t is the night of the Championship play-off final and there is a tangible sense of anticipation on the streets of Brentford, with one enterprising vendor even selling souvenir flags and scarves outside Griffin Park for a match that was taking place five miles away at an empty stadium. As their team prepares to face Fulham at Wembley, Brentford fans are congregating outside the pubs on the four corners of the stadium, making the most of the evening sunshine as they wait patiently to be allowed in.
There is a buzz in the air and Will Sylvester, a 19-year-old Brentford fan who lives in sight of the ground, is feeling good. “I am pretty confident that this time we are going to do it,” he says. Will’s father Eamonn has been a regular “across the road” since his first match back in April 1976. “It was against Exeter City,” Eamonn recalls. “We thrashed them 5-1 and I thought, well, this is all rather easy.”
As it turns out, the young Eamonn was overly optimistic. Brentford finished 18th in the Fourth Division that season and their rise up the football ladder has been slow. The club has not featured in the top flight since the 1946–47 season, the first campaign after the second world war, when they were relegated alongside Leeds United. It would have been some sort of poetic justice had Brentford returned to the top division 73 years later alongside Leeds.
Eamonn points out a block of flats that adjoin the western side of the ground. “This was where the Brook Road Stand used to be,” he says. “And in a way, selling the land for this development saved the club from financial ruin. We used to live in one of the ground-floor flats before we moved all of 300 yards away to our current house.”
Brian Ritchie, another season ticket holder who has made it into one of the pubs around Griffin Park, also attended his first Brentford match in 1976, a 3-0 home win against Southport. Ritchie has been going to games for the past four decades and knows which memento from the stadium he wants before it is demolished. “All I want is that square yard of concrete from the Ealing Road Terrace that I have stood on for all those hundreds of games.” Despite Brentford’s dire record in the play-offs – none of their eight previous appearances in the play-offs had finished with promotion – Ritchie was feeling confident. “That’s all in the past,” he says. “We have a good team and we are looking forwards.”
Mark Atkinson is a tad more downbeat. “I moved from Glasgow to Greenford when I was five and started to support the team,” he says. “My Scottish team is Patrick Thistle and there are parallels between the two clubs in that we never win anything. This season has been like a film script. We lost key players like Neal Maupay and started really badly, but then we went on an amazing run. After lockdown we came out all guns blazing, won eight on the trot, and were on the verge of automatic promotion, then tripped up. But now we’re in the final. This film is either going to have a Ken Loach or a Richard Curtis ending.”
Even though Brentford finished above Fulham in the Championship table, their record at Wembley is worrying. Not only had they lost two play-off finals at the stadium in 1997 and 2013, but also the Freight Rover Trophy final in 1985 and Johnstone Paint Trophy final in 2011. The last Brentford captain to lift a trophy at the national stadium was Joe James in 1942, when the Bees beat Portsmouth 1-0 in the London War Cup final.
Added to all this gloom is the unbelievable run of consecutive play-offs failures by clubs that traditionally wear red-and-white striped shirts with black shorts. Despite 31 attempts in the play-offs, none of Brentford, Sheffield United, Lincoln City, Sunderland, Exeter City or Southampton had gone on to win a final. Could Brentford make it 32nd time lucky?
Possibly mindful of this history, Brentford wear their blue shirts, with many of the fans following suit, including Eamonn. “I have been wearing this kit since the restart and it has done us pretty well,” he says. Unfortunately for Eamonn and his fellow Bees fans, Fulham are much the better side in the first 45 minutes. The half-time chat focuses on the need for improvement. “[Thomas] Frank will be getting stuck into them now and we will be much better in the second half,” predicts Eamonn. He is right and there are signs that Brentford are having more of the game, but Fulham remain in the ascendancy.
As the second half peters out a young woman voices a fragile note of confidence by declaring quietly: “At least we haven’t conceded a goal yet and we have never achieved that in any of our previous play-off finals.” She is right, but only for so long.
As the first half of extra-time meanders to its conclusion, thoughts turn to penalty shootouts. “We have hated penalties ever since that Trotta moment,” says Eamonn, referring to possibly the lowest point in Brentford’s 116 years at Griffin Park. It was the final game of the 2012-13 season and Brentford were awarded a penalty in stoppage time. Had Marcello Trotta scored from the spot, Brentford would have sealed automatic promotion. He hit the bar and the ball cannoned back into a crowd of players in the penalty box. Doncaster cleared their lines and quickly worked the ball up the pitch, where James Coppinger scored to seal Doncaster’s promotion. Brentford had to settle for the play-offs where, inevitably, they lost in the final to Yeovil.
Just as the fans come to terms with the idea of a penalty shootout, Fulham left-back Joe Bryan scores with a free-kick from all of 40 yards, leaving Brentford keeper David Raya grasping at the thinnest air. An eerie silence falls on the pub as fans try to absorb what has just happened. Eamonn turns and, looking slightly ashen, whispers: “My wife Liz had just texted me a minute ago to say that Raya had been our best player. She has now deleted that message.”
Raya, who had won a share of the Golden Glove in the league this season, is greeted with sympathy rather than opprobrium from the fans. The same cannot not be said for Saïd Benrahma. “As soon as Benrahma fucks off to Chelsea for £40m the better,” notes Brentford fan Claire. “He’s our most talented player but he can’t pass for shit so he can fuck off to some lunatic Premier League club.”
The second half of extra time is played out to the backdrop of a few defiant chants, but the game is up once Bryan scores his second goal of the night. A late consolation from Henrik Dalsgaard in the 120th minute raises spirits briefly, but the final whistle arrives before the team can claw back a second goal. As the referee blows his whistle, one fan shouts: “Don’t forget this is our highest position for 40 years. Come on you Bees!”
Claire is still seething. “This is all Martin Lange’s fault. He has fucked us over royally,” she says in reference to the former Brentford chairman who came up with the idea of the play-offs back in the 1980s. Eamonn is more philosophical. “I don’t feel nearly as bad as I did after the Barnsley game [when Brentford lost at home to the bottom-placed team on the last day of the season to miss out on automatic promotion]. We will still be going to the likes of Coventry, Rotherham and Wycombe and I’m actually really looking forward to going back to the Gas Club in Huddersfield, where ‘we don’t take fookin’ cards’,” he says.
As fans walk home past Griffin Park for possibly the last time, the ground is encircled by dozens of police in vans who had been anticipating a mass gathering. The fans did not get the happy ending they wanted. Instead they had to settle for Sorry We Missed You.