By Anthony Hennigan
There’s no shortage of irony about how a Mayo man has ended up working for a professional football club with almost as much a knack for losing finals as his own county.
As opening lines go, it’s one that probably only a Mayo journalist can get away with. Let anyone else draw that comparison and there’d be calls to dangle them from Dún Briste. And not in June but January.
But here in Mayo I know that many have grown to wear our cloak of darkness lightly. Whether that laissez-faire attitude is actually doing anything to aid the never-ending mission of reversing the wheel of misfortune is a question we have debated before and will do so again. But the story of how one team has just managed to overcome a not dissimilar stretch of miserable adversity is worth exploring to see what, if any, lessons can be drawn from the experience. That a Mayo man has, behind the scenes at least, been centrally involved in their success simply adds to the intrigue.
When the next Premier League season kicks-off on the weekend of August 14, it will include a Brentford team that has not played in England’s top flight in 74 years. Until last month, the ‘Bees’ had played in seven finals of various descript since 1985 and lost all seven. Sound familiar?
And on the same weekend that the West Londoners take their place in the richest league in world soccer, Mayo will hope to contest another All-Ireland semi-final and extend their hopes of landing a first championship in 70 years. The Green and Red have played in 10 finals since 1989 and lost all 10.
There’ll be no equivalent £160million windfall – the estimated benefit of Brentford’s promotion – for Mayo should they ever visit the Promised Land, though that and more (if taking into account what supporters have forked out) has probably been spent on the search for Sam since 1951.
Belcarra native Alan Walsh joined Brentford FC as Operations Manager eight years ago, just days before one of the most infamous games in the club’s history. Awarded an injury-time penalty at home to Doncaster United, had Marcello Trotta scored it could have promoted Brentford automatically to the Championship but when his effort smashed off the crossbar Doncaster went downfield and scored themselves to pip their opponents to promotion – and the title. A couple of weeks later and ‘Walshy’ was watching the latest in his new club’s string of final defeats, the 2012/13 League One Playoff at Wembley Stadium.
Beaten then by Yeovil Town, next season Brentford will be taking on the might of Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and newly crowned champions of Europe (and now local rivals), Chelsea. And they will do so in a brand new 17,250-seater stadium, into which that Trotta crossbar from the old Griffin Park has been installed in the concourse of the West Stand – a permanent memorial, if you like, to how far the club has come. It’s not been a half bad return for owner – and lifelong Brentford supporter – Matthew Benham whose vision when Alan Walsh joined was simply to reach the Championship.
“I think it was about the fourth minute of stoppage time before the penny finally dropped with the fans that we might actually have made it,” says Walsh of Brentford’s 2-0 victory over Swansea in this year’s Championship Playoff Final at Wembley Stadium.
“It was pure elation when that final whistle came. After 74 years of waiting, it was a long time coming.”
Among Brentford’s best-known former players is Chris Kamara, not so much for his 152 appearances – or his 643 for 12 different clubs – but for the now Sky Sports pundit’s ‘Unbelievable Jeff’ catchphrase that’s been written into football folklore.
Kamara had already been the first black man to play for Swindon Town when in 1981 he signed as the first black man to play for Brentford, scoring eleven goals from midfield in his first season. Racism was rife in British football at that time but Kamara has only happy memories of his time at Griffin Park, suffering not a single act or word of abuse from within the club during his five years there. That the club’s new home is named Brentford Community Stadium seems rather apt then.
The Bees, of course, could have been playing in the Premier League last season but they lost the 2019/20 Championship Playoff after extra-time to a Fulham side they had beaten both home and away during the regular league campaign.
“Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise,” reflects Alan Walsh some 10 months on. “Can you imagine if we had won and been promoted and then for our fans to not be able watch us? It would have been some kick in the teeth, especially if we were unable to stay up.”
Not since 1947 has Brentford appeared in the top tier of English football and with Covid-19 restrictions easing at a pace in the UK, it seems likely that capacity attendances will be allowed into football grounds for the coming season.
“Maybe it was in the stars to happen this way,” suggests the man who himself earned a promotion in 2019 when appointed as the club’s Operations Director outright. It’s a role that carries an exhaustive list of responsibilities.
Situated just off Chiswick Roundabout, Brentford Community Stadium is also home to Declan Kidney’s London Irish who play in rugby’s Premiership. It’s up to Alan Walsh to oversee match-day operations for both clubs at the state-of-the-art venue, which only staged its first game last September. Those duties incorporate everything from health and safety to security, from stewarding to cleaning, from traffic management to hospitality, and from working with ground staff to ensure the pitch is kept pristine to guaranteeing the connectivity of broadcasters on match-day, and organising the audio-visual technology for pre-, mid-, and post-match big-screen presentations. And that’s just the tip of his role.
Non match-day business associated with the stadium’s corporate suites also falls under Walsh’s remit, such as functions and business events, and a certain José Mourinho was even shooting a television advert at the ground just weeks prior to his sacking as Spurs boss. But one of the OD’s most important jobs is his running of Brentford FC’s training ground at Jersey Road, the place where players and management will spend 90 per cent of their working week.
“It’s where they train, it’s where they gym, it’s where they eat, where they do all their video analysis. We’ve ground staff and security and an operations team there too; that all comes under my umbrella.”
A grandson of perhaps Mayo’s most famous ever bandmaster, Alan Walsh had cut his teeth as a saxophone player in said Brose Walsh Band before hitting London in 1993 for a degree course at the London College of Music. He was 17. It was almost by accident that a couple of years later he had landed a job at Olympia, one of city’s big exhibition centres, but by the time the Olympic Games visited London in 2012 he had become one of the best events managers around, taking charge of the Excel Arena where boxer Katie Taylor won Ireland’s only gold medal and where future World heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua won Team GB’s last gold medal of the Games.
Big as all that was, nothing compares to the spotlight about to be shone on Brentford and how it will represent itself week in, week out, both on and off the Premier League pitch. With television exposure to an incredible 190 countries, the club and its stadium are about to be placed on the world map – and Alan Walsh is fully aware of his and his ops team’s responsibilities.
As he sees it, the two biggest advantages are a guaranteed full house at every game and four less home games to have to manage, compared to the longer Championship campaign.
“It’s a polished product, the Premier League, the best in the world with the best players in the world bar a few obvious exceptions. The European champions will be coming to play us so it’s exciting to know we’ll be hosting and competing against them and all the top clubs.
“I’m quietly convinced, given the type of football Brentford play, that we’ll give a good account of ourselves as well,” says Walsh. “We play it on the floor and I think the Premier League protects players more than the Championship.
“If there’s a nudge or a kick or an over-zealous lunge, if the referee doesn’t get it then VAR pretty much will and justice will be done. I think the guys will be able to express themselves and play football.”
A former player himself with Manulla FC and a past pupil of Balla Secondary School, pandemic restrictions have meant it’s almost three years since Alan, his wife Clare and children Erin (10) and Kian (8) have been able to visit Belcarra and his parents. He doesn’t think Thomas and Teresa are the holders of the still unclaimed €1million Lotto ticket sold in the village last month (“I’d be expecting a few quid if they did,” he laughs) but would gladly flog a hospitality package – or two – to whoever the winner might be.
He’ll not return without a few signed Brentford jerseys for the local football clubs and to hang in Flukie’s Bar but there’s an even more precious item Alan Walsh would be thanked for slipping into his luggage the next time he’s home: that secret of how to break a 70-year hoodoo.