Written by Polly Penter (images by Mike Holdwsorth)
Before we all get too depressed, let’s look at where we were this time last year.
This time last year, we were in League Two; this time last year we were reflecting on an underwhelming draw against Aldershot, and that only after a stoppage time penalty; this time last year we were feeling bruised, having lost to struggling Wimbledon and drawn with Port Vale and Dagenham & Redbridge, with only a (great) win against York giving us a much-needed boost; this time last year we hoped for, but didn’t expect, promotion.
Before we all clamour for Phil Parkinson’s head (I’m currently avoiding Facebook, because the negative comments annoy me so much), let’s look at where we are right now: we’re half way down the table, but in League One; we just suffered a decisive defeat, yes, against a team 30 points ahead of us vying for automatic promotion and with a home form second only to Wolves; we’ve just watched an afternoon of lacklustre football from a side struggling with several key players out with injuries, yet which still held its own for the first half.
With this in mind, I am not about to join the sneering, grumbling hoards seemingly swamping the forums and Twitter feeds with their venom and vitriol, but instead reflect upon why, underwhelming football and hot dogs notwithstanding (sorry, Brentford, Crawley’s are by far the best), Saturday was a reminder of how this is one of the greatest hobbies you can have.
Being London-based, I try to see as many of the Southern away games as possible, venturing to such glamorous locations as Stevenage and Gillingham. Brentford doesn’t immediately sound alluring, but it’s actually one of my favourite football venues – it’s on my doorstep (relatively speaking), being a quick train journey from Waterloo, well inside the Oyster card zones. The ground is a mere amble from the station, and, of course, it famously has a pub on each corner.
London gently buzzes on match days. As you cross the city you’re aware of an array of different football strips and scarves from every direction, as their wearers head with that purposeful, pre-match stride towards Selhurst Park and Stamford Bridge, West Ham and Watford. As I travelled west, Euston bustled with late Arsenal fans en route to the FA cup match, and at Waterloo the occasional glimpse of claret and amber gave way to a virtual City takeover at platform 18.
Being a far-flung supporter, it’s amazing how many familiar faces you come across on such journeys, as other Bradford expats converge on the same little bit of London from across the Home Counties and beyond to watch their beloved Bantams in action. (I did once meet a rather dejected Bradford fan at Gatwick Airport after we played Crawley in 2011 – he’d flown over from Detroit for a 24-hour round trip as it was “the closest thing to a local fixture I’ll get this year”. We’d lost 3-1.)
The train ride from Waterloo to Brentford shows off London at its best, especially in Saturday’s glorious sunshine. Crossing the Thames at Barnes (we watched several rowing crews zipping under the bridge below us) and rattling through up-market Chiswick and Kew. Brentford is Kew’s less-fashionable neighbour, yet the short walk to Griffin Park takes in rows of pretty terraced cottages under the gaze of shiny new developments, an optimistic mish-mash of old and new a world away from some of the depressing locations I’ve been to this year (Crewe probably being the worst).
My dad (in his words a “football dinosaur”) did his best to dampen the air of positivity as we headed to our pub of choice, the New Inn, bemoaning “those daft pre-match warm-ups” (they didn’t have them in “his day”), “barmy goal celebrations” (they didn’t do that in “his day”) and “sports psychologists” (I don’t even need to say it). By the time we got to the pub he was complaining about drawstring teabags in polystyrene cups, so I left him with some friendly Brentford fans and went to get the first round.
Griffin Park is has a pub on each corner. We passed two on the way to the New Inn, both humming with a mix of fans from both clubs and clearly welcoming. I’ve been to some towns where the atmosphere has been actively hostile, and there are certain pubs you know you’d be foolish to enter. But here we were, sharing a corner with fellow City fans, Brentford fans, a rogue QPR fan there under duress with his young son (a part-time Brentford, part-time Chelsea fan), and several Irish rugby supporters.
There was no underlying menace, which seems to have been all too common this season. As the match approached more and more City fans arrived, chatting and drinking and exchanging pre-match banter. The general view seemed to be that we would be lucky to get away with even a point, yet the mood was distinctly upbeat.
I shouldn’t be surprised when I see the impressive turnout of City fans at distant away games, yet I always am. The chat forums would have you believe support is waning, but this was definitely not the case on Saturday – both the seats and terrace were rammed with City fans ready to make some noise. Conversely, the home stands, also packed, held a relatively sedate crowd. On the plus side this meant there was no nastiness (as far as I could tell) between the two sides, which I’ve sadly seen too often this year, but you did sometimes feel they’d headed out for an afternoon at the theatre and taken a wrong turning.
The atmosphere, though, was great, with City fans in good voice from beginning to end, and it was especially heartening to hear united shouts of “COME ON CITY” after the first Brentford goal, rather than the torrents of abuse which are all too common when things are going badly. The generally convivial mood seemed to transfer to the pitch too: there was only one booking all afternoon.
The game itself was ultimately disappointing. As one frustrated fan nearby yelled during the second half, “You’re playing football, not headball! Get it on the ground!” Brentford could have walked away with a 6-0 win and deserved it. They were the better side by far, whereas we looked a little hapless, lacking a plan B (we’d clearly set out to play defensively, and when this didn’t work it felt as though we’d run out of ideas) and ultimately uninspiring.
We now sit in a precarious position – probably safe, but not enough to relax just yet. Fans who expected us to whizz straight up to the Championship were always, I feel, unrealistic; but now we really could do with a couple of victories to calm the nerves and secure the safe, mid-table spot at the end of the season which I’ve been hoping for – perfectly respectable for a newly-promoted side.
Looking at the upcoming fixtures, with James Hanson and Andrew Davies back, this isn’t unreasonable. In the meantime, the camaraderie and atmosphere on Saturday has reminded me that I have the best hobby in the world, and support one of its truly great clubs. CTID.