When I was about nine or 10, I got seriously into football and started reading the back pages of the Middlesex Chronicle. Brentford were featured weekly and that stoked my interest.
I knew they were my local team and one Friday night they were playing Newport County in the Freight Rover Trophy Southern Area Final. I’m so ancient that I was checking the score on Teletext with my dad and I distinctly remember that it was 3-0 to Brentford at half-time. I said to him: “If Brentford win 6-0, can we go to Wembley and watch it?” I kid you not, we won 6-0. But I’ve got a sneaky feeling we would have gone anyway. So my first Brentford game was at Wembley - I was used to the big arena defeats from day one!
I first visited Griffin Park in 1986 and from a stats point of view that was the first-ever game in which two brothers – Roger and Francis Joseph - both scored in a Brentford league match. The footballing landscape was just completely different then; you were almost a leper if you went to football. I remember the crowd that day was under 3,000, which shows just how far football has come.
By 1988 I was regularly going to games - cycling down the Great West Road from my home in Heston. It was actually Steve Perryman’s team of 1988/89 that really got me started going on a regular basis. We got to the FA Cup sixth round that season and I was hooked. I can still reel off the names of that team because they are my heroes.
My dad went to a couple of games in the 1960s and my late grandfather told me that he’d been down there once ‘to see what all the fuss was about.’ I worked out that he’d probably seen us play in the old First Division, so he went to one Brentford game and that was in the top-flight!
My first favourite player was probably Simon Ratcliffe. He joined the club from Norwich City about the same time as I started going regularly and he was a typically versatile player; he’d play at right-back, midfield, centre-back on occasions; he could get stuck in and play a pass. I got to meet him once and not only was he a great player; he was a thoroughly nice guy. On that occasion, the saying ‘never meet your heroes’ couldn’t have been more wrong.
There are two promotion campaigns that stick out for me: one professionally and one as fan. I’m 45 next month, but I was 17 on that famous day at Peterborough in 1992 when we won the Third Division title. I only later realised how special it was, but there were fans on that terrace who’d been supporting the club for decades and had never seen us reach such footballing heights.
I remember being around six feet away from Carl Hutchings, who was a youth team player at the time. By the end of the game, his eyes were streaming with tears and it was fantastic to see someone that played for the club actually cared. He started playing for the first team about 18 months after that game and you could see what he was like off the pitch actually translate onto it. He was a whole-hearted player. It was a fantastic day all round and with 5,000 Brentford fans present, we got the result, Stockport beat Birmingham and we won the title. Coming back to Griffin Park to wait for the players was amazing too. As a supporter, I hope that’s topped in May.
Professionally, it’s got to be the League One promotion in 2014, for the fact that I was in the dressing room at the same time the players found out they’d been promoted. As a Brentford fan, there would have been a queue a mile long to swap places with me and I’ve never forgotten how lucky I’ve been to work for the club and to be part of situations where I know some fans would have given their right arm to replace me. After the final whistle, having finished my matchday duties, I bumped into Gary Blissett in the Braemar Road forecourt. I’d got to know him a few years before and for us to get promotion, be in the dressing room to witness it, take part in the celebrations and then to get a massive hug from one of my heroes of old was just a dream come true.
Gary was an ‘old school’ footballer. He smoked and drank his way through his professional career and was definitely a pre-Premier League athlete but a bloody great footballer and a really nice guy to boot.
I’ve worked at the club during three different spells. I did some work experience there when I was 17 in March 1992 and they said to me that, if I was at a loose end during the summer, I could come back. That was the summer we got promoted, so it was amazing being part of the ground staff for three months. Literally about two or three weeks after the Peterborough game I was digging up the touchline in front of the Paddock in readiness for it to be re-seeded. I remember at the end of the day my hands being covered in blisters. I’m assuming they do it a little bit differently these days!
My second spell was in 2001 when the club needed a website editor. At the time, there was a big drive by NTL and they bought the digital rights to every Football League club’s website. I had just come out of working for a digital agency in the West End and for me it was right time, right place as I ended up being the New Media Manager for four years.
The third time, an opportunity arose in 2012 to work in the newly-formed Communications department. I was one of the three Bees United representatives on the club board of directors and I knew the club was going to be taken over by Matthew Benham that summer and some great things would happen in the future. But though it had some great privileges, I knew the role would be diminished after the takeover and took the chance to work back at the club on a full-time basis. I did that until 2017 and then got married to my wife, Samina, moved to Ilford, and now work for an NHS Trust based in east London. I now have a beautiful 15-month-old daughter called Saffanah, who I’m going to try and bring to Griffin Park before the end of the season.
I’m back watching on Ealing Road with my friends again and that’s the thing I’m going to miss about watching football next season at the new stadium. We’ve been so lucky for the past six years to have been able to keep a terrace in the Championship. At first, it was strange watching instead of working there, but I don’t miss having to get in at 9am for a home game, like I had to on some occasions during my previous spells there! Staff in the club’s Communications department really do work hard at their jobs. Now, I can drive round the North Circular, park up and just make it in time for kick-off. Knowing I don’t have to write up a 600-word interview or edit some video straight after full-time is a relief, too.
The things I’m most proud of from my time as being a Director there was re-launching the Brentford FC Hall of Fame in 2012 and setting up the Former Players’ Association. I’m still in charge of nominating former players to be inducted to the Hall of Fame. Some of our former players are completely unaware of the esteem they are held in and it’s great to see the smiles on their faces when they come back to visit. I was particularly pleased to see George Francis and Gordon Phillips receive their Hall of Fame inductions shortly before they died, because they could actually witness the regard, warmth and love the fans had for them.
I’ve also had chances to change someone’s life for the better. Some fans will remember Antoine Gounet, who was a French goalkeeper with us eight years ago. He literally turned up at the training ground for a trial, explained his pedigree and by sheer luck, Brentford were down on goalkeepers at that particular point. Goalkeeping coach Simon Royce said he’d get him in for a couple of training sessions and he proved his worth. However, in French football there are a lot of compensation issues regarding players’ registration. As a board, we all agreed that we would take the risk, then worry about any issues later on. So for a guy who came over to London with nothing in his pocket and took the gamble of turning up to the training ground, in a small way, I helped him fulfil his dream to become a professional footballer in England. Things like that made me feel 10-foot tall. We’re still in touch after all that!
One manager stands out for me: Dean Smith was fantastic. He was the last Head Coach when I was working there and he totally got the media side of things. Managers and Head Coaches can dictate the tempo of the training ground and it rubs off on the rest of the staff, whether it’s analysis, medical, even the chefs in the canteen. He would never say no, always be on the end of a phone, and was a real friendly face. I think he’s a fantastic guy and I couldn’t have been prouder for him to see Villa get promotion last summer. When he was appointed in 2015, the club was in some difficulty on and off the pitch and he came in, steadied the ship and provided a really good brand of football. Thomas has taken that to another level. I got to know him for about six months before I left the club and we couldn’t be in better hands on the pitch.
I’ve got to thank Rob Jex and Graham Haynes for getting me interested in researching the club. They both wrote programme articles that whetted my appetite for learning more about Brentford history. From an early age I was always fascinated about the footballers down the years who’d worn our red and white stripes and even as a teenager, I was going up to the British newspaper library learning about them in dusty old volumes of newspapers and it’s gone on from there. Brentford footballers have done something we all would love to have done – they played for the football club we love.
My goal has always been to get the date of birth for every single player who has played for Brentford in the Football League. Cricket historians seemed to have this recorded, why not football? When I started out, I needed about 200 or so but I’ve narrowed it down to just two, George Smith and Alexander Wood, who both played for the club in the 1920s. They both currently elude me but I’m not giving up and I won’t rest until I’ve got every single one! It’s probably a little bit anorakish, but I’m passionate about the players, the history, and the pedigree of our club.
When I am researching the past, Wikipedia cannot be relied on because I know for a fact on every individual Brentford player’s page there is a mistake and it’s normally a big one. The key is to rely on primary sources. I’ve treated this project as an absolute obsession over the decades. It takes me into several different rabbit holes on the internet at times, but if you are trying to do them justice, it has to be done thoroughly.
It’s also led me to think that the football authorities need to look at their duty of care for former footballers. In my research I’ve uncovered a lot of Brentford players who’ve taken their own lives, sadly, or ended up with dementia, which is no doubt due to heading a heavy football for 10 years or more.
The 1,000th EFL player milestone is a good hook to finally bring my research to life. I’m going to put it into book and website form, so by the time people read this interview, www.1000brentfordmen.com will be live with a list of all the players and then the book, which will have tons of biographical information, will be published in 2022. It’s an amazing milestone to have 1,000 footballers play in the Football League and actually, we were only at the 500 mark when I started supporting the club.
The reason the book is being published in 2022 is that the 1921 census will be published on 1 January 2022 and that will be a whole new set of research tools that will hopefully achieve my target of getting every date of birth. I’m going to hang on for that date because there will be several leads I’ll be able to check.
I’ve started my own publishing arm, which is called Far Post Publishing, so I’m going to be releasing a Farewell Griffin Park book later this year and there will also be a stats-based celebration of us being in the Football League for 100 years. There is a lot going on at the moment!
I’d also like to use this opportunity to offer any family of former Brentford players the chance to get them the recognition they deserve. I can imagine there are some players’ families who think we must know about them, but actually that was the great thing about working at the club, being able to bring people back to Griffin Park who hadn’t been there in decades. It wasn’t because we didn’t want them there; it was because we simply didn’t have their contact details. I was fortunate that Chris Wickham and a couple of other Brentford fans in the Communications team would be really excited about ex-players coming in and we’d do our very best ensure they not only came down, but had a good time as well.
I am looking forward to the new ground because it’s long overdue. As Peter Gilham has said on many occasions, we looked at doing this in the 1970s and it’s finally taken until 2020 for us to achieve. It will put us on a completely different level. I’m going to be as sad as any Brentford fan to leave Griffin Park; it’s my second home. Not only have I watched matches, I’ve been lucky enough to work there. Griffin Park is a place where I’ve had the best of times and the worst of times. It’s a dump but it’s our dump! I’m going to remember it as a wonderful place where some wonderful players played.
Being in the Premier League was a pipedream 10 years ago and now I can actually see it happening. I’ve got no doubt that we are better than the three worst teams in the Premier League this season and that’s without my biased Brentford hat on. We are playing fantastic football. The quality is the best I’ve ever witnessed and I’ve seen more than a 1,000 Brentford games.
One of my old bosses – who is a Brentford fan – said to me once, “You need two things in football: heroes and hope.” We’ve got both of those in absolute bundles at the moment. If we aren’t going to make it this year, we will do soon.
Mark's story was first published in this season's matchday programme against Nottingham Forest on 28 January 2020. To get your Brentford Story online, email Programme Editor Chris Deacon on [email protected] and we'll get back to you.
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