Today was the day. Brentford were due to take on the mighty Leicester City in the FA Cup fourth round.
I would imagine many other game days have looked similar to today at Griffin Park. It was cloudy, misty, and the faint scent of beer and hamburgers hung in the air. Griffin Park is the ancient home of Brentford Football Club. It is a relic really, a living breathing temple of football’s past.
The stadium has seen a lot of football (mostly crap football) in its 116 year old history. It hosted its first football match in 1904. However, this will be the last season Brentford play here, as they will be moving down the road to the newly constructed Brentford Community Stadium.
Griffin Park is a rust bucket of a ground, with its metal stands just barely peeking up above the roofs of the local neighborhood houses. A shanked clearance from the corner of the box can easily clear the overhanging stand and land in someone’s back garden (this almost occurred on multiple occasions today). I say this respectfully, it is of a generation of stadium that exudes classic English football.
But the pride of Griffin Park are the pubs. As many hardcore football fans know, it has one on all four corners. The Griffin, The Princess Royal, The New Inn, and The Brook have stood watch over the ground and kept it’s faithful fans well hydrated for as long as anyone can remember.
No matter what direction you arrive from, you will be greeted with beers and friends. Fans proudly claim that the walk from the pubs to the terraces only takes about half a minute. These are your classic football pubs, and The Griffin was even featured as a location in the famous movie, Green Street Hooligans.
Today, I arrived in front of the Princess Royal, and the scene was classic. Fans milling about, beers, cigarettes, the lot. A couple of C’MON BRENTFORD’S!!! rang out over the crowd. A group of friends nearby were chatting excitedly about the side’s deadly attack, dubbed the ‘BMW’.
BMW stands for the Bee’s fearsome front three, Benrahma, Mbuemo and Watkins. These three are the real deal, and they have been terrorizing the helpless defences of the Championship all season.
Striker Ollie Watkins in particular has been unplayable, scoring for fun from all angles. He has 18 goals so far, leading the club into fifth in the Championship. The scintillating start to the season has Bee’s fans dreaming of the Premier League.
Despite the recent form, Brentford have been historically a testament to mediocrity. They don’t have any major trophies, and haven’t competed in the top flight since the 1946-47 season. They have bounced between the fourth and second division of English Football for most of their history, but recently have enjoyed a prolonged stay in the Championship.
After some thought, I realise that this is what makes Brentford the quintessential English Football club. They have dealt with years of failure, and more recently, years of moderate success. But no matter where the Bee’s end up, the ritual is the same. Misty Saturdays or rainy Wednesdays, it doesn’t matter. Griffin Park is a place to meet friends, and support their football club.
As kickoff approached, the crowd around the ground was mumbling rebelliously. Manager Thomas Frank had not fielded the team’s finest lineup.The first eleven were apparently to rest for Tuesday night’s clash against Nottingham Forest, an important game for their Championship season.
Today, there would be no ‘BMW’ to lead the groups attack. Nevertheless, a young boy sitting behind me supported faithfully, bellowing a squeaky rendition of “SUUUPER BRENTFORD FC!!”
Of course, Brentford never really stood a chance. Leicester had made a few switches of their own, but the Premier League-level quality players were just too much for the Brentford B team. Iheanacho opened the scoring in the 4th minute, and despite a gutsy performance from Brentford in the second half, Leicester were able to come out on top without ever hitting second gear.
And that was that. It was the last ever FA Cup match to be played at Griffin Park. The history of the moment ended unceremoniously, as most things do in English Football. What could have been an incredible matchup between a high flying Championship side and a top four Premier League side, quickly dissipated due to a second rate Brentford lineup.
It is hard to blame the manager, the guaranteed wealth that comes with the Premier League is too alluring. It brings into question if the cup system is still relevant anymore.
Post match, Frank was asked if the upcoming tuesday night Championship match against Nottingham Forest was taking priority. “What I didn’t want was a replay. I don’t understand how we can have replays in the FA Cup… It is the finest cup tournament in the world, but they kill it a little bit with the replays.”
Despite the result, the Griffin Park atmosphere never faltered. In Brendan Rodgers’ press conference, he was asked about returning to Griffin Park. It is a place he used to frequent when working for Chelsea, who would use the stadium for reserve team matches. “With the standing room terraces, it brings you back to real football.” Even Brendan Rodgers could feel the charm of Griffin Park, how it is almost a window into a different age of English football.
Brentford are now in a transitional moment. They are on the cusp of making it to the biggest stage, and are moving to a new state of the art stadium. But football in general is changing. You have a gap beginning to form between the creme-of-the-crop Premier League clubs and the rest of the Football League system. Those miracle FA Cup upsets are becoming ever fewer. The focus is being narrowed more and more towards the top six teams in England, rather than on the local clubs.
As I walked out of the stadium, I was funneled down past the exiting Leicester players, and I squeezed past Ayoze Perez and Çağlar Söyüncü, who were in the middle of being mobbed by what must have been a couple of hundred fans. They were signing autographs and taking pictures while trying to escape onto the team bus. One guy yells, “Score more goals for my fantasy!!” right into Ayoze’s face.
I turn and see Bryan Mbuemo, fearsome attacker and part of the the ‘BMW’ trio walk out unnoticed only a few hundred meters away. He turns down the street and strolls by The Princess Royal pub. He fistbumps a couple of the Bee’s faithful who were having a beer out front. He then takes a selfie with one of the kids, ruffles the little guys hair, and disappears down the street. All while the Leicester team bus tries to clear an exit through the crowd of autograph seekers.
Take that anecdote to mean what you wish, but it felt like a symbolic moment somehow. I just hope that when Brentford leave Griffin Park, that they hold onto that identity, that soul that Griffin Park provides.
The modern era is dominated by the spaceship-like stadiums, the big money transfers, and the glamor of the elite level game. Hopefully some of the innocent traditional culture will remain in its wake.