transferred, much to the dismay of every Griffin Park fan. How we could do with two strikers of their calibre today?
All these events – good and bad – were the subject of detailed analyses in my reports and personal weekly column. But it was my reporting of the various setbacks that befell the club that caused me the greatest heartache in terms of my relationship with the club’s management who appeared to perceive any criticism in a local paper as an act of disloyalty.
As an aside, it was my experience as a journalist that led me to encourage a school friend of one of my stepsons to follow his dream of becoming a sports journalist. He is none other than Neil Ashton, the Daily Mail’s brilliant award winning soccer correspondent, who also has his own regular Sunday morning slot on Sky TV.
Back to the debate on how the club should handle criticism from the Press.
A number of contributors urge the club to hire the services of a professional PR practitioner with the specific responsibility to improve the image of Brentford among the various Press outlets and to the UK football community at large.
I take a contrary view based on my experience spanning some twenty years of working for an organisation that represented multi-national companies in an industry that has been regularly been under the media spotlight and has been the target of much criticism – the pharmaceutical industry.
I make these points to put into some sort of perspective the demands placed on such organisations to represent themselves to the press in the same way that football clubs, in general and Brentford in particular seek to influence media and public opinion.
My experiences convinced me that while PR practitioners have a role to play in routine press relations activities, organisations should always seek to rely on a chief or senior executive to step up to the plate and appear on television or radio to put the case on behalf of their club or company. They will always command more authority and credibility than is possible with a slick smooth-talking PR man or woman.
A good example of this was when Brentford’s joint Co-Director of Football, Phil Giles, gave an interview to explain the club’s position on bringing in new players (or not!) during the recent January transfer window.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone agreed with me but, on balance, I believe his contribution was appreciated by a majority of those who saw it.
In conclusion, I would like to mention a particular hobby horse of mine. I fully appreciate that benevolent club owner, Matthew Benham, has always pursued a policy of staying out of the limelight so far as his role is concerned. And, of course, no one should criticise him for that. It is clearly his right to do so.
But I sincerely believe that the so-called “sacking” of Mark Warburton just over a year ago was so controversial that it demanded a much more forthright explanation than was offered at the time by the club chairman on behalf of the owner. And who better to give that explanation to the media, and to thousands of loyal but baffled supporters, like myself, than the man who was the driving force behind the intended change of direction?
With the benefit of hindsight I hope he might be persuaded to give an update on what he, and members of the Board of Directors, believe has been achieved in the last twelve months towards the stated aim of improving the recruitment of better players and coaches.
Another Fans’ Forum could certainly provide an appropriate platform!
Thank you, Peter, for your fascinating insight into the paternalistic way in which football clubs viewed their local paper and the cosy relationship that existed far too often between them.
As for his suggestion and exhortation for better, more open and regular communication between club and supporters, I really do not see how anybody can disagree with him.
From my perspective I always feel that it is fascinating and instructive to hear it from the horse’s mouth from club officials as well as the players, past and present when they are contributing to Bees Player, and it is always illuminating to be made privy to the inside track on what is really going on in and around the club and to how footballers think.
What does everybody else have to say on this subject which is totally relevant given the current circumstances?