Brentford FC: Ditching Manchester United to support my local team. Now they're in the Premier League

An aerial view of Brentford Community Stadium in west London taken on Friday July 9, 2021. Brentford plays Arsenal in its opening Premier League match of the season.

(CNN)Around the age of 16, I arrived at an uncomfortable conclusion: As a Manchester United fan from London, I was among the most hated demographics in English football.

Like so many '90s kids, I'd been sucked in by the glamor of the era's most successful Premier League club. Each night, I closed my United curtains and slept beneath club-themed bedsheets.
Posters of striker Andy Cole and goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel looked down at me from the walls. It was a childhood of continuous triumph as my heroes swept to title after title.
    Except I dreaded being asked which team I supported. Having never visited Manchester, let alone seen the inside of Old Trafford, I was the punchline to endless "southerner" jokes and subjected to that most dishonorable of British sporting insults: glory hunter.
      And rightly so. With an abundance of west London teams to choose from -- Chelsea, Fulham or Queens Park Rangers, for instance -- I'd used my mother's birthplace as a shortcut to success.
        Die-hard fans might begrudgingly accept Saudi or Singaporean supporters picking a Premier League team at random, but there is no such sympathy for the English. You choose your local team, or you're probably a glory hunter.
        When the Premier League was but a distant dream ... Brentford take on Chester City on November 28, 1998 at Griffin Park.

        The ugly game

          So, on a cold, wet Saturday in 2004 -- January 31, to be precise -- I tried to put things right.
          Roping in two friends, I took the short bus ride to Griffin Park, home of my local team: Brentford FC. Along with 4,000 fans, we watched the lowly Bees pick up their first win in over two months against Port Vale.
          Playing out in England's third tier, then called Division Two, the game was ugly and the goals scrappy. One of the dilapidated stands didn't even have a roof -- and those that did offered little protection from the rain anyway.
          Choose your seat unwisely, and you'd be stuck watching the game from behind an old metal beam holding up the century-old stadium.
          This must be the "real" football I'd heard so much about. And I was hooked. With kids' tickets sometimes costing as little as £5 (or $7, a fraction of the Premier League's extortionate prices), I vowed to return as often as I could.
          Brentford fans in the stands ahead of the Championship playoff semifinal, second leg match at the Brentford Community Stadium against Bournemouth.
          If you'd told me, however, that almost 17 years later Brentford would have replaced -- and surpassed -- United in my affections, I wouldn't have believed you. But if you'd told me that the newly promoted Bees would be facing Arsenal in this week's Premier League opener, I would have laughed the whole bus ride home.
          For decades, Brentford was seen as the epitome of a "tinpot" club: no major trophies, no money, no big-name players and a tiny -- yet, still often half-empty -- stadium.
          The team last played in England's top division in the 1946/47 season, after which they bounced between the second and fourth tiers. Mid-table mediocrity and premature cup eliminations became the modus operandi.
          Yet, there was much to love about the club.
          Built in 1904, Griffin Park was the only stadium in the country with a pub on each of its four corners. Its atmosphere was impassioned but friendly, and free from the vitriolic chants or fan violence plaguing many of our neighbors.
          Instead, Brentford attracted a good-natured crowd of long-suffering locals. They reveled in small victories, but mostly just groaned at misplaced passes and crosses gone awry.
          On one occasion, a man below me in the crowd pulled the spectacles from his face and threw them towards the seemingly myopic referee in disgust, before nonchalantly replacing them with another pair from his pocket.
          Despite decades of disappointment, these fans returned each Saturday for the camaraderie, the sense of belonging and, perversely, the collective suffering.
          No one was here for the glory. And as I attended more and more games, dragging my dad, friends and, many years later, my utterly indifferent wife along for company, I learned the most important lesson in football: Being mediocre makes the very occasional taste of success all the sweeter.
          Brentford goalkeeper David Raya Martin lifts the trophy as they celebrate promotion to the Premier League after winning the Championship playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

          An unlikely rise

          Which brings us to Brentford's unlikely ascent to the world's most lucrative league.
          Needless to say, money has a little something to do with it. Once among the few supporter-owned clubs in the Football League, Brentford was fully bought out by gambling magnate Matthew Benham in 2014. But that's only part of the story.
          Rather than pumping endless millions into the club, Benham introduced a smart, data-driven recruitment strategy that is often compared to baseball's "moneyball."