“Football, without fans, is nothing”
Five words from former Celtic legend Jock Stein that are the very essence of this beautiful, infuriating, frustrating, exhilarating and adrenaline-charged game we love.
If you needed proof, it came at our new home in the new stadium’s highest profile game so far as just over 4,000 fans made, for many, their first pilgrimage.
By the end of a breathless win over former Premier League Bournemouth, the old lady of Griffin Park was just a little bit more of a lovely, warm memory.
This was to be the first game to slot on the library shelf of matches that we will add to in the decades to come. And what a game!
For the fortunate ones who were there to witness it, the Brentford Community Stadium will feel a lot more like home today.
When Ivan Toney’s name was read out pre-match, the reaction from the supporters – many of whom had never seen him in the flesh – sent shivers down the spine.
As they belted out Hey Jude with months and months of pent-up lockdown passion, the decibel levels weren’t far off those once reached less than a mile down the road.
Was it the acoustics, the energy of a return to a new, improved spiritual and sporting home – or purely the elation of this journalist thrilled at finally not sitting in an empty stadium?
Who knows, but the fact that the roars as each Brentford goal hit the net were reportedly heard in South Ealing suggest the good citizens of Kew and Chiswick may need to invest in ear defenders once the ‘Sold Out’ signs start to go up.
The starting eleven set the tone before kick-off with a circuit of the pitch. Led by a leaping Assistant Head Coach Brian Riemer, they were greeted by rapturous applause and an outpouring of energy-charged emotion.
But there was more, as the club cranked it up another level when Head Coach Thomas Frank did the same minutes later, both laps apparently the brainchild of Peter Gilham.
Thomas, whose press conferences are always intelligent and thought provoking, insists fine margins are critical… Peter’s idea added a few percent.
Our Head Coach admitted afterwards that the lap of the pitch – he might need to get in training to try it at Wembley – wasn’t something in his “comfort zone”. But it worked a treat.
Until the fifth minute that is, and the type of goal that had the normally sanguine Dane booting his water cooler in frustration, before regaining his cool… only to kick a bin seconds later.
Then he moved on, because in these kind of games there’s no room for moping or dwelling on errors. And the fans agreed, upping the tempo almost instantly.
The lows and emotional highs that followed are what make this end of season spectacular so great for the neutral and a ‘knot in the gut’ roller coaster for the partisan.
This stirring affair had it all and for such a high-octane clash, the outcome never really felt in too much doubt.
From the Cherries’ opener where we switched off to the elation of the penalty decision, ice cool Ivan doing what he does, Begovic’s playground antics and a double booking, Vitaly’s almost cinematic slow-motion strike (tackle?) that seemed to take a minute to float in, Marcus’ clinical fight place, right time finish and then seeing it out. I’m exhausted just typing it.
The guttural roar, fury directed at Begovic and Brooks, the booing, the jibes at the ref, the stirring reaction of the crowd as Danjuma made it two, old chants dusted down after a year in hibernation… my colleagues and I in the media have missed you all so much.
It’s been a tough but privileged gig. We’ve had access to the games to see Ivan’s record-breaking season, Vitaly’s sensational entrance into English football and Sergi’s revival, but it’s been a largely functional and soulless experience.
Arriving at the ground and joining the steady stream of men, women and children – all relatives in my ‘second family’ – bathed in red and white heading to their new ‘cathedral’ felt right.
If it was a bit more like home then, it definitely was at full time.
The perfect opening chapter that any writer would have been proud of, had been written.
A brief celebration of the achievement, the enormity of which is only clear when you strip out its constitutent parts – reaching Wembley two seasons running, losing key players, rebuilding the side, make your own list – and then re-set. The job is half completed.
Brentford will again dip into the qualities that have made this strangest of seasons a resounding success. Teamwork, attitude and mentality will be key at the second home of football on Saturday, when the experience of last time will be a major factor.
But it’s the fans who Thomas said “just edged the players” in terms of performance in the semi, who will play their part in the next game to emphasise again another of Thomas’ mantras. Togetherness.
“We hoped and knew our fans would be a factor and they were. We have achieved something and we need to enjoy it a tiny bit… we will come flying out on Saturday.”
Proud yet humble, confident but never arrogant and now with added resilience, this is a different side – with momentum – to the one that went to Wembley last year.
Supporters lucky enough to get there will have a huge role to play, but if the fine margins don’t go our way to start with, resilience and patience will be key as they were on Saturday.
Thomas, though, is pragmatic: “The worst thing will be that we don’t win a game but life will go on, the sun will still come up and we will still have a very privileged and sacred life.”
Regardless of which division, this journalist’s greatest hope is for us all to be back together again.