Tales From The Four Corners

Brentford vs. Chelsea : 27 January 2013.

If a week is a long time in politics, then eleven days is surely an eternity in football. Since the disappointment of those frustrating dropped points against Southampton in the league, Chelsea have played against Arsenal and Swansea City. I had tickets for both of those encounters, but due to a mixture of circumstances, I was unable to attend either. The Sunday jaunt to Griffin Park offered me salvation and the chance to get back in the groove. After the snowstorms of the previous week, I was very relieved to see clear roads and sunny skies as Sunday morning greeted me.

I set off at 8am, allowing me plenty of time to reach Griffin Park. I was certainly looking forward to visiting Brentford’s tight little ground, tucked away under the M4 a few miles to the west of Stamford Bridge. Although I visited it once before in 1992 – a game against Newcastle United with my Geordie mate Pete – this would be my first visit with Chelsea. We have played Brentford in a few friendlies over the years, but our two clubs have not met in a first team game for ages, decades even. Well, certainly not in my living memory anyway.

With me unable to attend the Arsenal match, my unbroken stretch of consecutive home games eventually came to an end.

The first game – Saturday 6 November 2004.

A fine 1-0 win against Everton, with a Robben goal at The Shed End after a rapid break down the right wing. Who can remember it? I know I can. We went top after the game.

The last game – Wednesday 16 January 2013.

The 2-2 draw against Southampton. Some people have forgotten that one already.

A total of 240 games without a break.

A total of 169 victories, 51 draws and 20 defeats.

What a fantastic record – it really was Fortress Stamford Bridge during this period.

And a total of 52,800 miles from Somerset to Stamford Bridge – and back.

It’s unlikely that I’ll ever get close to anything like that run again.

I watched both of the Arsenal and Swansea games at home on my laptop – and what a surreal experience it was for me to be watching Chelsea from Stamford Bridge in my own home. The last time I did that? Maybe as long ago as an Everton FA Cup tie in 1992.

I stopped off at Fleet services for a coffee and was surprised how cold it was outside. The bright sun and clear skies fooled me into thinking that the weather was warmer. I wasn’t worried. I was just happy to be back on the road in support of the team.

I drove in past Twickenham, the home of English rugby, and then took a left turn through Isleworth, with Syon Park to my right. I soon found a place to park a mere ten minute walk from Griffin Park. The surroundings were decent; I certainly felt that this was a nicer immediate vicinity than, for example, the surrounding environs of Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United’s grounds.

Of London’s twelve professional football teams, no more are clustered together in a tighter area than in the six miles between Griffin Park and Stamford Bridge; Brentford, Queens Park Rangers, Fulham and Chelsea all reside within a 30 minute bus ride of each other. Further south, there is Wimbledon, now playing in Kingston-on-Thames. Also south of the river, Crystal Palace just to the north of suburban Croydon, but also Millwall and Charlton Athletic closer to the Thames. To the east – and now back to the north of the river, there is West Ham United and lowly, almost forgotten, Leyton Orient. To the north, there is Arsenal. Then – lastly – Tottenham.

London football is often maligned as not having the unbridled partisanship and venomous passion of cities to the north or in Scotland, but within the M25 there is a magnificent tapestry of clubs, support bases and histories. What do I know of Brentford Football Club’s history? Sadly, I know very little. I know that Ray Wilkins’ father George played for Brentford and I know that former Chelsea icons Ron Harris and Micky Droy played for Brentford after leaving Chelsea. Brentford have flitted around the lower reaches of the Football League my entire life. With Orient, they are the two smallest clubs in the capital. In fact, every single one of the other ten clubs has enjoyed top flight football since 1988, but Brentford and Orient (the B’s and the O’s) have stunk. To their credit, Orient managed to ascend to the giddy heights of the second division in the late ‘seventies and early ‘eighties – and an F.A. Cup semi-final in 1978 – but Brentford have been the ultimate underachievers.

Which is why, I guess, they are never much of a threat and – dare I say it, without being too patronising – quite well-liked in Chelsea quarters. The fact that our reserves used to play at Griffin Park has helped in that respect too. One word of warning though; ex-Crystal Palace owner Ron Noades took over the helms at Griffin Park in 1998. However, in addition to being club chairman, he also managed the team for a few years. He even won the third division manager of the year award on one occasion.

I hope that Roman isn’t reading this.

On the short walk to Griffin Park, its four old school floodlit pylons signalling the way, the Brentford fans were bustling at a fair pace. I could tell from afar that they were invigorated by the appearance of their lofty neighbours from SW6. I’d imagine that Brentford was originally a small village, centred on a bridge across a small tributary of the River Thames, but has since been swallowed up by urban sprawl in the late nineteenth century. I was parked in a street called “The Butts” and this would have been, I’m guessing, where archers practiced their art. There is a similar street in my home town. Archery butts were a common feature of towns in past centuries. I noticed that the old red-brick Brentford library was a gift to the town of the great Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. These small details of urban history fascinate me.

Griffin Park was soon reached. From the west, the first stand that I stumbled across was the Brook Road away stand, a double-tiered structure which replaced a larger terrace in the late ‘eighties. Griffin Park is squeezed in amongst rows of terraced houses and there was a misty-eyed “old school” feel to the place. As I’m sure everyone now knows (it is the one fact about Brentford that everyone seems to be aware of), Griffin Park is the only football stadium with a public house on each corner. It was around 11am and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to dip into all four, but a circumnavigation of the ground was certainly achievable. The Griffin pub’s clientele was bursting out into the road, with a couple of “half-and-half” friendship scarves sellers doing a brisk trade amongst the chirpy Brentford fans. I was to learn later that this pub was used as the boozer in the hoolie-porn film “Green Street.”

I didn’t see any Chelsea faces and so continued along Braemar Road, past the main entrance. It was here, in 1992, when I and two mates arrived ridiculously early at Griffin Park – again on a Sunday – for that Newcastle game and were met by Kevin Keegan and Terry McDermott, who had just arrived by team bus. My mate Pete – the only Geordie amongst us – had not yet arrived and was miffed when we later told him. As I’ve said before, Keegan was a bit of a hero for me as a schoolchild. Seeing him close up was a treat. We muttered something about the game as the two of them disappeared into the stand. Twenty years later, Braemar Road was much the same. To be honest, I was half-expecting to bump into Rick Wakeman, Brentford’s most famous celebrity fan. Oh, that’s the second bit of Brentford trivia that everyone knows.

Walking past The Princess Royal and then The New Inn, I spotted some Chelsea faces. Lastly, The Royal Oak and time for a pint. The boozer was busy but mixed with fans of both clubs. Surely there would be no hint of trouble. On the way out into the crowded beer garden, I overheard a Brentford supporter mention Ashley Cole.

“We’ll have to give him some stick. Even though he’s awesome for England, I hate him.”

Parky was with me but was unable to get hold of a match ticket. His reward would be to attempt a “lap of honour” around the stadium and grab pints in all four pubs, while watching on the TV. At 11.45am, I joined the melee at the turnstiles and was soon inside.

The away stand at Griffin Park is an even smaller, if that is at all possible, version of the School End at Loftus Road. I quickly ascended the stairs and took my seat in the front row, just eight seats from the end. Bizarrely, even though we had booked tickets independently, I was sat next to my usual companions Alan and Gary. The shallow tier of seats was only six rows deep. Down below, around one thousand Chelsea fans were enjoying the bonhomie of a crowded terrace for the first time in years and years. As kick-off time approached, there seemed to be an air of great anticipation in the home camp. Eddie, Daryl and Rob were down below, but out of sight, tucked under the overhang. In the upper tier, there were familiar faces – too many to name. This was the Chelsea hardcore; every one of us befuddled with the current state of affairs at Stamford Bridge

Above, there were blue skies. A few tower blocks blighted the skyline, but this could so easily have been a game from the ‘fifties, ‘sixties or ‘seventies. Griffin Park was bursting to it seams with around 12,000 spectators locked inside. With such a perfect scene in front of me – a classic F.A. Cup setting and a lovely atmosphere – my thoughts now centred on the game and my spirits fell. The looks on my fellow fans suggested that they felt the same.

This had the potential of a classic cup upset and didn’t we all know it.

From my perch just over the goal-line, I felt privileged to have such a splendid view. The teams appeared in the tunnel, just twenty yards away. It seemed like I could almost reach out and pat John Terry on the back as he lead the team out. As with Fulham, the players and management team appear from a corner and then walk across the pitch to their dug-outs on the far side in front of the stand that was terraced back in 1992. Rafa Benitez therefore had to walk right in front of the baying 1,800 away fans. Even I was surprised at the venom. He avoided eye-contact with the Chelsea faithful. On his return trip, facing us, it would not be so easy.

Pre-match formalities took place and the game soon began.

Despite a promising few early attacks, with Torres involved, we didn’t threaten the Brentford goal. A bizarre back-pass from John Terry was picked-up by a clearly confused Ross Turnbull, but the resultant free-kick, inside the box, flew over the bar. Brentford soon realised that we seemed decidedly laid back in our approach. Alan and Gary – akin to the footballing equivalent to Waldorf and Statler, looking down from a lofty vantage point – were soon chastising the Chelsea players. The pitch wasn’t great; it was muddy and quite heavily sanded on our left. The wind blew left to right. It was a messy start, but Chelsea seemed to be struggling. All of the tough tackling seemed to be coming from the home team and they were the ones who started to trouble Ross Turnbull in the far goal. With Marin, Oscar and Bertrand clearly struggling, Brentford came close with a shot which narrowly went wide. Then, calamity. Just before the break, Lampard lost possession and Forrester wasted no time in lashing the ball at Turnbull. The ball was parried but Trotta coolly slotted home. The home fans erupted.

The cup shock was on.

Benitez had to endure the wrath of the away fans as he walked off the pitch. I kept an eye on him with my telephoto lens. He looked straight ahead. The players, too, looked solemnly ahead. Their body language was shocking. I was silent, of course. I don’t enjoy booing – my thoughts on that are well documented. Rather than characters from the Muppet Show, my fellow residents in the upper tier resembled emperors from the Roman Empire.

The thumbs were pointing down.

Lo and behold, a Benitez substitution took place at the break with the lack lustre Marin being replaced by Juan Mata. We definitely improved and equalised via a wonderful flick from Oscar.

Rather than push on, though, we seemed bogged down in the Griffin Park mud. At times, I was surprised how quiet the atmosphere had become. I expected more noise from the home fans, with only the terraces end at the eastern end making much noise.

Chances were at a premium. Then, a Brentford break and Adeyemi touched the ball past Turnbull. From my perspective, contact seemed minimal, but it was wishful thinking. There was only text which suggested that Ross didn’t touch him. The home crowd were on tenterhooks to see if a red card was to be issued. Thank goodness, it wasn’t.

However, the penalty was smacked home and we were down 2-1 with only twenty minutes remaining.

The home fans erupted once more and the hard-core in the far terrace set off a magenta flare to celebrate.

Things were now dire.

Perhaps thinking about any potential Mickey-taking which might be headed our way, Alan asked me if I knew of any Brentford fans. Thankfully, he had never met one. However, I knew of one. There was a chap, from Frome, who was a Brentford fan. He was the son of Frome’s mayor at one stage and went by the nickname of “Trotsky” due to his left of centre politics. He was a bit of a character when we used to watch Frome Town back in the early-‘eighties. Trotsky reached a formidable level of notoriety in Frome circles when he was caught in flagrante with his girlfriend on a mini-roundabout in the middle of Frome one night.

I wondered what he might have planned for his current lady if Brentford were to hold on for the win.

Meanwhile, time was running out for Chelsea Football Club.

Bizarrely, Benitez replaced Ivanovic with Azpiliueta. Work that one out. Lampard went close and Bertrand headed over when it was easier to score. At last, Ba entered the fray at the expense of the disappointing Bertrand. With time running out, Ba stumbled but did well to hook the ball towards Torres. Without checking, he intuitively curled the ball into the goal.

We roared with relief. To be fair, it was a great finish. Torres had not enjoyed the best of service all afternoon. His goal was an echo of his pomp at Liverpool. Fair play to him.

At the final whistle, more boos and jeers from the Chelsea fans were aimed at Benitez. The players seemed relieved but hardly happy. Frank and John especially thanked us for our support, but these must be testing times for them too. The turmoil within our collective psyche – certainly fans, certainly players, maybe even the board, with their consciences possibly pricked – is there for all to see.

Despite promising much, this was a dire Chelsea performance, with virtually no positives. There were grim faces amongst us all as we filtered out of the tight away end. Just to rub it in, the Brentford DJ decided to play “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang.

“Thanks for that.”

The day turned even bleaker when I heard that Parky’s lap of the stadium had to be aborted after just two pubs when a dozen or so Chelsea yobs in their ‘fifties caused a major disturbance. Firstly, they became lippy with some Brentford fans. The mood in the pub then turned sour with fans squaring up to each other after the first equaliser. Then, finally, after the Torres goal, chairs and tables were smashed. How pathetic. To his credit, Parky soon realised that he didn’t fancy getting caught up in this mindless vandalism and so made a hasty retreat.

So much for the magic of the F.A. Cup

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