10 minutes after Huddersfield Town have confirmed their one-nil win over Brentford and the Griffin Park home terrace is almost empty. Instant coffee cups and club branded burger wrappers rustle across the bare concrete steps. At one end, a line of orange coated stewards begin their final safety sweep and they stop briefly to stare resignedly at plastic lager bottles smuggled in by fans.
At the exit, a couple hold each other in a tired embrace. The lad rests his head on her shoulder. It’s been an exhausting match to watch with every effort to encourage a Brentford goal that never came. As the camera is raised to take the sort of picture that might be a metaphor for the romanticism of the simple football terrace, the scene is disturbed by the line of stewards who have now caught up. ‘Everybody out’ one shouts, leaving the image as just another retina imprint after an afternoon at the best football ground in London. You might not believe it happened but it did.
Three hours before and rugby fans at Vauxhall and Barnes Bridge rowers had given way to red and white shirted football fans at Brentford station. A woman sits on the balcony of her 1950’s flat and shouts encouragement to a boy playing football on the grass below. ‘Use your left foot’ she yells as fans gravitate towards the floodlights beyond the houses. Some family use their garden to cook up hotdogs while an old boy sits in a deckchair selling programmes on the way to one of the famous four pubs on each corner of Griffin Park.
At the Griffin, the scene is more Ford Madox Brown than Lowry’s ‘Going To The Match’. The first day of Spring sends its unusual sun onto a people used to the perpetual grey of February football. Fans spill out onto the roads while good-natured police scan for non-existent trouble. The French used to think that World War 2 murals for London brewery Courage were a call to arms for the threatened populace. Now the finely painted masonry signs for Fuller’s ‘Fine Chiswick Ales’ can be seen to have the same effect: upholding London Pride.
Outside the pub, there are fans from all over supping pre-match pints, Feyenoord fans from Rotterdam, Schalke supporters from Gelsenkirchen Germany. There to take in a dying English football culture that burns brighter on their home shores. What part of the ground are you in?’ I ask, in broken German. ‘The standing area of course’ they reply in perfect English referring to Brentford’s Ealing Road terrace. They are present to see something that will soon be gone.
Championship club Brentford recently got dispensation from the Football League to retain their terrace despite being required to go all-seater after three seasons in tier two, the reason being that, in 2019, the Bees are moving a mile away to a 20,000 capacity stadium at Lionel Road and there is no point installing seats at this late stage. In its place at Griffin Park, the obligatory housing development like at Upton Park West Ham, this time with 75 townhouses and some such community garden to ‘honour the past of Griffin Park and its loyal supporters’ as if the current site didn’t already do that.
‘It’s inevitable isn't it?’ says a Bees fan in a 1930’s Brentford shirt on the Braemar Road which bustles with the urban residential football crowd jumble that old-school grounds do so well. ‘If we want to progress’ we need to move’ says the greying supporter. ‘What does progress really mean, though’ I ask? ‘Do you want to play in the Premier League?’. ‘Not particularly’ he replies while standing in a street, in front a ground with character money can’t buy.
‘I won’t be going in two years time’ says the guy selling the Brentford fanzine ‘Thorn In the Side’ with the intentional acronym of TITS. ‘When we leave here that’ll be it for me’ he sighs, adding irony to the narrative that moving away from prime central locations for the profit of private housing companies is some sort of progress
Griffin Park isn’t a football stadium, that overblown term used to describe the over accommodation of football fans, it’s a football ground. At some point, it was decided that supporters didn’t just need somewhere to stand, a roof to keep the rain away, toilets and a place to buy a pie or a Bovril. What they needed was function rooms, executive lounges, concourses and big screen tvs like the conference centres, airports and hotels that the marketers who have taken control of football spend their vapid little lives in.
But Brentford isn't like that. Once through the turnstiles, to a man operated by gents whose knowledge no doubt stretches back to the pre-war glory years you can hear the fans chanting.
We are B-R-E-N-T-F-O-R-D
Our name is Brentford
We're the best team in the land,
A goal is all we need (all we need),
To sing our team to victory (victory),
If you think we're wrong,
Why don't you come along,
To see the team that we support (we support)...
And it feels like half of West London are in the ground despite the crowd being a slim 12 thousand. Fans going on to the terrace are treated to that rare beast: the exposed corner floodlight which extends skywards and watches over the latecomers as they duck under the barriers and make their way to their favourite spot. That forgotten feeling of freedom of movement. Don’t like a spot, just move: as long as you’re polite, no-one seems to mind.
Yet the Spring sunshine sees fans peeling off winter coats and shielding their eyes to watch the Bees bothering the Terriers at the far end of the pitch. Huddersfield, managed by ex-Borussia Dortmund II coach David Wagner, don’t seem to have got the message though and are more Doberman than Terrier, all too lean, disciplined, imposing and it’s not difficult to see why they are pushing for promotion.
At the far end near where the singers stand, there is a corner terrace and the older generation of fans congregate there using the barriers to hold themselves up more than lean on. A father has plonked his kid on the concrete floodlight support. The young lad watches on enthralled while a follically challenged geezer has the mickey taken out of him by his mates standing behind. ‘Look at his barnet, you’re bald spot is growing bigger by the minute’.
Brentford owner Matthew Bentham allegedly uses a money-ball system in player acquisition but it doesn’t seem to stop his personnel doing stupid things. First, the Bees’ Harlee Dean deflected Rajiv Van La Parra’s cross into his own goal to give Huddersfield the lead. Then Brentford’s Lasse Vibe who sounds like a third rate Ibiza DJ worried the Ealing Road faithful rather than the goal with a skied second half shot from six yards.
Still, the terrace resounds with the sound of ‘Come on Brentford’, the chant spreading round into the family enclosure and only ending at the away following in the double-decker stand.
The fans on the Ealing Road Terrace feel like they are there for a reason, to support their 127-year-old football club not just plonked in soulless seats trying ever so hard to enjoy themselves like fans of so many teams currently. There’s purpose under that tin roof.
At the final whistle, they file out patiently as they have done for generations, more organised than chaotic. Indeed the excellent safety record of the Ealing Road terrace was noted when given temporary leave to remain.
Sadly, many other similar standing areas are long gone, swept away despite being functional when all of the football was suddenly considered a ‘death trap’ and grounds dismissed as little more than arenas for recreational violence. Ignored was the terrace etiquette of a combined millions of football fans who rubbed along pretty well over the years in the banked home ends feared elsewhere but enjoyed by the people that used them. The self-preservation instinct and care for friends that came with grouping on terraces now replaced with the individualistic sit-down shut up the mentality of all-seater stadia and don't you dare topple over the chairs in front when a goal goes in.
Some plain terraces still remain in the Football League like the iconic pyramid-roofed Warwick Road End at Brunton Park Carlisle or the Newmarket Road terrace at the beautifully mismatched Abbey Road Stadium, home of Cambridge United.
The Football League, in a position to be more proactive on safe standing than the Premier League, have said that rail seats can be used in Leagues 1 and 2 for clubs not bound by post-Taylor report all-seater rules. It will be better than nothing but devoid of the feeling of everything that comes with standing on standard terracing like at Brentford.
Yes, back to Brentford, where the diminutive Jota, variously of Celta Vigo and Real Madrid B troops off in defeat leaving the Bees stranded in mid-table and thinking what next?
In 10 years time, children will be peddling their tricycles around the new-build townhouses where a football club once lived. The best football ground in London. You might not believe it happened but it did.
By Tom Reed.