Spread the love

Maybe I’m feeling the years, but season 23-24 still feels like a date set way in the future. Surely it should only have come to pass in a long running game of Football Manager; one anchored in the real world accuracy of Stuart Nelson and Charlie Ide at the start. Gradually the game and real-world continuums diverged exponentially, where one Brentford progressed to become a top 10 Premier League side with a striker in the England team. A bit unrealistic you’d have said? That it actually happened in the real world remains joyously hard to believe.

This is the final part of a trilogy that I started in May 2021. The first part was in the immediate delirium of the Championship play-off final, trying to make sense of it all. The second , written early last year, described the experience of being an exiled fan with Brentford in the Premier League, and now this final instalment closes out the return journey, after Covid restrictions finally eased, to see Brentford games again after two and a half years.

The last Brentford match I went to prior, was in March 2020. We didn’t know at the time, but it was the last game with fans at Griffin Park. The Bees hammered Sheffield Wednesday 5-0. I was due to go back to Hong Kong in the coming days and as the pandemic started to unfold, I took in an extra sweeping look around the old ground on the way out, fearing that with all the uncertainty, coming back in May might not be possible. I was right.

In July 2022 travel restrictions in and out of Hong Kong were still persisting like a stubborn manager who won’t adjust his formation while all the crowd can see it isn’t working. It was nonetheless time to bite the bullet on hotel quarantine and get out of HK’s gilded prison. Just like the old days, the real detail of holiday planning waited impatiently for June and the release of the football fixtures. In anticipation of this I had written out a complex (and largely pointless) table categorising the possible permutations of Brentford’s first two fixtures while I’d be in England. These were then awarded a desirability rating due to various factors like new ground, new team I’d never seen play, new team I’d never seen Brentford play, distance to travel, likelihood of getting a ticket, likelihood of winning at home (so I could experience some Freed from Desire action in new Griffin Park) and so on. The only clear insight from this analysis was that I didn’t want Bournemouth away, which had the lowest XG (Expected Going) rating.

As it turned out I was dealt a pretty good hand with Leicester away and Manchester United at home. It was a gorgeous day in Leicester, and seeing so many familiar away day faces in the pubs was wonderful, even if the exposition that this was my first game in over 2 years brought inevitable hoots of “Oh loyal!” from various individuals. It was great to be back. Having waffled my way through the International Bees Beesotted podcast some weeks earlier, it was brilliant to meet some more people, in this case the Spanish Bees, telling their version of the “I was in London, and I ended up going to Brentford, and I’ve been going ever since” storya reminder of what a truly extraordinary club Brentford is. The Bees didn’t start the game too well, but after Ivan Toney pulled one goal back, the momentum was with us. There was a split second of anticipation, knowing exactly what was going to happen as Josh DaSilva cut inside onto his left foot, beforing curling in the equaliser. Hullabaloo in the away end. Yes, it truly felt great to be back.

The next game was Man Utd at home — my first visit to the new stadium if you discount a couple of curious peeks when it was still under construction. Despite the exhilarating and surreal feeling on that sunny day; going to watch Brentford play in the Premier League with my Dad, something I had wanted so much during the pandemic, I couldn’t help but feel sad looking from the M4 across to where the Griffin Park floodlights used to be. Perhaps most other fans have had the chance to move on, but for me it was the first time passing our former home. There’s so much memory tied up in that space, and not for the last time I thought about all the people whose time passed before these glorious days.

In the Globe the chatter was that Man Utd weren’t quite on their uppers, and if we played to our full potential, you never know, maybe we could do something. In a brief sojourn back to less illustrious times, it is Andy Scott who is responsible for the most pain I have experienced while celebrating a Brentford goal. His equaliser away at Oldham in 1997 caused me to banjo my shin on the seat in front when I leapt up. I still have a small scar. Fast forward to 2022, and without being too explicit, leaping up in comfortable shorts combined with the pendular motion of mobile phone in pocket, has put Josh DaSilva in contention for that “honour”. The clapping of his savable effort turned to raucous celebration as de Gea fumbled in the first of Brentford’s four goal haul. Such was the frequency of the goals in that first half, that by the 3rd I had perfected the art of securing my phone with one hand while performing a dashing one-handed whooping routine with the other.

Pick of the goals was the 4th, and what a view there was from the back of the West Stand; looking straight down the trajectory of Jensen’s long pass, Toney’s exquisite first time ball, Mbeumo winning the footrace, and what seemed like the whole stadium screaming “Go on Bryan!” in the split second before he slotted the ball into the net. My first home game in over 2 years, my first visit to the new stadium, and without hyperbole I’d possibly just seen the best Brentford goal of all time.

During the second half, me and the guy next to me quietly observed every time another 5 minutes had elapsed with our lead intact. With 15 minutes to go we discussed whether it was ok, or we could still feel nervous that something could go wrong. I remember yearning to keep that clean sheet, because 4-0 just sounded so much better than say, 4-1. And there’s the thing, beating Man Utd almost ended up being something of an anti-climax. To the extent that I had considered a win possible during the pub chatter, I could only foresee a narrow win with an Alamo-style hold on for the final whistle. After the post-match lap of honour and my first Freed from Desire carnival, people walked out into the August sunshine saying in dazed fashion “We just thrashed Man United..” This wasn’t quite the Brentford I knew… And yet, despite needing to leave the pub slightly earlier, it was still the same pub, same faces, and about the stadium, people I’ve said hello to for years without knowing their names. Even the asymmetrical quirkiness of the stadium, close to the pitch, has the feel of Griffin Park, yet with the added bonus of being able to go for a half time wee and make it back in time for the second half. Talking of bogs, I was reminded of Luke Skywalker’s arrival on Yoda’s swamp planet in Star Wars. Having never been there before but still feeling There’s something familiar about this place… This may have been on my mind when a sudden creative Force inspired me to recreate the iconic binary sunset scene using the West Stand’s Brentford badge and a Wagon Wheel.

In all I managed 7 games in Brentford’s second Premier League season, experiencing so many great moments. A few years ago they could only have been dreamed of as once-in-decade cup upsets. It almost made up for the long absence: winning at West Ham, winning at Chelsea, a last minute winner at home to Nottingham Forest, and right at the top? …Having my whole family present for the incredible 3-1 win over Liverpool. I honestly think that Bryan Mbeumo’s clincher is my most cherished Brentford goal, stretching all the way back to my first really meaningful one – Kevin Godfrey’s play-off equaliser against Tranmere in 1991, and taking in everything in between. It wasn’t just the excitement of the breakaway, Bryan suddenly in the clear, the cut inside onto the left foot, the pandemonium before the ball had even crossed the line. It was the fact that with that goal we had secured a deserved win against Liverpool, in the top league of English football as peers. I remember looking around my mates and thinking we now support a club that does this sort of thing, it’s not a fluke, and I can almost believe it now.

Later in the season I was back and at the Spurs home game, a match with extra poignancy as tributes were paid to fans Derek Hazel and Bob Winstanley who had sadly passed away. Bob was someone I stood with for years on the Ealing Road. I watched countless away games with him and his wife Rose. His friendly demeanour, catch-phrases, and at times outright panic at what was happening on the pitch will be missed by so many who knew him. He made Brentford fun even when the football wasn’t, and I’m just glad that he got to see the Bees in our current pomp. As I said before, we all know people who didn’t. Despite dominating Spurs and taking a comfortable 2-0 lead, somehow we conspired to secure a disappointing draw late on. With Bob’s picture on the screens, I could almost hear him shouting “Ah Naaaooo! I kneeeew that was gonna ‘appen!” as if it had been in League 2 against Port Vale 20 years ago. It was another reminder that while things are in so many ways different, these astonishing changes to what we are seeing on the pitch, and to our own mindset as supporters of little old Brentford, we will always have those connections to the past. Despite the disappointment in the result I found myself smiling.

Andy Cooper @hongkongbee