A young self-made multimillionaire. A naive football club which has barely escaped numerous abusive relationships. The promise of untold wealth and excitement, but only if some unorthodox tastes and dreams are realised. But you’ll have to trust in him and give him the control he wants. You’ll have to be punished if you think you know better or think you can just settle for a bit of it. But you can have a safe word to make it stop because in the end he loves you and respects you. That safe word is Woking.
Perhaps there are some parallels between the strange goings on at Brentford and the product of Brentford resident EL James’ fevered imagination. The film version of Fifty Shades of Grey was released on the same day as Brentford suffered their own red room of pain at Charlton and no matter how many chants in support of club, players or management were mustered, Charlton hadn’t agreed any safe word.
However, the real parallel or lack thereof between Fifty Shades and the developing story about whether manager Mark Warburton was to be replaced at the end of the season is in whether owner Matthew Benham is like Christian Grey and how you view Grey in the books. Most fans of the trilogy see them as a naughty and erotic fantasy- Mills & Boon without the coyness for a generation that can attend Ann Summers parties without embarrassment or shame. They can identify with the fantasy of Ana Steele without actually wanting to be tied up and thrashed soundly after a trip to B&Q to acquire the appropriate wall fixings. But some critics also point out that basically, Grey is a classic abusive controlling man who might have some superficial appeal and sound caring and generous but who actually cares for nothing other than his own need to have someone to manipulate however he wants.
It would be too easy, given the understandable sympathy that most Bees fans will have for Warburton after the great work he has done in managing the team to the upper end of the Championship to suddenly feel that they’ve been duped by Benham and that in fact he is the typical megalomaniac club owner who cares nothing for the club or any of the people within it unless they bend to his will. Like Noades he’s now, in their minds, ready to take his ball home if he can’t play his way.
But, as I wrote last week, that depends on imputing bad faith. Or some form of sociopathic disorder (yeah, you gotta be a sociopath to get that rich, man!). It also involves being ready to imagine Brentford as a weak and unwilling participant in Benham’s game, with no agency and no choice, dazzled by the riches. But just as that might be an unfair reading of what so many otherwise strong and capable women found appealing in the Fifty Shades books, so too here. True, Ana Steele does seem to me to be a bit of a wet blanket, but while she likes the trappings of wealth she gets from her relationship with Grey, she wasn’t ever particularly looking for them, nor did she dislike her life and prospects before. It isn’t too hard to believe that she might genuinely be happy and free within what looks to be an unconventional relationship.
Similarly, when Benham first got formally involved with the ownership of Brentford, the club was slowly emerging from the painful work of getting on a sustainable financial footing after the depredations of Noades. But it was emerging from it. Fans were happy in the knowledge that the club could realistically think to survive in the lower divisions it had inhabited for most of the previous half a century and maybe slowly over time build to a little more by careful stewardship. Benham didn’t then come in waving a chequebook and promising a one way trip to the Premier League and if he had, he’d have been sent on his way- we didn’t particularly want it (many aren’t sure they want it now when it is realistically achievable, even if still unlikely) and had seen too many clubs go closer to the wall even than we had after pursuing that objective. What we have seen is that there is a path towards doing that without being unsustainable. The question facing fans now is whether we can take the jagged edges of that journey or want to squat in Grey’s penthouse while despising everything that got him or us there. Have we been groomed by an abuser or have we just grown complacent in recent years at the relief in not having to worry about what was going on behind the scenes so that we throw a tantrum when we see what needs to be done to keep going?