Last weekend I wrote about the joys of promotion to the Premier League and the raucous celebrations at Vicarage Road when Watford were promoted after a 1-1 draw with Sheffield Wednesday. This week, however, I was in for quite a different experience, the tooth and nail drama that I was denied when Watford went up a week early as I travelled to Griffin Park in West London to see Brentford take on Middlesbrough in a Championship playoff semi-final first leg.
While it may not originally appear that way this was a matchup of David against Goliath. The visitors, Middlesbrough, although they have not been in the Premier League since 2009 and are overshadowed in the Northeast by their rivals Newcastle and Sunderland, have spent 60 of their 105 seasons in the top-flight and won the League Cup in 2004. Middlesbrough play their home matches in the modern 35,000 all seater Riverside Stadium, which was constructed in 1995 and is the 14th largest club ground in England and the third largest in the Championship. They spent most of this season challenging for one of the two automatic promotion bids and looked to be in really good shape after beating Norwich at Carrow Road in the antepenultimate match of the season, but lost to struggling Fulham at Craven Cottage and then drew at home to Brighton on the final day of the season and had to settle for a playoff spot.
On the other hand, the hosts Brentford have a much less illustrious history than their counterparts from the Northeast. Brentford have only spent one season in the second division since 1954 and have not been in the top-flight since 1947. Out of the four clubs in West London (Brentford, Chelsea, Fulham and Queen’s Park Rangers), Brentford are by far the smallest. They play in 12,300 seat Griffin Park, which is the third smallest in the Championship. Because this is Brentford’s first season in the second tier since 1993, they have not yet conformed to the standards laid out for stadiums by the Taylor Report. Griffin Park still has terraces at both ends of the pitch and is the only stadium in England to have a pub at all four corners of the ground. This Championship playoff semi-final was probably the biggest match ever to be staged at Griffin Park and tickets were almost impossible to come by.
Despite the differences between the resources and history, both teams were still 180 minutes from Wembley and a further 90 minutes from (at least one) season in the Premier League full with mouthwatering clashes with the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. The next 180 (or 270) minutes could mean the difference of 150 million pounds and because of this the playoffs are the most stressful and lucrative anywhere in world soccer (including the Champions League). For Middlesbrough, it is a yearning to be back in the big time where they spent nine years at the turn of the century and to be reunited with old foes Newcastle and Sunderland (provided one of them do not go down). For Brentford, this was an extension of a dream; they were tipped by many to be relegated from the Championship and instead finished fifth and in the position to be the second “David” (along with Bournemouth) to go up. After 46 matches over nine months and the classic Tuesday night away trips during the winter to cold, windy grounds the whole season would come down to this. One match at Griffin Park, one match at the Riverside and maybe one match at Wembley; that is all that separates the two sides from fame and fortune.
After a 30 or so minute train ride from London Waterloo, I reached the London neighborhood of Brentford about an hour-and-a-half before kickoff. Like Barnet (who coincidentally also have the nickname of “The Bees”), it was not immediately apparent that there was a major soccer match occurring with millions on the line as the neighborhood of Brentford is a strictly residential neighborhood and the walk from Brentford train station to Griffin Park was just a procession of small townhouse after small townhouse. Griffin Park is sandwiched in between these residential streets and the only things that are not houses in the immediate vicinity of the stadium are the four pubs that surround the ground. After picking up my ticket from the ticket office I decided to wait around the entrance as the Middlesbrough fans were waiting for their team’s coach to pull in. As the coach pulled in and the players filed out of the bus and into the changing room the fans cheered them on and shouted words of encouragement like “let’s do this”. To be honest, the Middlesbrough players did not really pay attention to this as they were almost all listening to music on their iPods and had a cool look of determination on their face. The Brentford fans gathered outside the stadium were very calm, collected but not very cool. There was a lot of nervous pacing and quiet conversations amongst themselves about the match were taking place around me. There was no singing, no chanting it was almost like a funeral procession.
I then made my way to my seat and truly began to realize how unique Griffin Park was. I mentioned the terraces at both ends (although in the away end the upper tier is all seated), but there were many other nuances that made Griffin Park. Because Griffin Park was built in 1903 and has not really been upgraded since, it has a sort of Fenway Park effect. The seats are extremely cramped and I found my knees basically on the seat in front of me. Also, there are many poles obstructing views (but fortunately I was OK) in both stands. Because Griffin Park is very close to Heathrow Airport, Brentford decided to cash in by selling advertising space on the areas above the stands. So any time a plane flies into Heathrow they are greeted with the advertisement “Big Bets for High Flyers” from the betting agency Matchbook. There were also some banners hung up at the back of the opposite stand that said “Jakarta Bees” and “Danish Bees.” How a small West London club like Brentford has a fan club in Jakarta, Indonesia is very strange but also kind of an illustration as to how soccer is a global game enhanced by this global media age. The scoreboards were so small I could barely make out the letters on them and did not have the space to write out the full word “Middlesbrough” and instead had to shorten it to “M’boro.”
Many fans on the two terraces arrived super early to ensure they could be at the front and 20 minutes before kickoff both terraces were full to capacity. Both sets of supporters went through their various set of sings completely independent of one another as they were too far apart to hear each other. This led to the quite comical (at least for me) instance when both teams were singing “And it’s (insert team name here), (insert team name here) F.C., we are by far the greatest team the world has ever seen” at the exact same time just out of sync by a couple of seconds. Another thing to note about the pre-match chanting was that when Middlesbrough sang their rendition of the “Hello, Hello we are the (insert team name here) boys” chant, the line that usually goes “And if you are a (insert rival team name here) fan surrender on your life” was not how I expected to hear it. I had expected to hear either Newcastle United or Sunderland inserted, but instead they put Brentford in. Although there is almost no history between the two clubs (they have played against each other 10 times since World War II), the tie is so important to them that Brentford are now referred to as the enemy. Many of the songs sung by Middlesbrough had references to “going up” and the classic chant of “Que Sera Sera” which I had not heard since Tottenham’s run to the League Cup final. The singing before kickoff was so loud that none of the public address announcers’ words (although the PA system was not very good) could be heard. The atmosphere was unlike any other I have experienced, hardcore fans packing terraces making as much noise as possible. This was the closest I will ever come to replicating the atmosphere of an English soccer match before Hillsborough and the subsequent Taylor Report.
The match kicked off and the opening exchanges were very nervy. Neither team wanted to concede and when there were chances the players often made abnormal mistakes. Middlesbrough started the game off very rough, hard tackling and picked up four yellow cards very early on. It was classic Championship soccer; hard tackling, hardcore support and sometimes lacking in cutting edge quality. After one particularly daft challenge the Brentford faithful were up in arms, chanting “you dirty Northern bast*rds” at the Middlesbrough players and supporters. On a day when most of the headlines were occupied by the general election where the Labour Party got decimated in every part of the UK besides London (where they gained seven seats), this was another display of the cultural differences between London and the rest of the country and how they really do not agree or like each other. After Middlesbrough striker Patrick Bamford made a mistake on a counter-attack the Brentford fans chanted, “you’ll never play for Chelsea” which I found pretty comical and even more comical when I subsequently found out that Jose Mourinho was in attendance at Griffin Park. Nothing like taking a shot at a player that is owned by one of your West London rivals.
200+ Channels With Sports & News
- Starting price: $33/mo. for fubo Latino Package
- Watch Premier League, World Cup, Euro 2024 & more
- Includes NBC, USA, FOX, ESPN, CBSSN & more
Live & On Demand TV Streaming
- Price: $69.99/mo. for Entertainment package
- Watch World Cup, Euro 2024 & MLS
- Includes ESPN, ESPN2, FS1 + local channels
Many Sports & ESPN Originals
- Price: $6.99/mo. (or get ESPN+, Hulu & Disney+ for $13.99/mo.)
- Features Bundesliga, LaLiga, Championship, & more
- Also includes daily ESPN FC news & highlights show
2,000+ soccer games per year
- Price: $4.99/mo
- Features Champions League, Serie A, Europa League & NWSL
- Includes CBS, Star Trek & CBS Sports HQ
175 Premier League Games & PL TV
- Starting price: $4.99/mo. for Peacock Premium
- Watch 175 exclusive EPL games per season
- Includes Premier League TV channel plus movies, TV shows & more
- New CEO aims to make Bundesliga world’s ‘most digital league’
- UK government in talks with ‘international partners’ over Chelsea sale
- West Ham’s Bowen named in England squad for Nations League
- Bayern sign right-back Mazraoui from Ajax
- BBC apologises to fans after ‘Manchester United are rubbish’ gaffe
- Former Bayern boss Kovac to coach Wolfsburg
- Ancelotti ‘respects’ Mbappe decision, says Real Madrid focused on final
- UK police to take no action after Vieira ‘kick’ at Everton fan
- West Ham’s Kurt Zouma pleads guilty to kicking pet cat
- Top-tier Chongqing latest Chinese football club to fold