Andy Cooper gives a view from Hong Kong on Brentford’s promotion and how everything seems rather different since that final whistle at Wembley.
It was when the long shot from Ivan Toney smacked the bar and bounced out that l felt it the most keenly. Not the pure theatre of the inches-from-glory wonder-strike, but the fear. At 3-0 up I would have possibly started to think we were going to do it. Instead I was worried it was the turning point. I distinctly remember imagining my future-self in about an hour’s time; contemplating the fresh hell that would have just been scribed in brown gold in the canon of the Brentford catastrophic universe. How will it come? I wondered. Conceding from an unnecessary free-kick with 15 minutes to go? Deeper and deeper defending as the Swans scented a late equaliser that would appear with crushing yet familiar inevitability? There could even be scope for Ivan to miss his first ever penalty during the shoot out.
“It’s the hope that kills you” has been said a million times, but it was this sort of defence-mechanism that had originally inclined me to just watch the Play-off final at home. I could then slope off straight into bed where the 7 hour time difference with the UK would offer a nocturnal escape route from another disappointment. I would then spend the next few days trying to fill my attention with other things, while gradually rediscovering that inner truth that nobody ever supported Brentford for the success anyway. In fact this would be very much like the year before…but we didn’t have the choice then due to Covid restrictions. With measures relaxed in Hong Kong there was a choice this time round. Some chatter on the Hong Kong Bees Whatsapp group, and it became apparent that people wanted to get together and watch the game. I then got into the mindset pretty quickly. “We shall not go silently into the night” I declared, with unearned pomposity.
On the Saturday morning I repeated the ritual that proved successful in the second leg of the semi-final by running up a hill and placing a Globe Brentford pint glass on the trigonometry marker at the summit.
In the evening, already well-refreshed from a wedding in the afternoon, I located directly to a bar in Wan Chai for the muster of the Hong Kong Bees, and it has to be said – a larger bevy of Swansea fans. I don’t think they entirely appreciated my assurance as to their imminent two-goal turnaround as they sportingly congratulated me with 20 minutes to go.
My friend Ross filmed our reaction at the final whistle. He’s a Plymouth Argyle fan and I can only say we became friends because we speak the same language when it comes to football. He knew the significance of the moment. Phil, one of the other HK Bees is just sitting there with tears in his eyes. I still look absolutely terrified, until my deep footballing insight kicks in with 30 seconds to go, and I explain to everyone that Swansea need two goals. There’s not even time for anyone to commend me on being such a brilliant football tactician. The final whistle goes and in that moment of incredulous joy, everything changes.
The first thing that changes is that overall it feels like a curse has been lifted. This takes a few hours to kick in, after exchanging unintelligible noises with my Dad on the phone at Wembley amidst all the cheering, after celebrating with strangers, after miraculously making it home with a full inventory of phone, headphones, wallet, and The Globe Brentford pint pot. We’d won a play-off final, for a place in the Premier League. We even managed to do it quite comfortably which subsequent viewings (of which there have been many), have shown. A thoroughly professional performance, and while the Swansea fans may still say only one team turned up, for once, it was us. That only used to happen to other clubs.
Maybe a curse genuinely has been lifted. Legend has it that when Brentford took ownership of the orchard from Fuller’s brewery that would become Griffin Park, a gypsy camp had to be moved on. As they moved off disgruntled down the Great West Road towards Reading, it is said a curse was laid, fortelling that the club would never amount to much as long as they played at Griffin Park. While our history has not been without some success, it has been characterised by an astonishing amount of bad luck. Is it coincidence that now the Bees are settled in the new stadium that things went differently? All those times we hoped for the joy of a play-off victory that never came. I’m reminded of Jeff Bridges in Tron. “I tried to imagine a world I thought I’d never see. Then, one day… I got in… “ It was an amazing weight lifted. Now I obviously hope we are nowhere near a play-off any time soon, but should the time come, we can probably absorb a couple more failures before “We’ve only ever won one play-off!” becomes a mantra, and a fairly rubbish one at that.
It’s Monday morning 9am. I’ve already watched the highlights again with some coffee. Now just a couple more Wembley social media videos, and I’m going to really spring into action and work on this governance framework.
I log on to the HR system and book the day off.
The next thing I realise while I’m eating popcorn during another Swansea fan Wembley video blog is that this was the biggest day in our history, and I wasn’t there. I was there for the Huddersfield penalty shoot out and the Crewe let-down. I was there when the Stoke day-trippers sang Delila in Cardiff. I was there for the Trotta crossbar fiasco, I could go on… I always thought that if we ever finally “reach the promised land” that I’ve earned the right to be there and I would be gutted if I wasn’t. Ok so I’ve made the choice to live in Hong Kong, and there is a global pandemic on. There was certainly no opportunity to confect a business trip back to the UK like I did for one of the Johnstone’s Paint finals. Still, as much as I would have liked to have been there, I somehow can’t bring myself to feel disappointed that I wasn’t. Should I feel surprised? At this point I’m still breaking out into hands-in-the-air celebrations just walking down the street!
Now If you do happen to walk down the street in Hong Kong, you can’t go very far without seeing a Liverpool or Chelsea shirt. Something else has changed. I used to lament the rampant commercialisation of the English game so evident in Asia for its negative impact on the ability of teams like Brentford to compete. Now it’s no longer an entirely different world. My Brentford shirt is simply displaying an allegiance to another Premier League club, just like the other fella. This raises new and disturbing questions. Without live streaming iFollow coverage next season, will I end up being just another statistic of the “global audience” feeding the monster with an “EPL” subscription? Or if I’m watching Premier League games in a bar 6000 miles away, do I start to resemble the people I now regard with silent snobbery for never having witnessed a last minute defeat at Chesterfield? I can almost picture the scene at the Bottoms Up club where a plastic Scaramanga in a Liverpool shirt looks at me and says “You see, we are not so different, you and I…”
Finally I’m going to link from James Bond to Brentford and England, (A double-thumbs up for “On Her Majesty’s Beecret Service” anyone?) because I’ve also noticed that my relationship with the England national team has been changed by the Bees’ play-off win. I know I am not the only Brentford fan to have felt this. At 2-0 up against Germany in stoppage time, I was completely relaxed and rather enjoying it. In previous tournaments a German incursion into our half would have scared the living daylights out of me. The change is partly due to the realisation that straightforward professional victories can exist for teams I care about. More than this however, I don’t need to crave England’s success in a summer tournament as catharsis for an epoch-defining Brentford disaster. I don’t need to process the equation as to whether the greater good of an England win would be an acceptable trade-off for the unattainable Brentford success that some arcane powers would forever prevent. Of course I really hope England cap a spectacular football season by winning the Euros, in what would surely be the greatest you-wait-ages-for-a-bus-then-two-come-along-at-once metaphor of all time. However if it’s not Coming Home, well, I guess you could say that we remember…
One Bee on a shirt, Trophy-from-May still gleaming…
I won’t go on, and yes the word you are looking for is quite possibly “crowbar”, but the fact that we can leverage, if just for a short while, the Bees’ power to take the sting out of life’s other disappointments, is perhaps the biggest change of all.