Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game head to west London and refuse to boo Bees that have lost their buzz.
Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks
The blithering yakker I’m currently having to listen to on the phone at work, is really fucking up my plans, as I watch the clock tick past my finishing time, he is now officially encroaching on football time. Thankfully my excellent customer service skills allow me to expertly finish the call not long after the man whose thoroughness was verging on the obsessive is now gone, his incessant talking didn’t delay things too much, and I meet Tom only ten minutes later than planned under the clock at Waterloo station.
Astounded that we get a seat on the train heading west, expecting to have to cling on the outside or sit on the roof for all the suited types going home, Tom is straight into talking about the previous day’s FA Cup semi-final draw, and is apparently very confident Arsenal will overcome Manchester City, and Spurs will brush aside Chelsea, “see you in the final”. Predicting it to be “Wengers last game in charge” he seems to think that a North London derby at Wembley, and an Arsenal victory is “written in the stars”.
Changing the subject, thoughts of losing to either Chelsea or Arsenal in a cup final is too much to bare right now, I ask him what his girlfriend is up to tonight, “smiling” he tells me, remembering quite how much she enjoys him disappearing for the night, so she has the house to herself. It’s hard to concentrate on his reply though, because of the man over his shoulder licking his fingers clean as he finishes has post work snack or because of a man nearby with the most hideous of coughs, God I hate public transport.
Brentford FC (BFC) have been on our radar since day one, Tom quite rightly saying we’ve been wanting to go for “while”, but neither of us are sure why. Although it’s a tick off ‘The 92’ list for Tom, I’ve already done it, awhile ago admittedly, 1999 to be precise, the first match in Tottenham’s run to Wembley in the League Cup, and the last minute Allan Nielson winner against Leicester. It was the first time I ever saw someone bring their own home made confetti, tossing handfuls of it into the air from a carrier bag.
I think the main draw is Griffin Park, BFC’s home ground, somewhat of a relic in this day and age of sterile stainless steel stadiums. I mean relic in the most complimentary of senses, an antique if you like, but a high end one, one that gets a round of applause from the Roadshow crowd, not something from Cash In The Attic. It’s small, compact, intimate and still has a terrace, and we’re only one step down from the Premier League, it’s a big draw.
“Now approaching Brentford” announces the train. Not long after leaving the station, along with all the red and white scarf wearing people off to the game, perhaps looking a bit lost, is it that clear we are from the North, that we are set upon, in a perfectly lovely way mind, not like by a savage lion, by a lady in a red sash, asking us if we’re “going to the match?”. Before I can even reply, she’s dished out the directions, and handed me a postcard sized leaflet, which she informs me has a “map on the back”.
“You know you’re in West London” says Tom.
Meccano floodlights wirelyCHECK loom over the roofs of the tightly packed houses around Griffin park, Tom thinks they are very “impressive”. Stacked up planes making their way to nearby Heathrow airport are visible in the clear sky, this evening feeling uncharacteristically “warm” for this time of year, as Tom puts it, and he is therefore not tOo distraught he has “forgotten” his snood.
“Move on past Bee’s, the Wolves are here and they bite” says the stewards on the entrance to the away end, as a handful of tonight’s visiting fans of Wolverhampton Wanderers FC (WW) arrive. We take his advice, pass the Griffin pub, and onto the Stadium Shop, which if it wasn’t for the mannequins in the window, you might walk straight past, as it looks just like a house but with a red and white striped paint job.
“Coolest pin yet” says Tom after his whirlwind tour of the snug club shop, the word ‘Stadium’ in it’s name implying it’s a little bit bigger, than it actually is.
Tickets are collected close by, tickets ordered online, that didn’t have a gouging booking fee like so many other clubs, classy move. When Tom is struggling to get through the thigh high turnstiles, you know they’re minuscule. On the other side groups of people mingle, ensuring not to have a kick about themselves, adhering to the “no ball games” sign on the wall, in what I can best describe as a courtyard, now at the foot of the floodlights, that look even better up close.
“Want some pancakes?” ask Tom, who is seriously considering a crepe from the Coffee & Pancake stall, that’s lit up like a Hollywood mirror. I don’t want one, savoury or sweet, I don’t care if it’s got Nutella or lemon and sugar on, I want to talk to the small woman dressed in green, the 50/50 seller.
So much about our anticipated meeting is thrilling, we are one promotion away from the highest league in the country, supposedly the best in the world, and I can get a 50/50 like I was at the Champion Hill or Imperial Fields. It even has it’s own Twitter account, I thought getting one at Charlton was remarkable, but this gazumps that. When I do finally get my turn, it’s a bit more pricey, £2, instead of your usual £1, and its a little more advanced than tearing a ticket from a book, it’s all done on a tablet, also if you don’t have any change, you can pay with a card. She taps away at her flat screen, her ticket machine slung over her shoulder like a bandoleer, sputters to life as it prints off my ticket, handing it to me, she wishes me a cheery “good luck”.
The courtyard where you can gamble, drink and eat French snacks, gives you a slightly false impression of Griffin Park, that it’s going to be open and spacious, however making our way to the terrace it soon becomes a warren of tight passageways.
Past the man using the concrete base of the floodlight as a bench, the covered terrace, the pitch and the rest of the stands, which don’t look like they have an unimpeded view among them, opens up in front of us.
I don’t think cramped or pokey is the right way to describe it, but Griffin Park brings you right into the action, the footballs pinging off the steps, are causing havoc, and is a stark and slightly scary reminder of how how close you are. “Heads” shouts a player whose wayward shot misses the temporary goal, and zips into the crowd. Tom thinks we should move, we are right in the firing line or the “danger zone” as he calls it, one particular misguided shot almost causes actual carnage, “she almost lost her front teeth”, says a shell shocked Tom.
Kick-off can’t be far off, the makeshift goal is dismantled whilst ‘Hello Blue Sky’ by the Flood plays and a giant man bee, and lady bee who Tom informs me is called “Buzzette” high fives fans in the front rows of the nearby stand. ‘Hey Jude’ playing now builds to its repetitive crescendo, on the final “nah, nah, nah, nah, Hey Jude” the announcer slides right on in, “welcome to Griffin Park Wolverhampton and BRENTFORD” the visitor’s name said with almost a whimper in comparison to the explosive delivery of the home team.
“Fancy a coffee and a pancake now?” says Tom, inspired maybe by the chap behind me, who is practically using my shoulder as a plate, and is struggling, getting more of the topping down his suit than in his mouth.
A wide corridor of flag waving kids form in the far corner of the pitch, as the players arrive, Mr and Mrs Bee, padding around, one tries to get a high five off the referee, but is left hanging.
As the teams line up for the kick-off, the lights of the stands flick off, and each set of fans take turns to cheer on the players “come on Brentford”, “fuck off Brentford” reply the away fans in the two tiered boxy stand at the opposite end of the pitch, before encouraging their own eleven “come on you Wolves”.
WW get the first chance of the match, which sparks their fans into life again “we are Wolves, we are Wolves, we are Wolves”, Tom fed up with me always asking him the time after a moment of note, so I can scribble it in my book, points to the nearby small scoreboard, and tells me I can use that. A BFC corner, quickly turns into another WW attack, which results in a wild shot over, “how much did he cost?” asks a fan.
Racking up their third chance of the first quarter of an hour, a good shot, that is matched by a good save with the keeper’s feet, results in a corner. Players jostle in the box as they do, only for the referee to see something he’s not happy about, he blows his whistle, calling the culprits over for a chat. One BFC fan thinks the players should take the horse play up a few notches, suggesting he “grab” the WW players “fucking bollocks”.
All these WW chances have got one fan riled, “come on bees!” he yells an inch from my ear, permanently damaging my hearing and making me jump out of my skin.
Over twenty minutes of the half gone and BFC finally register their first chance, that’s just wide, “ohhhhh” gasp the fans. The shoot is well timed, as it puts a momentary halt to an onset of mass grumbling, that has started to infiltrate the fans around us.
“Needs a goal” says Tom, he’s not wrong. The guy in the green tweed behind us thinks the game has been “fast paced” but I think frantic would be more accurate. Tom almost gets his wish, but for the home fans it’s at the wrong end, WW again nearly taking the lead, and once again a fan demands, “sort it out bees”.
The comment from one local that WW are on a “poor run” and are playing “poorly” may be the case as far as recent results and league position is concerned, but doesn’t seem to be the case on the pitch tonight, or are BFC playing even worse, and are making them look better than they are?
“Come on Brentford” shouts someone annoyed when their player is hustled off the ball all too easily just outside the box, and WW are only a good pass away from a golden chance, only for the player in possession to be unable find his teammate in the box.
There is a moment of divine clarity before BFC, somewhat against the run of play, take the lead. It’s as if through some higher power, a hive mind on a third plain, that the man a few people in front of us is somehow communicating with the soon to be scorer, bearing down on goal. Through all the noise of the crowd I hear him mutter his poetic instruction, “fucking bury it” and moments later the ball is in the back of the net, the player having done exactly what he was told, and the crowd around us stops its discontented chatter, and is instead celebrating.
Despite the lead, there is still a sense of nervousness among the fans, every WW free kick, corner, or occasion the ball is near their box, results in manic shouts of “get it out Brentford” which they just about do, but it’s often less than pretty.
They are ahead, yes, however it feels like they are only moments away from complete self destruction, some of their decision making, leaving many scratching their heads. It’s as if there is a giant bee sized hand hovering over a big red button, that could trigger a collapse at any moment. When the keeper shanks a back pass, sending the ball almost over and behind him, one fan can’t bare to watch, turning away in disgust. You could be forgiven for thinking that the scores of people leaving, are doing so perhaps because the tension has got to them, but Tom reckons there is an ulterior motive, and it’s because there are “too many nice amenities” on offer.
“Shall I go now?” asks Tom, unsure if to join the early birds, or to wait until half time, to go and get something to eat. I can see the anguish all over his face, should he, shouldn’t he, he’s caught in a vicious circle of self doubt. Eventually the deep rooted carnal instinct to eat at football kicks in, and he’s away, off to try the “local cuisine” as he puts it.
BFC are stuck on the ropes, WW have a shout for a penalty, but its turned down, “shut up Wolves” says a fan. All too many times BFC give up possession, all too often in threatening places. On one occasion one fan screams “get the ball back” towards the player who lost it, he does just that, which in turn allows BFC to move up field, “see what happens” says the same person, smug in the fact the player listened to him.
With a final glance at the scoreboard, the grey haired man in his red and white scarf asks, “come on bees, hold out”.
We need to move, the constant chattering from the group behind, about everything other than the match, has got too much. The straw that broke the camel’s back was not the talk of work place politics, but a long winded and awful joke, the punchline having something to do with the crows. The pancake eater among them who has just about got the powdered sugar off his suit jacket sums up the moment they just shared, and that was forced upon me by our close proximity, “surreal”.
Not only does the scrolling results on the tiny scoreboard confirm that there is no 50/50 win for me, but it’s hammered home by the person doing a lap of the pitch, holding an illuminated board above her head, like a ring girl at a prize fight.
The lights are back on for the break, which allow me to enjoy the elegant annihilation of the pancake, which Toms manages to devour without using a knife or fork, he just puts it near his face and inhales. When it’s all gone he informs me, “that was fucking lovely”.
Food done means we can move, Tom wasn’t going to eat and walk, he’s not a monster. Despite the many no smoking signs, the thin corridor behind the terrace is hard to traverse and even harder to breath, because of the many fans getting in their half time fag.
Where before we were high to the left of the goal, we are now low, to the front, in fact you couldn’t get any lower, we are right next to the fence, an arms length from the sober looking steward, who has not taken his eyes off the crowd behind us. Our new locale also puts us in close proximity to the ‘Family Area’, where ginormous hot chocolate fueled children, are running amuck. When the Buzzette approaches, they all surge forward, demanding high fives and selfies, one little so and so, tries to ruin it for everyone, when they get into a tug of war with the mascots glove. Tom reckons the cups of sugar and chocolate were a, “huge mistake”.
“You ready bee fans?” asks the announcer, “here they come”.
The BFC fans suggest to the approaching WW keeper, “it’s all your fault, it’s all your fault”. Not sure what he’s done, but they think he’s to blame, I assume they mean conceding the goal or maybe he left the fridge open?
It may be no great surprise when I tell you, that I wasn’t caught up in the ‘dab’ phenomenon, but
whoever was the originator of it, I don’t think they intended on it being replicated by a giant female bee with pigtails, not sure that’s doing much for it’s street cred. Tom also wonders if it is actually a woman inside the costumes, because “she’s much smaller than Mr Bee”.
Two minutes in, WW hit the bar, the ball falls kindly to a player in the famous old gold, in a good position, who takes a touch and blazes well over, “that’s why you’re going down” shout the relieved BFC fans.
It’s now BFC’s turn to go close, a wicked curling shot is tipped over, “we are bees, we are bees” sing the crowd who I’m not sure if it was the half time ciggy that they all had with their coffee and pancake, or it’s just because I don’t have the droning of the group behind me, that I can now hear them, but they have most definitely woken up. The resulting corner is poor, however the fans don’t care, they’re too busy despising their west London neighbours “we hate QPR” and “we hate Fulham”, they sing.
The front rows of the Family Area are now bedlam, a mad crush of screaming “hyper kids” as Tom describes them, the hot chocolate having taken full affect, some of them berate the warming up substitutes, asking for high fives and God knows what, but they don’t give into the baying mob.
Whatever the kids had, maybe the grown ups have had too, as they continues to get louder and louder, “we’re the left side” sing one portion of the terrace, “we’re the right side” respond the other.
We hear the WW fans for the first time this half after they go close. The early BFC pressure, has started to fade, the tide has started to turn and it certainly feels like more is now happening at the other end.
BFC get a rare chance, a good break, which came from some good battling in midfield, but the final pass is inadequate and kills the move. The fans continue to grow in noise “red and white army”, the kids are running riot, a single female steward approaches bravely, but cautiously and instructs them to take their seats, “see how long that lasts” wonders Tom.
Around the sixty minute mark both teams go close again, the game for a moment seesawing from end to end. WW start the madness with a close range header that is blocked, then a shot from point blank range is stopped, the ball is eventually cleared, allowing for shot from outside of the box that hits the foot of the post, BFC manage to keep them shut out, “come on Brentford” plead the home fans. Then it’s the home team’s turn to go close, “ohhhhh”, then it’s back up the other end, the WW fans are sure it’s in, there is a sudden but brief outpouring of triumph, like someone turned on a stereo that was too loud, got scared and quickly turned it off. Hanging onto the lead, with dear life, the BFC fans mask their obvious relief, by mocking the away end “ahhhhhhh”.
The tide has now fully turned, it’s now all WW, “clear it” screams a single female voice, when the ball goes in the box, instead of cheering shots on goal, the home fans are now applauding last ditch tackles and blocks, the WW fans muffled by the onset of near panic around us.
Starting in the opposite corner, “come on Brentford” slowly grows and grows, eventually reaching us. The home fans attempt to rally the team is valiant, but it’s just not helping on the pitch, WW are creating chances at will.
On the odd occasion BFC can win back possession and counter on the team from the Midlands, it inevitably breaks down at the final moment, both fans and players, frustrated by the sloppy final pass. The crowd letting out a mighty “arghhh” as the ball doesn’t find its well placed target, who flaps his arms by his side in exasperation.
“Time to stand up and be tall” demands one fan, but there is nothing of the sort from the home team, WW continue to dominate.
If it wasn’t for one man in the back row of the Family Area, who is going hoarse leading the kids in a chant, which seems to have a calming effect on them, “come on Brentford”, he says over and over, the kids replying, we might have a problem on our hands
Tempers peak when the referee in the eyes of the home fans gives a wrong decision, “you don’t know what you’re doing”, they sing, people are literally frothing at the mouth, veins are pulsating in temples.
It was coming, the inevitable heartbreaking equalizing goal, which seemed more and more likely, the closer to the final whistle we got, ensuring maximum pain for the home fans. “We’re never going to score now” says a nearby fan, certain that his team just don’t have what it takes to turn this game around.
Just like two minutes previously, the WW players celebrate their second goal in front of the their fans who are now in full song,”we’re by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen”. Their manager Paul Lambert who has been a modicum of calmness for most of the game, dressed all in black, sipping from a bottle of water on the edge of his technical area, is caught up in the excitement of what doubtless will be the winner.
It’s now mainly boos coming from those around us, one thinks it’s all the referee’s fault, “fucking wanker”, one fan wants an explanation “what’s going on bees?”, one tries to offer his support “heads up bees”.
With five minutes to play, maybe there is a chance for redemption. The WW fans are certain the points are theirs, “we are Wolves, we are Wolves” they sing. When a BFC player goes down just outside the box, trying badly to win a free kick in a dangerous position, it’s waved away, even his own fans telling him to “get up”. BFC’s final chance comes from a free kick, fairly won, but the limp header on goal matches the limp delivery.
Neither of us are Brentford fans, but both can relate to the heartache of the home fans, we have all been in that place of being so close, then having it snatched away from us at the last. It’s not so much the immediate affect of the defeat, and what always feels like the drawn out journey home. It’s the potential for grief at work or school, that feeling you get when you see or hear the game referenced and it all comes flooding back, having to turn over the highlights show, because you cant watch it again, unless your a masochist. All of this hangs over you like a black cloud until just before the next match, when it finally clears, and you prepare yourself to do it all again, knowing full well that if the opposite happens this time, and you get a win, it makes it all worth it.
What I liked best from this evening was not the massive walking insects, nearly watching a woman be decapitated by a football and certainly not failing to win a 50/50, again, but the attitude of one fan, whilst many others showed their displeasure panto style on the final whistle, he quietly stated to a friend, “I refuse to boo them”.
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