I don’t yet know enough about football to understand how they – whoever “they” may be – decide the order of matches in any season. Is it an IT software package into which they input in all the team names, plus any mitigating factors (for instance, it’s probably not a great idea to have multiple London Derbies all at once), before pressing a button and letting it work its magic? A group of blokes in a pub, sitting around a table and scribbling on the back of a beer mat? Some other state-of-the-art selection method that I haven’t yet considered?
However the decision may be made, the opening game is crucial in setting the tone for the season. All spectators, whether neutral or [whatever the opposite of “neutral” is – “partisan”?], want excitement. We want two teams sufficiently evenly matched to deliver goals, but not so evenly matched that each stops the other from scoring. A plot twist is also a plus; watching a multiple-trophy-winning machine with an infinite supply of money trounce a newly-promoted minnow isn’t particularly thrilling. A team making a comeback from a losing position is also great – perhaps not so much if you’re playing AGAINST them, but still better than the unholy grail of a goalless draw devoid of standout moments, non?
Most importantly, everyone needs to take some sort of good feeling from that opening game, regardless of the final result. Winners should go home happy that they won, and losers should at least have some pride in their performance and optimism regarding bettering it the next time.
This season’s curtain-raiser, featuring new boys Burnley versus the Terminatoresque Manchester City, had all the potential to be an absolute firecracker. Whoever decided to choose this as the opener – whether it was the IT programme, the blokes in the pub or even the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter – is a genius. I couldn’t wait to see the titanic clash that is Vinnie versus Pep, kohai versus sensei, and I would have been prepared to swim against the tide and bet my house on Vinnie having a plan and coming out on top.
As it happens Vinnie did have a plan; it just didn’t work. Manchester City scored in the first four minutes (which cost the game some excitement points as most sensible people will have seen this coming), and of course it was Haaland (minus another few excitement points). Then a second City goal (more excitement points gone) from Haaland again (EVEN more excitement points gone) and then the deal-sealer from Rodri (the last few dregs of remaining excitement points trickling down the plughole). Oh dear.
The game was not without its dramas, and I know I said that I wanted excitement, but not like this. With De Bruyne and Benson off injured, an object thrown at Lewis by some idiot in the stands and Zaroury red-carded, did anyone leave Turf Moor with a good feeling that evening? Ok, City took the three points, so they should have been happy, but then this isn’t news; they must be quite used to it by now. This fixture promised a lot but left everyone feeling just that little bit flat. Where was the fire? And, to almost-quote the Black Eyed Peas, where was the love?
Cut now to Brentford’s opening game against Spurs two days later. It certainly had elements worthy of excitement points: a London derby of two evenly-matched teams, with one (us, obviously) more than capable of pulling off ‘giant-killing’ surprises, plus talismanic poster boys conspicuous in their absence.
Obviously it would be some feat to live up to That Arsenal Game, our benchmark for opening matches which had absolutely everything: a new stadium (well, new to most of us as we didn’t get to see much of it during Covid), a newly-promoted upstart taking on a mighty behemoth, a wave of barrier-transcending love when the whole stadium stood to applaud Saka (apart from the bloke in front of us, who initially refused “because he wasn’t gonna applaud a Gunner” and then relenting when I told him not to be such a miserable shite) and, of course, a result which was the stuff of dreams. We all still talk about That Arsenal Game. (And I still Google the memes that ensued and find them funny two years on.)
Was it fanciful or just downright greedy of me to want that, or a repeat of the Manchester United hammering, again?
Well, we didn’t quite hit those heights. But our beloved Bees still gifted us a match bubbling with positives.
Mbeumo’s penalty was cool, focused and never in any doubt (despite what the awful Jonathan Pearce spluttered on about throughout his commentary). Wissa was, yet again, in the right place at right time, and gave us a second surprise goal which, despite the understated delivery, still sparkled. Henry was dynamite, crossing into the box in almost-Messi style; on this occasion we weren’t quite able to take it all the way, but creating chances is better than not creating chances.
Newcomers Collins and Flekken each made a strong and solid debut, the latter, in particular, showing promise and not at all deserving of the pre-season Negative Nellies (YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE) and their comments. Flekken was no Raya, but then even Raya took time to become Raya and didn’t just do it in one game. I’m looking forward to Flekken just being Flekken, and to seeing what more he can achieve under the expert tutelage of Thomas Frank.
A point apiece was probably, under the circumstances, a fair result. I know, I know, “Nobody likes a draw”, and obviously I am biased/partisan/non-neutral/whatever. But, of all the Gameweek 1 matches, I think Brentford v Spurs would have made the best season opener. The full three points would have given us that extra oomph to take us into the next game, but, y’know, a marathon and not a sprint, as they say.