In July, as I still floated through the rainbows and waterfalls of that glorious terra incognita of Brentford post-play off euphoria, I wrote some words about how everything suddenly seemed so different; The play-off curse lifted, my bewildering overnight transformation into an Asian market Premier League subscriber, and the quelling of the desperate need for England to win a summer tournament to exorcise the ghost of another last-hurdle Brentford disaster. On any other occasion England’s penalty shoot out fluff would be some sort of emotional scar that you would carry forever like Italia ‘90 or Euro ‘96, yet as Brentford fans we had a Premier antidote.
So a few months on, and at the end of a year, start of a new year, ok Chinese New Year, it seemed a good time to reconsider just what Brentford in the Premier League means now that we have had a chance to get used to it (if indeed we actually have). So this a follow up, a post-script, a “beequel” if you will, on Brentford in the Premier League from the perspective of a Hong Kong Bee.
Back in August, I arrived at a restaurant after hiking in Stanley on the South side of Hong Kong island, to be greeted by Sergi Canos on a massive screen scoring against Arsenal. My family greeted me as well, but I had barely noticed. This really does take some getting used to (the Brentford bit I mean) because in my previous 17 years in Hong Kong, screens in pubs and restaurants were a vista on a different world. One where the Bees would never feature. Is it wrong or sad to be wearing Bees clobber, and standing heroically like Cristiano Ronaldo about to take a free kick, just waiting for random people to come up to you and say “wow Brentford! Very good!” because this is what has actually happened on several occasions. I usually reward this kindly enthusiasm with a dignified exposition on Brentford’s incredible ascent, before they smile in what I guess is an impressed sort of way before quickly disappearing off, presumably to tell their friends.
It really brings home the completely different orbit that the Premier League traverses compared to life outside of it. I’ve been wearing that Brentford clobber in Hong Kong for all of that 17 years, and in that time the only people who have ever wanted a conversation about football supported teams like Gillingham, Brighton and Plymouth. I didn’t want to, but I think I have been drawn into the Premier League as a “product” as opposed to the league being simply a vehicle for Brentford to play and hopefully progress. I’m watching far more football, live replays, live broadcasts, highlights and goals packages. In the Championship I mostly only ever watched our games, with occasional partisan viewing of Fulham, QPR and immediate promotion rivals in the hope they would lose. Now I’m watching everything.
This is due in part to there being endless and easily available coverage compared to before, but more than that, the sheer joy of seeing Brentford competing at this level, and affecting it positively, makes everything colourful, interesting and relevant. Before, the Premier League was bland, predictable and distant. If I watched a game it would usually be with a vague notion of supporting the underdog against the Premier League superclub in the hope of an upset. As a Brentford supporter that solidarity with the smaller club was just the rules. Well those rules are now only for other people. They’ve gone out the window faster than you can say “Downing Street Lockdown party” . I’ve made that seamless transition to wanting every team who could potentially finish below Brentford to get banjoed by 3 or 4 goals. It’s not nice, but it’s strictly business.
That said, I don’t know about you, but I sometimes feel a bit of survivor’s guilt in respect of those erstwhile lower league peers that Brentford have left behind. At university one of my best mates was a Wigan Athletic fan. He used to quip that in those days Wigan were so “toilet” that they might as well have Armitage and Shanks playing up front (possibly with Twyford in the hole). If Brentford occasionally bought a promising player from Colchester, to him it represented a sunlit upland that he could only dream of. I did not begrudge him (or my oddly sizeable coterie of Wigan Athletic mates I have gathered over the years) their ascent to the Premier League in the years that followed. And they won the FA Cup. However this is the exception. For all the fans of those teams stuck in the lower leagues with little hope of experiencing their day in the sun, I do sometimes feel a bit bad. There but for the grace of Matthew Benham, go I.
Another thing that has changed is the sheer jeopardy of every game that takes the intensity to a new level. Every goal, every point, every win, is so precious. Right now we are just out of the winter break after some tough games, and looking to see where the points may come from to guarantee safety is not especially easy despite the point against Palace. It’s a big change for the last few years where we had got used to thinking we could and should get something from most games. There’s no such thing as a regulation 2-0 home win over wrong-end-of-the-table-defeat-specialists. Every win we do get, we are celebrating like we’ve won the FA Cup, as someone once said. You just try going back to sleep at 5am for a couple of hours kip after pacing the room and then jumping around after a last minute penalty winner against Watford!
If I am honest, the Bees being an established 2nd tier club was still something of a novelty, so being in the Premier League is still difficult to take in, and yet with the set up we have, we don’t feel out of place. The stadium is first rate, we are competing, and there is so far a sense of respect and acceptance of what Brentford are contributing, rather than tinpot visitors crashing the party. This is something I should remind myself every time I wait with childlike glee for the Brentford badge to appear on Match of Day credits and the carousel thing on the international Premier League broadcasting. Alongside Xg and all the other analytics at play, perhaps we should add in some Quantum Mechanics with Schrödinger’s Bee; simultaneously believable and unbelievable in the Premier League at the same time.
But despite being a stranger in a strange land it’s still football. You often hear about the sterile nature of the Premier League compared to the “real football” that we previously espoused, but it seems that the atmosphere at the Lionel Road Brentford Community New Griffin Park Stadium has been amazing. Unbeknown to me at the time, I was fortunate to be at the last match at Griffin Park with a crowd (against Sheffield Wednesday) but with Hong Kong and China clinging to a zero covid strategy and tight travel and quarantine restrictions, I just hope that we can get those final points we need to extend our Premier League adventure so myself and fellow Hong Kong Bees can look forward to experiencing it for ourselves. Give the team a shout from us in the meantime!