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🗣 "when people ask which clubs I played for, I say I played for Brentford and I’m proud of that fact"

Alan Connell looks back on his time at Griffin Park

16 December 2019

Alan Connell makes it clear from the outset that he wants to set things straight.

Having starred as Brentford ended a turbulent 12 months with a 14th place finish in League Two in the 2007/08 season, less than a month into the next – one that proved to be a title-winning campaign - he signed for Bournemouth, where he’d taken his first steps as a professional six years earlier.

“I didn’t say too much because it probably wasn’t the right time,” Alan explains to brentfordfc.com from his office at the Cherries’ academy, where he is now under-18 head coach.

“Andy Scott brought Charlie MacDonald and Nathan Elder in and I think he saw that as the way forward, which disappointed me, especially as I’d done really well for him in that season and the start of my second. When Bournemouth came in for me, the lure of going back, but also feeling a bit harshly treated, made it best for both parties that I left at that point.

“I’ve played against Brentford a few times since, with mixed results, and I think the supporters probably let me know I wasn’t their favourite ex-player in the world. It’s part and parcel of football and I fully understand that.

“I hope the supporters liked me – I think they did when I played – because I certainly loved playing at Griffin Park. When I left for what was probably deemed a rival at the time, it looked from the outside like it was me desperate to jump ship and that wasn’t really the case.

“I went for the reasons I just gave and the main one was to play football regularly, which was what I felt I deserved at that point. It looked more likely at Bournemouth than Brentford at that point.”

It was a sour end to a season in which he’d been a much-needed beacon of light.

In April 2007, Brentford had been prematurely relegated from League One with four games remaining and eventually finished rock bottom of the division, a staggering 14 points from safety. Though ex-Arsenal trainee Jo Kuffour’s 14 goals in all competitions had made things somewhat palatable at times, when he rejected a new contract, there was a void to fill.

Veteran Lee Thorpe arrived on a free transfer, but a day earlier Alan – who had turned down a contract extension to stay in League Two with Hereford – signed a two-year deal as Terry Butcher’s squad began to take shape. The stature of the club, in addition to his London roots, proved pivotal in his decision to return south.

“There were a number of attractions,” he continues. “I think the size of the club, especially in League Two at that point, but also, with the club having just been relegated, I saw it as a challenge because a club like Brentford should’ve been higher than League Two. I thought that if we could achieve success then it would be all the more satisfactory doing it at a club like Brentford.

“Terry being the manager was also a big influence. I met him and Andy in the summer and I was really excited by the opportunity to join. I’m from London that has to play a part as well; sometimes it’s the off-field stuff, as well as the on-field stuff, that can influence a decision when making a transfer.”

His decision had been a straightforward one and his debut panned out in a similar fashion. It came on the opening day of the season in a home tie against Billy McEwan’s Mansfield and allowed him to immediately endear himself to the Bees fans in front of a greatly reduced crowd of 4,909, scoring the opener in an eventual 1-1 draw.

“I remember straining my thigh in the warm-up, being gutted at the time and not even sure if I could play. This was the first game of the season; I went in for treatment because I really wanted to play and was very excited about my debut. Adrenaline and probably single-mindedness got me through the game and, as it turned out, I scored a really good goal, which was really pleasing.

“I think I then played against Bristol City on the Tuesday night in the cup thinking my thigh was alright, but it wasn’t and, as a result, I ended up being out for about three weeks due to that original injury in the warm-up for the first game of the season. It was a shame because I got off to such a good start after a good pre-season and that just set me back a few weeks.”

Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, Brentford had largely played in the third tier or above and so it’s fair to say they probably weren’t expected to struggled playing on the lowest step of the Football League, in spite of the struggles behind the scenes.

A bright start backed that up, but a tendency to lose games in bulk saw Butcher lose his job, with first-time manager Scott tasked with keeping the threat of relegation at bay. It’s no exaggeration to say that Alan’s 12 goals helped to prevent the club dropping into non-league.

“The season was probably a tale of two halves. The first half, as a team we struggled until that December period when I was in and out of the team. We struggled and that, ultimately, cost Terry his job. Andy came in and it was a bit more settled. He put faith in me straight away and I struck up a good partnership with Lee Thorpe at the start.

“The win that sticks out for me was the 3-1 away win at Wrexham in December, which was Andy’s first game in charge, where I scored two. That day was one where I felt like I belonged at Brentford. I felt settled and, in that second half of the season, I played some of the best football of my career. I remember playing at Griffin Park at the time was incredible: The atmosphere, the players we had, the team spirit. Especially in the second half of the season, I absolutely loved it. We flirted with the play-offs at one point but we didn’t quite make it.

“I enjoyed working under Andy. Like I said, he showed faith in me initially and I like to think I repaid that faith. I got on really well with him, he had a good way with the players and I felt relaxed. The spell I had at the club featured some of the most enjoyable football I ever played and he was a big part of that.”

“Even now when I look back on my career, when people ask which clubs I played for, I say I played for Brentford and I’m proud of that fact.”

The next season, at the same time the Bees were heading for the League Two title, Alan was involved with another survival bid, this time with Bournemouth, who found themselves in jeopardy following a hefty 17-point deduction. “There’s always a bit of you that wishes you were part of that success or, more importantly, I wish we’d had that success the season before when I was there,” he maturely admits.

He made just six starts in the 2008/09 season, but became a regular fixture the next and scored one of the goals that secured promotion to League One against Burton in April 2010, writing his name in Cherries folklore in the process.

Then there was the unprecedented 29-goal season in the Conference with Grimsby, further promotions from League Two with Swindon and Bradford and even the sheer madness of a 2013 League Cup runners-up medal with the Bantams to boot. Alan’s career picked up pace after his departure from Dean Court and, clearly, took in some incredible highlights, but, three-and-a-half years ago it came to an end.

 “I finished professional football when I was 31 and Northampton didn’t offer me a new contract when I’d joined them towards the end of that season,” he recalls.

“I was scratching around all summer and then I got a call to go into non-league and to go part-time. I thought it would be a good thing for me; I was living back in Bournemouth and so I thought that was the way to go. I thought it would be good for me at that age to have a little bit more downtime but it turned out for me that I lost any sharpness that I had, I lost a bit of enthusiasm playing at that level and I was picking more injuries because I wasn’t conditioned.

“I just wasn’t performing anywhere near where I had when I was playing in the league. By the end of those two years with Grimsby, Havant and Waterlooville and Poole, I had an offer to go to another non-league club but I just didn’t want to do it anymore.”

The offer of a third return to Bournemouth, understandably, proved the perfect tonic.

“I started coaching at Bournemouth, working with the young players there and I was enjoying that so much more so I made that decision to go into full-time coaching. Like all my decisions, I make them for the right reasons, whether they turn out to be the right thing or not, but that was definitely the right time to call it a day.

“There are massive differences and not even from when I first joined. I first signed in 2002 when Bournemouth gave me my first professional contract, my Football League debut and that sort of thing. Everything was on a shoestring then, even in the first team environment. Then my second spell, after I left Brentford, was the same and that was around the time of the famous story of the minus-17 and the struggles with administration and all the rest of it, where the club was close to going out of business.

“Big things have changed now, to the point where, as a youth team, we have been away on a couple of pre-season trips. As a player at Bournemouth, I never went on any trips of any kind and that was as a first team player. The club has the Premier League money and what the first team have done has been incredible. As an academy, we are still playing catch-up. We are still trying to progress as at the moment we are a Category Three academy, so we haven’t quite got the facilities of the big, established clubs in the country.

Everything is improving every single year, we’ve got a new training ground that is being built, which hopefully will create a legacy for the football club for all the hard years that have gone on. Now the club has reached the Premier League, they can leave something sustainable to last forever, really. It’s a great time to be a part of it and I love working day-to-day to try and help the young players improve, if I can.

“I love my job, but I just want to be the best coach I can be every day, look to improve and look to improve the players I work with. I love working for AFC Bournemouth and I very much see my future here.”


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