History Boys | Peter Gilham

Having been with the club for half a century, Peter Gilham has seen it all: relegations and promotions, financial troubles and dreams of the Premier League. But as he celebrated his fourth decade in TW8 during the 2008/09 season, Brentford ousted the dark, ominous days they’d recently faced and lifted the League Two trophy.

For this special 50th anniversary issue edition of History Boys, Peter sat down with Dan Long to recount his memories of the year Andy Scott led his beloved Bees to a title that, for so many months, looked a distant ambition.

I remember the disappointment when Martin Allen left. He was something of an evangelist; he was one of those who was great for the fans, was really good at getting people going and it was just such a shame that, after having reached the League One play-offs two seasons running, that got relegated in 2007.

It was just so sad. We hadn’t, for a few decades, been rising to the heights; we went up that once in 1991/92, but we’ve spent most of our time in the bottom two divisions, so to find ourselves going back down to the basement again was tough.

It was a challenging first season with Terry Butcher and Andy Scott, as well. Andy had some terrific knowledge of League Two – and of the Football League in general – but it was tough for Terry and I think he just struggled a bit, to be perfectly honest. He came as a highly respected man, with a fantastic England career behind him, but when it came to managing a team in the lower divisions, matchday success came at a premium. Andy was the one who came through and it was the experience, I think, from that first season in League Two that gave him the experience that got us that run in the second season that got us the promotion. Sometimes, you have to experience the bad times to get the good times and that certainly was the case with Andy Scott.

But relegation is relegation. You go down to a lower league and the expectation is that you can bounce right back up, but of course, it rarely happens. You just always think, “We’ve had a bad season but I’m sure we can get over it; we’ve got the players who can be better than that and we are going to bounce straight back up,” and it doesn’t happen. As I said with a manager such as Andy, it’s the same with the players; I think they need the experience to get used to where they are, get to know their environment before they can reap the rewards, which is what happened the following season. It does take time, but relegation is tough for anybody.

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I suppose, for myself, I’ve seen a lot of football – thousands of games, in fact. It’s all part and parcel of football, it really is. In that respect, I think I’m very much the optimist and while I’m not allied to that season or any particular season, I think I get over defeats far quicker than most people because I just think that the only people who can make any difference to when we’ve lost or when we’ve suffered a relegation are the players and the coaching staff.

I, as a fan, can’t do anything at all about it. I can suffer disappointment, but it shouldn’t be there to ruin my life. There are things outside of football. When we lose, we can’t do anything about it. I can be disappointed, I can ruin my weekend, but I think what’s the point of ruining my weekend, because what has happened has happened. I’ve got to look forward now and I think that’s the thing about me – I’m optimistic and I’m very positive.

Therefore, we got relegated and I had to be positive; it’s the way I am. It’s not going to ruin my life, the fact we were relegated, because I understand the machinations of football – it happens.

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. Terry Butcher was an absolute gent. It was funny, with all the games we played under him at Griffin Park or away from home, it’s the only time I’ve seen opposing players want a manager’s autograph. I saw that on a number of occasions and understood because it was Terry Butcher the England hero with blood on his shirt, but you don’t often see players wanting autographs! As nice a guy as he was, it was Andy who was the guy who had the real experience and Terry was left wanting, unfortunately.

My relationship with Andy has always been really good and it continues to be really good. He was a quality player and very much a club man so it was good to see him at the helm. He knew the club inside out, he knew the Football League inside out and that has helped him in the job he does today. It’s thanks to his knowledge of football that he got the position here as Chief Scout at the club until he moved on to Watford, where he was appointed Sporting Director in November, having initially joined the club as UK Football Recruitment Director in 2017. I was just so chuffed for him, as I am for a lot of people I’ve been lucky enough to know in football and at Brentford Football Club. I was really pleased to see him take over the job as manager, and particularly so when he was manager in his own right in 2008/09 having started 2007/08 as assistant.

Nonetheless, Andy was new to being a manager so it was important for him, it was important for the club to use the remainder of the 07/08 season to stabilise following Terry’s departure. It’s important to get to grips with the reality of relegation quickly, realise it might not result in an instant promotion and consolidate, which is exactly what we did. That put us in good stead for the following season.

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Having looked at the articles in this series that I’ve seen in the programme so far, all I would say is that it’s really good to hear the players felt they were part of a good bunch. I still keep in touch with some of the players including Marcus Bean and Karleigh Osborne, but it’s good that the players have said that because you can’t always see that.

I keep in touch with as many players from the 2008/09 season as I can, I just think it’s important because they meant something to the club and were part of our history. When we had the centenary at Griffin Park in 2004, I remember a player coming out of the Hive and he was almost in tears because he said it was just amazing that people were still remembering a goal he scored in about 1984/85 and I said to him, “Every player is a hero to somebody.” And they are. Everybody has special memories about a certain player and some players may have even played two or three games, but, to somebody, they will be very special.

I’d have to say Jordan Rhodes was the most talented I saw that year, though. He came in in January and ended up getting injured until the end of the season, but that was the start of him becoming really well known and it was a shame we couldn’t keep him. He was a quality person both on and off the pitch and still is an absolute gentleman whenever I meet him. A quality striker. We had some quality strikers that year; Charlie MacDonald, bless him, did really well, Billy Clarke came in as a loanee, too and scored some crucial goals at the business end of the campaign.

Andy assembled a squad that had good experience from previous seasons, quality goalscorers and the mix of his newfound experience and the group of players he had during that season, combined well and ended up with us becoming champions at the end of it.

The season itself, though, was a strange one. We didn’t start too well, then we picked up, fell away a bit and then it wasn’t until Christmas time that we started to look good again – we basically had a good second half of the season.

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As I said, I am always positive and I’m rarely negative; I’m a great believer in enjoying each day as it comes and making the most of when you are there, but some people tend to think, even when you are in a good position, “This weekend we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to get this many points, we’ve got to get this, that and the other”. The Football League is no different to something like the Grand National; forget about the first fence, the 30th fence, it’s what happens at the final fence that’s the important thing. Forget about the rest of it, it’s what happens at the end. In fairness, it was an odd season with good and bad times in abundance, but, at the end of the day, we were in the right place and when we got to the finishing post, we were well ahead.

My standout memory from that season was, after we won at Darlington in our penultimate game, our homecoming. I remember at the Griffin, god knows how many fans were waiting for the team to come back and I was in touch with the team, despite having come back from the game with the supporters. I knew exactly where the coach was and it got to something like 11pm – it was a long journey back – and I remember calling people at the pub saying, “They are getting nearer, they are coming down the Great West Road” and then I said they were now about to approach Braemar Road and the Griffin is obviously at the other end. All of the fans poured out and, as the coach pulled into Braemar Road, the coach drove up slowly, the fans approached towards Griffin Park and it was an unbelievable feeling. The players started getting off the coach and some of them were lifted onto people’s shoulders. Incredible, absolutely incredible.

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Fans were going up the road and as soon as the doors opened on the coach there were just huge celebrations. Some of the players went back to the Griffin and the pub had special dispensation that evening to remain open later, so it was quite a night! Not from the drinking side of it, but just for the celebrations after what had happened. We’d waited 10 years since our last promotion and we were back. It was getting on for midnight after the long journey home, but we’d achieved promotion and we’d achieved the title as well. It was just magical, a really magical homecoming.

For the final home game we played Luton in an odd game where we’d won the title and they’d been relegated. Again, there were great scenes at the end of the game. I remember Kevin O’Connor lifting the trophy with Alan Bennett, who’d been captain during the season as well. They jointly lifted the trophy and there were some really emotional scenes after that. It meant so much to myself and to everybody else.

During some of our promotion seasons we’d played away from home: at Peterborough in 1991/92 and at Cambridge in 1998/99, so it was quite nice to have a promotion at Griffin Park to be able to celebrate that. To have the heat off on that final day, we knew we were simply going to celebrate. There were no pre-match nerves, no wondering if we were going to do it or not. The fact that we knew we’d already got the job done was fantastic.

Sometimes in football, seasons don’t go to plan. You get injuries at the wrong time, you don’t get the players you want to, you get setbacks – all sorts of different reasons. It’s what happens at the end. You tend to forget the bad times but it’s that final bit which is the most important. Getting promotion is a fantastic experience because any season is eight or nine months and it’s a long season full of ups and downs. That moment you know you’ve got promotion there’s just unbridled emotion – everything is just magical.

Originally featured in BEES Issue #13 v Norwich City (1 January 2019)

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