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.
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.
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.
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.”
The resultingly shrewd transfer policy sees promising young players plucked from European obscurity, cultivated in the fast-paced English game and then sold on for huge profit.
Take Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins, West Ham’s Saïd Benrahma or Brighton’s Neal Maupay – each bought by Brentford for relative pocket change and sold to their current clubs for a collective £71 million ($99 million).
As such, Brentford is widely considered to be among the best-run and most financially sustainable clubs in England. And, as a stepping-stone for unrealized talent, the team enjoys a season or two of these players’ services along the way.
Under the management of Danish coach Thomas Frank – as well as his predecessors Dean Smith and Mark Warburton, now of Villa and QPR respectively – a series of young squads have developed an attacking, free-flowing style of football unrecognizable from that of decades past.
After successive top-half finishes in the second-tier Championship between 2015 and 2020, Brentford finally secured promotion to the Premier League through the playoffs in May, ending a 74-year wait for top-flight football. If anyone needed reminding of our suffering, it was the Bees’ first time being promoted via a playoff, in any division, in 10 attempts.
It is, however, easy to romanticize this rags-to-riches story. After all, Benham’s ownership – as well as sponsorship from various gambling firms – means that success has been partially bankrolled by an industry rife with addiction.
The club’s focus on developing overseas talent through its “B” team, meanwhile, has come at the expense of its youth academy, which was shuttered in 2016.
There is also a chance that success will destroy what made Brentford special. Perhaps Premier League status will make our club just like any other, chasing TV revenue at the expense of all else. Or perhaps the shiny new 17,000-seat stadium, yet to see a full crowd due to Covid-19 restrictions, will lack the charm and atmosphere of Griffin Park.
But come the end of the season, even if we are consigned to another seven decades in the lower divisions, it will have meant something far more to me than cheering on overpaid stars in a city I’ve never been to.
So, to fans of England’s “Big Six” who are disillusioned with their clubs’ overpriced tickets and attempts to break away into a big-money European Super League, let me tell you this: You may think it’s sacrilege to switch allegiances, but it can be done with credibility – just about – intact.
If you’re going to pick a team to throw your tribalist loyalties behind, it might as well be the underdog. You never know, you too might end up being a Premier League fan again one day.