The news that Brentford had broken the two million pound transfer fee barrier when they signed Danish international defender Andreas Bjelland from FC Twente last week shook me to the core, as I am sure it did every other long-established Bees fan, brought up as I was supporting a club with a well deserved reputation for caution and parsimony in the transfer market.
This is the club that in recent times eagerly snatched the money on offer for star strikers such as John O’Mara, Andy McCulloch, Dean Holdsworth, Nicky Forster and DJ Campbell and replaced them instead with cheap nonentities and journeymen like Stan Webb, Lee Holmes, Murray Jones and Calum Willock. Oh, and in Nicky Forster’s case the stupendously idiotic decision was taken not to replace him at all.
That was then and this is now as the Bees have now paid three transfer fees in excess of a million pounds in the last year for Moses Odubajo, Jota and the aforementioned Bjelland and I suspect that there are more to come too.
In order to highlight just how much our approach towards investing in emerging young talent has changed since Matthew Benham took over control of the club, it is illuminating to look back over the past century and see how our record transfer fee gradually and slowly increased in value with a few blips along the way.
Middlesborough were the first club to pay a four figure sum for a player in 1905 when they signed Alf Common from Sunderland. Brentford took twenty years to match them when they invested one thousand pounds, or forty thousand pounds at today’s equivalent value, on centre forward Ernie Watkins from Southend. This was rightly seen as a massive sum for an impoverished and struggling club, but the gamble paid of as the threat of re-election was averted and he scored a club record twenty-four goals in the following season.
The wonderfully named fullback, Baden Herod, cost fifteen hundred pounds from Charlton three years later but Harry Curtis quickly cashed in on him when Spurs offered four thousand pounds for him in 1929, or one hundred and seventy-seven thousand pounds at today’s value.
Despite Brentford’s meteoric rise in the mid to late 30s the highest fee paid at that time by Harry Curtis was a mere six thousand pounds to Hearts for star striker Dave McCulloch, or just under three hundred thousand pounds in today’s figures. He also provided massive value for money, scoring ninety times for the club in three years and playing for Scotland, before surprisingly being sold to Derby County for a fee of nine and a half thousand pounds – a sum not far short of the then British record transfer fee.
So even at the time of Brentford’s greatest success, money still talked and our star asset was sold and then not properly replaced. How many times since then have we seen that self-same scenario repeat itself?
Jackie Gibbons and Ron Greenwood were brought in soon after the Second World War for eight and nine thousand pounds respectively and both were fine players, and the five-figure barrier was finally broken in 1952 with the astonishing signing of the legendary centre forward Tommy Lawton for an eye watering sixteen thousand pounds from Notts County. Lawton had scored almost a goal per game in twenty-three England internationals, but at thirty-two years of age he was well past his best. He was still a massive attraction though and the chance to watch a fully fledged star saw gates soar, with thirty-one thousand watching his home debut against Swansea. He performed decently on the pitch and became player-manager before a decline set in and he resigned before making a surprise return to the First Division with Arsenal.
Relegation back to the Third Division in 1954 saw the beginning of a near-decade of austerity where the club, particularly under the astute management of Malcolm MacDonald relied upon a conveyor belt of local youngsters and cheap imports from junior football in MacDonald’s native Scotland and transfer fees were a rarity. Despite the lack of investment he twice almost led his team back into the Second Division but fell just short, and with the end of the maximum wage and money in short supply a weakened and depleted squad dropped into the bottom division in 1962.
New Chairman Jack Dunnett blew out the cobwebs around Griffin Park and determined to spend in order to buy the club back to respectability. An all international forward trio of Johnny Brooks, Billy McAdams and John Dick supported by other expensive purchases in John Fielding, Matt Crowe and Mel Scott, reversed the slump and saw the Fourth Division title won in 1963 with a massive ninety-eight goals scored.
John Dick became Brentford’s record signing when we splurged seventeen thousand five hundred pounds on the experienced thirty-two year old Scotland international forward who had been West Ham’s top scorer in Division One just the year before. The football world was bemused at how the Bees had managed to persuade Ron Greenwood to sell him and suspected that the old boys’ network had come into play, but the West Ham manager knew that he had a young converted wing half called Geoff Hurst ready and waiting in the reserves to fill the vacancy upfront!
Over sixty thousand pounds had been spent in the transfer market in order to build a team that won promotion back to the Third Division and the spending did not end there, as within the next eighteen months additional major signings such as Dai Ward, Mark Lazarus, Allan Jones, Chic Brodie, George Thomson, Jimmy Bloomfield, Joe Bonson, Billy Cobb and Ian Lawther took the total expenditure on players since Dunnett took over to a sum in excess of one hundred and fifty-thousand pounds, a figure that would have been significantly increased if an audacious forty thousand pound bid for former international striker Gerry Hitchens, now playing for Torino, had been accepted.
Brentford had gone from famine to feast and to put all this expenditure into context, Dunnett spent the equivalent at today’s prices of over two million pounds on transfer fees, predominantly on a series of undoubtedly talented but in the main, experienced players whose best days had long since gone and who had little or no resale value. Indeed we did not recoup our investment on any of the players who he brought into the club. He gambled on getting the club back into the Second Division but after a narrow miss in 1965 an appalling turnaround saw the Bees back in the bottom division in 1966.
These were the economics of the madhouse and it was a policy that came within a whisker of destroying the club in 1967 when, scenting blood, QPR mounted an abortive takeover bid. Disaster was narrowly averted but we were holed beneath the water line and the next few years after Dunnett decamped to Notts County saw budgets slashed, squad numbers reduced and austerity rule. With priority naturally given to paying off the now massive debt, transfer fees would become a distant memory for the foreseeable future.
AHEAD OF THE GAME
For anyone interested in reading my take on everything that happened both on and off the pitch last season, as well as the odd diversion into nostalgia, player profiles and club history, leavened with some (hopefully) pertinent and amusing comments, my new book Ahead Of The Game is available now.
Here are the Links to where the book can be purchased:
Published 17 June 2015 | 978-1-910515-14-3 | 408 pages | Print and Kindle | £15.99, £8.99