December 4 1993… FA Cup Round Two… Brentford 1 Cardiff City 3 Were you at this game? There’s no real reason you’d remember being part of the 4,845 crowd, but I do. I was there and so was my dad, Joe. It was the last time I saw him alive.
He was proper Brentford, my old man. Quietly loyal, which is what you would expect from a second-generation Bees fan who grew up in Ealing. When conversation with friends and work colleagues turned to football, he’d take the jokes about his choice of club with a smile.
He could, of course. Brentford didn’t have anything to prove to him. He’d seen the glory days of the old First Division and somewhere, deep in his heart, knew (or at least hoped) that they would return.
He’d spent the Second World War in the Royal Navy – most of it sailing dangerous North Atlantic convoys on battleships and destroyers. But what war stories did he tell me? Mostly the one about how Leslie Smith – an actual mate of his – won the Cup for us in 1942 and how he was at Wembley to see it.
I came along late in his life – a real surprise. He was 51 when I was born in 1969 (my mum was much younger then him, the dirty dog.) I’m near that age now and can only imagine how proud he must have been to finally have a son to take to the game.
We went regularly together from the 1977/78 season. Promotion and plenty of goals from Steve Phillips and Andy McCulloch had me hooked. I loved how Gordon Sweetzer always played with a bandaged knee, battling through pain for my team. And there was something stylish about Barry Tucker’s weird looking boots and neat moustache. This football lark was easy, I thought, not realising I’d spend the majority of the next 35-plus years watching us yo-yo between the bottom two divisions.
We’d arrive late and go in through the tumble-down corrugated iron turnstile that butted up against the pavement on Brook Road. Up the cinder bank in the shadow of the giant Royal Oak stand to take our place in New Road where Hate Corner later came.
When I was 13, Dad got a job working on the door of the Executive Lounge every home game. It meant I’d get in free but had to stay late, having the run of the empty ground when matches finished. I’d stand at the centre of the huge home end and listen to the silence when the floodlights went out. I swear you could hear Griffin Park let out a sigh.
Of course, we shared plenty of highs. Joe happily signed up to Lifeline on its launch in 1986, and promptly won one of the first big prizes of a club holiday to California. The cup run in 1988/89 brought us back together after my teenage years. Later, Deano and Bliss gave us hope that things had finally turned around.
On that last day I’d not lived at home for four years. But I always knew where dad would be on a Saturday. I parked alongside him in his ‘secret’ spot behind the car dealership in Layton Road, taking ten minutes to catch up and chat about the team and life in general. I worked on the Middlesex Chronicle then, so always had gossip about what was going on at the club.
It was a pretty unremarkable parting. Off I went for a pint, while he sat and waited to hear the team news on Radio London. Three days later he passed away.
This is the bit that gets me. Since then, every trip to Griffin Park has made me think of him. Days and weeks can pass by between games, but Joe is always beside me in the walk up Braemar Road.
This weekend I should have been saying goodbye to the old ground and looking forward to the bright Brentford future that we both so dreamed of. Being denied it seems especially cruel somehow. I was probably going to cry on the final whistle anyway, but not being there for the last game opens up old wounds.
Still, it’s got me thinking about what happens next. My dad’s story is just one of thousands and I’m sure the majority of older fans reading this will have a special someone who introduced them to the Bees and is now no longer with us.
So here’s an idea. Earlier this season Football Focus did a piece about Union Berlin. Just like the Bees, Union sit at the heart of the community and have a history that is interwoven with their fans. To cut a long story short, when the club made it to the Bundesliga top division for the first time, supporters brought pictures of these ‘departed’ fans with them to hold up in the crowd on the opening day of the season.
Could we do the same? Denied the chance to say a proper sporting farewell to our home, I need to know that my dad is with me at Lionel Road and share the opening with him. Football grounds are more than just physical buildings, but are steeped in the spirits and memories of those who came before.
If you’ve got a now-dead loved one who made you a Bees fan, print out a picture of them on A4 and hold it high when we finally get to play in our new stadium. Let’s share the success with the people who yearned for it and helped make the club what it is today. Griffin Park isn’t gone. It’s coming with us.