70 years ago, a lifelong love of Brentford FC was born for one fan – thanks to a chat in the canteen of the old Firestone Tyres factory on the Great West Road.
Melvin Collins, an eight-year-old boy in 1953, lived close to Griffin Park and had been desperate to experience the atmosphere he could hear from his garden.
Melvin is blind and in 1951 Brentford had become only the second club in the country, after Preston North End, to introduce an official commentary scheme using headphones for blind and partially sighted fans.
Plymouth Argyle had experimented with commentary by having blind fans standing around someone on the terraces who was describing the game for them.
One lunch break, Melvin’s dad Jack Collins spoke to George King, one of the scheme’s pioneers, who suggested that he should bring his son to a game.
The big day came on 4 February 1953 when they attended the Bees’ FA Cup fourth-round replay against Aston Villa, sitting at the Ealing Road end of the Braemar Road stand.
Despite the Bees’ 2-1 defeat, Melvin recalls: “I became hooked immediately with the earphones perched on my head fairly close to the commentators and being in a large crowd didn’t daunt me. In fact, I was blown away by the atmosphere.
“It was a weird experience for me because I’d always been able to hear the oohs and the aahs and the cheers from my own back yard. I’d also been fascinated by the cars coming to the game and leaving afterwards and I sometimes watched as the last car went away.”
Melvin’s visits to Griffin Park were limited after that as he was at boarding school, so could only go when he was home for the holidays, but what does he remember of the commentary team?
“There were three commentators, I think it had started out as four. There was Arthur Winslow, Eric White and Peter Pond-Jones. I think Eric and Peter took over when Arthur dropped out and we had people like Gordon Gingell and also the writer Alan Simpson for at least two-and-a-half seasons.”
When his dad was not able to take him to matches, Melvin’s cousin David “an absolute mentor to me right the way through my life” stepped in.
“I used to go and try to watch his school matches, and one thing I can remember was him scoring a goal. They didn’t have nets in those days and I was right behind the goal, didn’t see the ball coming and it hit me in the stomach!”
Away matches were hard for Melvin at first as he was just in the crowd with everybody else, until he discovered in the early 1960s that some other clubs provided commentary schemes.
At his first away game in September 1954 at Brighton, he stood on the terraces with his mum Vicky who described the action to him.
“George Robertson was our winger, but he fell and broke his arm so the Bees were playing with 10 men. We went 3-0 down but won the game eventually 4-3,” he recalls.
“What I loved about it was the pure excitement of being with my own supporters on another team’s ground. That day at Brighton was absolutely amazing because we took thousands there.”
As Melvin became an adult he was able to attend games regularly – generally going to away matches on the supporters’ coaches.
I first met Melvin when I joined the Brentford supporters’ quiz team in the 1980s and as we became friends we started travelling to away games together.
Commentary schemes were still few and far between so I was privileged many times to drive him to away games and sit next to him providing a personal commentary around the country.
Now though, thanks to the advent of wireless technology, Melvin takes headphones and tunes into the commentary from his seat in the away end.
This has also produced a change in the way he attends home games.
While at Griffin Park all the blind fans sat together with plug-in headphones, the move to the Gtech and the new way of receiving the commentary meant Melvin was able to choose to sit with his adult sons Douglas and Robert in the middle of the north stand.
It means his Brentford-watching life has gone full circle from those early away games on the terraces with everybody else, to being back among a mixture of fans again.
“The pluses of course are being able to sit with my family and having folk around me. Listening to the commentaries and to be able to put my earphones to one side and ask my sons a question or something like that is a big plus.
“Most of us blind fans are spread out now, but there is a posse of blind fans who sit together in the south stand.”
To mark his 60th anniversary of support in February 2013, Melvin was mascot for our League One home game with Bury and walked out with referee David Coote and the two teams.
That is one of his fondest memories in his time following the club.
But nothing will top his most treasured highlight, which happened before the 1-0 win at Peterborough which won us promotion to the second tier in 1992. I remember watching it happen.
Melvin does not recall how it was set up but is delighted it was.
“The Peterborough experience was probably the highlight of my 70 years of watching Brentford,” he says.
“I walked in front of the 4,000 Bees fans packed behind the goal and I was waving my stick at them to whip them up – right from one side of the pitch to the other.
“The next time I went to Peterborough they did ask me if I’d do it again, but I said, ‘no, it was a one-off’. I said that the memory would remain in my life forever and I couldn’t possibly do that again for anybody.
“The promotion to the Premier League at Wembley, when we beat Swansea 2-0, was another highlight. I had a full commentary and we stayed until the players had left the pitch.”
Melvin already has a fond memory from the Gtech, saying: “I think thus far, the best atmosphere and tremendous game of football from the first minute to the 96th minute was when we drew 3-3 with Liverpool.
“To take a point off Liverpool in the new stadium was a fantastic achievement and it was just a brilliant game.”
Away from Brentford, he was lucky enough to be one of the 100,000 at Wembley for England’s World Cup triumph in 1966.
However, as we all know, apart from in more recent years, watching Brentford has had many more lowlights than highlights.
Melvin says: “The lowest of the lot was to lose to Guildford City in an FA Cup replay in pouring rain standing on railway sleepers.
“Also I suppose being present at the match where future Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham broke his leg – that was horrible.
“And also the own goal by Ian Dargie which relegated us way back in the early ’60s when he turned to put the ball back to goalkeeper Gerry Cakebread from the halfway line, and it went flying over his head into the net and we lost 2-1.”
There have also been some unusual moments – one of which happened during a memorable Griffin Park night.
“I was at the 9-0 thumping of Wrexham in 1963, which still stands as our record score. But what was interesting was that the commentary system broke down, and the four of us listening literally all had to cram into the commentary box for almost the whole game!”
Melvin is hugely grateful for what Brentford have provided – and for the volunteers who have helped out, especially Alan Rogers and the late Mary Farley, who looked after members of the blind and senior citizens’ schemes and provided half-time tea and cakes.
He has always tried to give something back in return.
“I was a founding member of the Lifeline Society and I would sometimes be asked to make comments into the commentary on some away grounds, when I used to think of myself as an ambassador for the club. I thought I wanted to show just how good Brentford were.
“I was so chuffed to be a Brentford supporter that I would try to be objective to the commentary that I’d heard.”
Over the years of course the commentary line-up has changed.
I was one of the team for a couple of seasons and Melvin says: “We also had Roland Blake, Steve Leggett and Geoff Buckingham behind the mic and now of course it’s Mark Burridge.
“Mark has brought a completely different aspect to the commentary scene by introducing ex-players and club staff as summarisers.
“These have included Sam Saunders, Jonathan Douglas, Karleigh Osborne, Charlie MacDonald and Charlotte Tanner.
“I always enjoy Mark’s commentaries and at home and away, it’s always nice to listen in to a Brentford voice.”