A plane crash threatened to put an end to Mark Devlin’s career in professional football, now he is overseeing a revolution at promotion-chasing side, Brentford.
As a lifelong Brentford fan, the club’s 109-year-old stadium, Griffin Park in west London, holds a special place in my heart. I have always been against the plans to relocate, but, on entering, something clicked. The autographed shirt on the wall is ten years out of date and the wooden cladding encasing the cramped lobby transported me into the 1970s. The club’s future doesn’t lie here.
Chief Executive Mark Devlin, 51, emerges from his meeting and with a frantic apology, takes a seat at his desk. “It’s a lovely old, atmospheric stadium isn’t it? But it’s an old stadium and our facilities are not great – we generate little money away from matchdays; we can’t keep relying on [owner] Matthew Benham to put money in.”
In one month, on 5th December, the Council gives its verdict on Lionel Road – the site of Brentford’s proposed new stadium, little more than a mile from their current home. Many “hardcore fans” are sceptical about the motion, having seen Darlington fall from grace after their 2003 move and MK Dons’ relatively new ‘stadium:mk’, known for its lack of atmosphere.
“It’s key that we don’t have 6,500 people in a 20,000 seater stadium. Brentford has a smaller fanbase than previous clubs I’ve worked at; a generation have probably been attracted to top-flight football because Brentford have spent so long outside of the top two divisions.”
The club came heartbreakingly close to ending that absence last season, striker Marcello Trotta missing a penalty on the final day of the season. A stunned silence surrounded Griffin Park. “When you come as close as we did, then naturally there’s an expectation to push on”, he continues, exuding defiant confidence.
Building the fanbase is undoubtedly Devlin’s focus as the club looks to move and marketing initiatives, paying what you can for a ticket the latest, are part of a “robust marketing plan.”
He insists the club will be looking at the possibility of safe standing at Lionel Road as it “aids the atmosphere. I grew up watching football on the terraces at QPR [Queens Park Rangers] and I could walk to Loftus Road in ten minutes.”
This caused a few problems when he joined Brentford in 2011. Historically fierce rivals, Devlin had to “overcome prejudice and suspicion about someone from a QPR background”, something he was unaware would be an issue.
After growing up in Shepherds Bush, in 1986, he joined Ashridge Business School, Hertfordshire, with a career in football far from his mind. “I’ve always played football but saw myself in sales and marketing and started out working at a bank. I was told it was ‘good grounding’”, he chuckles.
Each day is “different” according to Devlin, “which makes the job so interesting. There are some tough times, when fans are unhappy but if you win three on the spin, that all changes very quickly.”
One day in 2006 almost changed his life forever. Working at Swindon Town, he flew with a group of directors, and his son, Stan, to the club’s first match of the season, away to Hartlepool, which Swindon won 1-0. “Just prior to landing [on the return flight], we crashed into a golf course next to Denham airfield [in Buckinghamshire]. What saved our lives was an oak tree which absorbed most of the energy before we hit the ground.”
The aircraft wasn’t filled with enough fuel for journey. Miraculously, the passengers survived – albeit seriously injured. “My son broke both his legs. I fractured a vertebra and broke my shoulder blade so didn’t work for about 13 months.”
“You understand very quickly that the most important thing is family. My family will always come top of my priorities but work is important to me and I know how important Brentford is to a lot of people.”
It is testament to Devlin’s character that he is back in football after quitting in the aftermath of the crash. London’s Westway Sports Centre was the route back in and despite taking some getting used to, Devlin moved onto Notts County as Commercial and Marketing Director before taking up his current post.
“I didn’t think I would have been able to cope with the demands of professional football but I do enjoy a challenge”, he grins, “I have to change people’s habits and that’s not easy as football fans get very ingrained in their habits. When you work in football, you are going to come in for criticism. Some will be justified and you have to put your hands up. Some will be unjustified and there will be comments made by people with no understanding.”
Devlin’s business acumen shone through as he introduced a simple weekly meeting whereby heads of department convene to update one another on the issues facing their department. “When I got here, everyone seemed to work in their own silence; I’ve tried to unify the senior management.”
His personal schedule varies weekly but “we’re always revisiting the key components of our strategy. What are we doing with key elements, with retail, with catering? Does the Chairman have any issues?”
Our conversation progressed onto transfers and Devlin shed some light on the role of the CEO in arguably the most exciting part of football for fans, explaining how deadline day “can be stressful, particularly if you are trying to fill one or two positions and those in mind are almost always on the radar of other clubs.”
We try to steer away from doing things at the end of the window as the closer it gets to the deadline, the worse the deal will be for the club.” And whilst he plays a key role in the transfer process, Devlin has “no control over whom Uwe [Rosler, Brentford manager] wants to bring in. He has the opinion that matters although I have financial control, making sure that we can afford the players and remain within budget.”
In his spell at Brentford, Devlin has united a club, which, for years, had been happy to simply exist, with no real ambition and which would have deemed a mid-table finish a success. “Now, if we’re not at least in the playoffs, that’s going to be seen as failure.”
“Each of the 80 members of staff wants to do their best, not only for themselves, but for the club and obviously for the supporters. Therefore, there’s no reason why we can’t be an established Championship side and I hope we’ll be there by 2016, when we get into Lionel Road.”
Salary: A London-based Chief Executive’s salary ranges from £58,000 to £192,000, based on figures provided by http://www.payscale.com.
Hours: “If you work in football, the set hours are 9-5. For a chief executive the hours are what’s required to get the job done.”
Work-Life balance: “Not too bad. My wife has a business that means she works Saturdays which also means that I can generally get to most of the away games. I will never let work overtake my obligations and responsibilities to my family.”
Best thing: “Just being able to work in football. I think there are a lot of people – friends of mine that are football fans – that would love to work in football. It’s just great to be working in an industry that is as vibrant, healthy and interesting as football can be.”
Worst thing: “Taking a loyal, hardcore fanbase that have been used to doing things in a certain way for a number of years and introducing change. Whether it has been a personnel change, a queuing system in The Hive (Brentford Football Club’s main function facility) or getting people to pay in advance rather than just cash at the turnstiles.”
Hobbies: “Current affairs, politics, theatre, NFL (American Football).”