Flood's Book-A Hot Couch Potato!
Big Club, Small Town and Me-A Review by Couch Potato
The first and possibly most important thing that I want to say about Brendan Flood`s book Big Club, Small Town and Me is that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It zips right along, as familiar moments are relived and enriched by lively anecdotes. Some were a bit like reliving my slavishly careful reading of the official Burnley FC website over the last 3 years, and a few seem to have already leaked out and into Dave Thomas`s fanzine articles, or been placed by Darren Bentley into the press. But a great many were new to me. I read the whole thing in two sittings, which is rare for me, as I have a tricky little habit of reading about 6 books at a time, in 20-page sections, each taking weeks to finish. So this is high praise!
The length of this review results from the great range of things that Brendan has made me think about, which is testimony to his skill as a communicator and manager.
Some people may get a bit bogged down in the parts about property development and business philosophy. However if you skip over those, there is plenty of lively evidence that Brendan is keen to portray himself, convincingly, as a man of pitch and terrace, as well as boardroom and balance sheet.
Despite having been a major, major figure in so many of the decisions that helped us all get there, Brendan didn`t hang around in the Royal Box at the final whistle; he went straight down to the Wembley turf. So anyone can just sit back and enjoy this book as a way of reliving last year`s fantastic events, with someone who was in the thick of it as their guide.
He is also both very bright, and no fool, a clue both facts perhaps being revealed in his choosing to quote, at the start of chapter 4, Albert Einstein: 'the important thing is not to stop questioning`.
A banner on the book`s front cover declares this is 'The Epic Story of Burnley`s Meteoric Rise to the Premiership`. But quoting Samuel Butler at the start of chapter 6, Brendan makes it clear that 'every man`s work, whether it be literature or music or picture or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself.` So while there is plenty to enjoy in reliving recent seasons` successes on the pitch, this book is principally about how Brendan became a fan, then later its major investor and Operations Director. It is also about how, before that, he became first a banker, then a property developer and entrepreneur; and about the philosophies and methods of business that he has employed. It features several remarkably candid portraits of people he has met along the way.
Here are some questions that I asked myself while reading his book, along with some answers. I hope they will encourage others to ask themselves what it`s like to be a director of a football club, and what it means to be a good and true fan, no matter where you are sitting when the Clarets play: cushy white seats, splintery wooden ones near the tunnel, or on the couch at home.
How much of it did Brendan write himself?
Copyright to the text is held by Brendan Flood and Stuart Wilkin. Before I saw this I had wondered whether Tony Livesey had played a part. But in his foreword the only credit Tony claims is having encouraged Brendan to keep a diary. Brendan explains that he comes from a family of high academic achievers and only chose banking over university because his Dad`s work had dried up at that time of his life. Even then, Brendan had aspirations to become a sports journalists, and enrolled, briefly, in a typing course when he was thinking about that as a career path. So my guess is that this book is authentically Brendan`s voice, but that Stuart Wilkin (about whom we are told nothing) did a lot of the time-consuming work of shaping and fine-tuning the text, while Brendan concentrated on running his various companies and a football club.
Is it spin?
Well, the marketing has been done by LlamaPR, so - forgive me - this does seem to be a legitimate question to ask. Also there`s more than a little marketing in the banner on the cover - The Epic Story of Burnley`s Meteoric Rise to the Premiership - when this is clearly a book about the man who is currently a cornerstone of the club`s recent success. Moreover, it emphasises the events of the last 3 years in explaining how Burnley achieved Premier League status, rather than the foundations built previously. So, it is clearly one man`s viewpoint. The importance of others is frequently acknowledged, as is consistent with Brendan`s management philosophy of getting the right people on board and busy. But the story here is always told from his viewpoint. To that extent, as with all autobiography, it is spin. But for it to be anything else would require a much longer book, and it will be someone else`s job to write that longer book in a few years` time.
His story of Michael Essien briefly training with Burnley as a youth is perhaps a case in point. Brendan uses it to reinforce a point that he is making about lack of communication within the club before he arrived. But Bernie Lee, posting on Vital Burnley, has already embellished the Essien story in ways that suggest that signing him was never an option, rather than a terrible, avoidable mistake.
Another 'tweak` I noticed was over Diego Penny. When he was signed, I think it was Brendan who said on the official club site that this was 'a very big signing`. In the book Diego is described as 'back-up`.
What has been omitted?
I first asked myself this question when reading about Jon Spicer winning the game at Birmingham, which I think is the first time I have read of that bittersweet day without any mention of the announcement of the untimely death of Brian Miller. Others may want to add to them, but here is a short list of other omissions that I noted:
• There`s no mention of Brendan playing in Claret youth teams, which I thought I had previously read about somewhere. He actually played, with considerable distinction, for the successful Brunshaw Celtic.
• He tells us that the late Ray Griffiths said that one fellow Board member was "an after darker, no bugger knows what he does"… but not which one!
None of which is a major criticism. You can`t mention everything in a book of just 228 pages.
Does the book make me trust Flood more?
Yes, quite a lot more actually. But, if you are one of the many people, like me, who has recently felt a bit uneasy about the bankers and property developers who got us all into a credit crunch and recession, you should read Brendan`s book for yourself and see how you end up feeling about him.
But does he take risks? Again, please forgive me for asking. But the roll-call of banks with whom Brendan was doing at least some of his non-Bfc business over the last couple of years took me vividly back to reading newspapers in the autumn of 2008 and wondering where on earth the world economy was heading.
He ends his book by mentioning how Barry Kilby often quotes poet James Riley in saying 'Katy bar the door`, meaning we`re all inside, we`re safe. But earlier he writes a lot about encouraging the Board to take greater risks than they had previously felt safe with. "If I hadn`t been there," he writes "I expect we would have sold some players and kept the wage bill below three and a half million because that was a safer strategy."
His approach to risk taking is measured, and his methods of measuring are clearly set out. You can`t argue with the success that has been achieved.
But I suspect that if the Board at some future point (for whatever reason) ceases to question his ideas, many of which are excellent, the bar on Katy`s door could be put under strain. So, I hope that the Board will continue to show a balance between risk-takers and those who are more cautious.
Is part of the book's aim to help Flood in his non-Bfc activities? Property developers and bankers who aren`t Burnley fans are not very likely to want to read this book. So I don`t think he`s trying here to win them around, in what he freely admits are tough times, into investing in his non-Bfc activities. But if Brendan gives them copies and they skim through it, they will find a canny businessman with whom they will want to negotiate carefully, but quite probably with whom they will want to do business. Indeed, such is the good feeling it will give most readers about Brendan, that it will may well increase what are probably already a considerable number of requests that he support local causes and - who knows? - maybe it will even make someone think about asking him to become politically active.
Will some people not trust him after reading this?
Probably he is a bit too plain-speaking to become a politician. This is at times a remarkably candid book, and not everyone will like how they have been portrayed. Peter Reid, for example, is presented as being badly under-prepared for his interview to manage Burnley FC. The anecdote about Michael Essien could be construed as saying that someone at the club made an appalling error, and they might resent that. The anecdotes and analyses of Steve Cotterill could be seen as giving support to the causes of his detractors. But Steve`s supporters will be pleased to see him being given ample credit for several great trades, including those that took Wayne Thomas to the Saints and Clarke Carlisle to the Turf with a £750,00 profit. Anyone reading of this, and various other stories about Brendan`s equally considerable skill in negotiating, will get a clear message that they will need to be on guard in any future transactions. Others may clam up a bit when chatting with him in the future, thinking that he may bring out a sequel.
Does a clear, positive and sensible plan come across for the direction of Burnley FC?
Yes. For example, Brendan makes it clear that he wanted to get away from Steve Cotterill`s instinctive move to bring in experienced players and instead build from the bottom up with young players. But not just any young players… He also clearly believes in seeking out leaders in all parts of any organisation that he runs. We can see this on the pitch, where one of the questions he asks his manager when being asked to fund a new purchase is whether the player has been a captain. But in the book he also talks about his backroom staff in ways that suggest that he wants them to be leaders too, and to feel important and valued in return.
He is clearly a very people-centred businessman. He has learned ways of making shrewd judgements about people, while also acknowledging the huge importance of being fair.
He talks a lot about building his own footballing networks so that he can ask sensible questions about his footballing staff`s recommendations.
He has shown that he has the stomach for surviving a crisis. The club`s record winless streak coincided with his first months as a director. He is also finding out in his non-footballing businesses that success isn`t just about surviving your first crisis; it`s about coping with all the other ones too.
He attaches great importance to decisiveness, but talks about the role of Barry Kilby, in particular, questioning what he wants to do before he makes a decision.
Being aware of the importance of these things, isn`t the same as getting them right. But it`s an important part of it, and he comes across as very alert and aware… so it`s presumably not gone un-noticed that all of the candidates for player of the year last year were older, experienced players!
What else did I find out?
Amongst many other things, many of which may not be news to other folk…
• Brendan is a Roman Catholic, like Owen Coyle. When he was offered the manager`s job by Brendan, Owen said "I won`t let you down."
• When he first moved away from the area, Brendan briefly tried out being a fan of first QPR, then Arsenal. His youngest son had split Claret/MU loyalties before the Carling game at Stamford Bridge.
• Brendan was days away from personal financial catastrophe in 1993. Then, right at the time of Burnley`s greatest triumph for decades, he was not only fighting off the effects of the huge global downturn in his other businesses, he was also in the middle of suffering a succession of family bereavements. Also in that week of Wembley triumph and personal tragedy, Brendan was discussing a non-football property deal with the Blades chairman.
• Claret director Clive Holt watches youth games at Gawthorpe from across the river so he can watch with his dog, which Dobo was no longer willing to let near the pitch.
• Brendan believes that 'an organisation`s ability to learn and turn that learning into action rapidly', in Jack Welch`s words, 'is the ultimate competitive advantage`. Here`s an example perhaps… Brendan was the person who decided it was time to discuss a change with Steve Cotterill when he felt that Steve couldn`t absorb more pressure. Since then he has often sent Owen jokes by text to relieve the pressure when things have been less than brilliant on the pitch.
How big a part has Flood played in recent successes? Or has it all been down to Owen and luck? What about the other Board members? How important was Steve Cotterill`s legacy? And would Wado have gone if Brendan hadn`t made a personal plea? Haven`t I told you enough already about what`s in Brendan`s book? If you want answers to these sorts of questions, you will have to read it for yourself! But Brendan believes that "decisions at the top make or break football clubs", so you can rest assured he got to where the action was on all of these matters, and more, and he tells the stories here, in ways that are well worth reading.
What does it mean to be a good and true fan? It`s interesting that if we say we are a fan of Burnley Football Club, but a big fan of Wade Elliott, for example, we are actually saying that our commitment to the club is the bigger one. For me to say that I am a big fan of Wado allows me to say that he gave the ball away too often at Chelsea, or to remember the points he lost with an underhit back pass at Southend; and to question whether he is better on the wing or in the centre. Do I, though, as a committed fan of the club have the right to question and criticise someone who has put millions into it, like Brendan, rather than been paid millions by it, like Wade? While writing something like this, it`s hard to completely block out the worry that being critical might discourage future investment… or result in the extremely helpful staff in the Lottery Office not being quite so helpful in future when I phone for away tickets! But Brendan`s philosophy is that the important thing is not to stop questioning. So, I trust that he will take my questioning approach here as a mark of respect. And, given that he is such a deep thinker about things, I assume he thought in advance about how writing a book encourages other people to think about him.
What questions do I want Brendan to keep on asking? How can he make the magic last for a decade? What can Burnley Football Club do for everyone who lives in and around Burnley the town? How can as many of them as possible be actively involved in some kind of activity in and around the club? How can young kids who are starting out as Clarets get enough loyalty points to be able to get home and away tickets? What kind of people does he need to make the Board as effective as possible?
And what questions would I like to ask Brendan? What lessons do we need to learn from the 3-0 loss at Chelsea, which I watched on the day I started reading his book? What did he think that afternoon would be the result at Anfield, our next game? Is he still keeping a diary? And will there be a sequel to this book?
If there is, I will buy it!
FOOTNOTE: So that anyone can ask themselves questions about where I am coming from in this review, which is inevitably 'a portrait of me', here is a quick word about me.
I am a Burnley fan since childhood, despite never having lived in town. I picked it up off my Grandad, who did for a few years in the 20s. I am a Foundation Member and Clarets Trust Life Member. I have written for a few years now in the fanzine When the Ball Moves, both under my own name, Geoffrey Mann, and as Couch Potato, which is the name I use when posting on Vital Burnley, where I am now credited as a 'journalist`. I use the name Couch Potato because I live in Lyme Regis, on the Devon/Dorset border, which geographical fact means that I listen to a lot of games on ClaretsPlayer. It's great, lying back on the couch, shutting my eyes and listening to Phil Bird and friends. But not so great as to stop me wishing I lived somewhere that made it easier to see the Clarets more often. At other times, I am a businessman in the simultaneously genteel and cut-throat world of publishing, where I am managing director and part owner of a company (www.russellhouse.co.uk) that specialises in books about working with children, families, teenagers and adults especially when they are in need or in trouble; and about people and organisations that try to help them. I have also done some voluntary youth work and community development work. I am proud of all of this, but freely acknowledge that in financial terms Brendan Flood has done several hundred times better than me in about the same amount of time. So I will end by saying respectfully that, if my portrait here is worth a paragraph, Brendan`s book is well worth its 228 pages and the £9.99 it costs. Buy it! Read it! Share it! Brendan`s share of the proceeds goes to Bfc youth development. While anyone reading this on Vital Burnley will have helped raise money for the Clarets Trust`s investment in the club.
Written by Couch Potato (Not a Ghost Writer in Sight!)
Vital Burnley wish to thank Burnley FC for the use of the photographs