My train is seven minutes late, which means that changing at Stratford to catch the 12:12 Jubilee Line service to Waterloo will require speed and alacrity. This is a shame and adds to my existing disappointment from when I bought my train ticket and the cheerless young woman at the station first tried to charge me a couple of quid more than the price I’d been quoted on the National Rail website. It turns out that there are two fares for the same journey, but apparently I didn’t want a ‘day return’ (£23.50) I wanted a ‘day travelcard’(£20.65 with a Goldcard). In reality I just wanted to go to Brentford and back as cheaply as possible, not caring what the ticket is called. Two companies, two prices it seems. The joyless woman’s excuse for not quoting me the lower price is that she doesn’t know where Brentford is. What idiot decided it was a good idea to split up a national rail network into separate private companies anyway?
When the train arrives it is busy and one of the few vacant seats is next to a grandmother, her daughter and two young grandchildren, not a choice of seat I would usually make. One of the children announces the names of all the stations, the other is fractious and often close to tears. The adults make more noise than she does however as they shush her and try to divert her attention from whatever upsets her. More passengers get on at Chelmsford, I feel the warm breath of a woolly looking dog on my hand as it is led down the aisle, my look of surprise makes the woman opposite me laugh. Another woman provides interest with her golden finger and toe nails, they’re a work of art worthy of Gustav Klimt.
The journey is tortuous; making the connection at Stratford I have to wait half an hour for the next connection from Waterloo. But Waterloo Station provides entertainment, I stand beneath its famous clock and a dishevelled, smelly man who holds a red lead at the end of which is a small, contented looking black cat, talks, but no one listens. From Waterloo to Brentford takes another half an hour, but provides glimpses of the gothic Palace of Westminster, the neo-classical Tate Gallery and Art Deco Battersea power station; later the train crosses the River Thames at Barnes Bridge, so it’s a lot of sight-seeing fun. Brentford station is dull, like the weather, but just outside a way finder sign announces ‘New map coming soon’ as if it’s been decided to replace the old map of Brentford with one of somewhere more exotic like Montmartre. The buses in this part of London are run by RATP, the company that runs Paris metro; another two-fingers to bloody Brexit.
Griffin Park is a proper football ground, surrounded by neat streets of terraced houses, like the one in which Mr Benn of Watch with Mother fame lived; I half expect to see him emerge from one, waving stiffly and sporting a red and white striped scarf and disproportionately large rosette. Walking down Clifden Road from the station all four metal floodlight pylons hove into view; it’s a sight to gladden the heart of any football supporter. I buy a programme (£3.50) and jokingly complain to the seller about extortionate metropolitan prices. Someone sells Chilli Con Carne from beneath a gazebo in their front garden. The Griffin pub is on a corner near the away supporters’ entrance and it and the terrace of bay-windowed houses opposite are built of the warm, yellow stock brick that defines so much of London. Football supporters spill out from the pub and into the streets which crawl with fans of both clubs. There is a good feel about this place. Despite its Twickenham postcode, nominally Brentford is a London club, but its supporters don’t have the obnoxious conceit of most London fans. I stroll up Braemar Road past the main entrance to the ground, beyond which is the club shop; it looks like a 1920’s suburban bungalow with its red and white painted gable. Naturally I take a look inside; if Chelsea has a ‘megastore’, this is more of a corner shop.
At the end of Braemar Road chalkboards on the wall of the Princess Royal pub welcome fans of both clubs before and after the game. Walking past the New Inn on the next corner of the ground I am welcomed and ushered in, but perhaps rudely I don’t stay because the beer is Greene King. I carry on down New Road and pass the Royal Oak pub and can still see the Griffin Park floodlights above the roof top along with a passing jet airliner, one of the hundreds that roar over about every two minutes during the day as they leave or arrive at Heathrow.
I return to The Griffin because it serves the local Fullers beers and despite the heaving throng at the bar I get served quite quickly with a 500 ml plastic cup of Fuller’s London Pride (£4.10); the name of the beer and its presentation sadly don’t really match up, but it says a lot about modern Britain. I go outside and lean on someone’s front wall to watch the pre-match activity unfold before me as I consume my beer. Before heading into the stadium I use the toilet inside the pub. There is an orderly and good-spirited queue at the three urinals. Somebody jokes as he pees that this will probably be the highlight of his afternoon, whilst someone else queues with a pint of lager in hand, as if he might just tip it straight into the urinal and cut out the middle man.
Today I am meeting Tim who I have known since 1965 and who is travelling up from Weymouth with a friend of his. The news is that due to engineering works Tim has had to travel via Westbury (Wiltshire) and due to an incident on a level crossing in Cornwall his train is delayed. He will arrive at Paddington not much before 3 o’clock and will have to get a taxi from there, missing the kick-off. I have his ticket. It’s a bit of a pickle, but I am hoping that I can leave the tickets for collection so that I don’t have to hang around outside and miss anything of the match myself. I speak with the steward at the away supporters entrance who is stood by a red flag which announces “Here to help”. Assuming it’s not the flag that’s the helpful one I ask the steward nearby if it would be possible to leave the tickets for collection; he refers me to the Stand Manager, a lady just a few metres away, who is extremely helpful and immediately says it will be no problem at all and I should leave the tickets with the steward who I just spoke to and let Tim know his ID number, number 277. I am deeply thankful and impressed by their straightforward efficiency; seems like it’s 1-0 to Brentford already.
In the small Brook Road stand, known by home fans as the ‘Wendy House’, most Ipswich supporters are gathered in the centre of the terrace directly behind the goal, I find a mostly pleasant, uncrowded spot towards the New Road stand. The only drawback is a youth stood staring at the Brentford fans making a masturbatory gesture; if only he knew how silly he looks. The roof is low, which gives the small terrace a good atmosphere and there is some singing from the Ipswich supporters as the teams appear amidst a posse of photographers and assorted hangers-on including the club mascots. Brentford, known as the Bees, have two mascots named Buzzbee and Buzzette, not surprisingly both are bees, but Buzzette looks worryingly like a Golliwog.
After a minute’s applause for former England international Ray Wilkins who died this week, Ipswich kick off the game wearing all blue although their usual white shorts would not have clashed with Brentford’s red and white striped shirts and black shorts. It’s a colourful scene against the back drop of the plain stands and lush green turf. Brentford are kicking towards the Brook Road stand. Town defend the Ealig Road end with its impressive backdrop of grey Brutalist tower blocks off in the distance. The early exchanges are symptomatic of the usual rubbish served up in what is nowadays known as The Championship, as players whose levels of fitness and strength far exceed their levels of skill cancel each other out and the ball flies between them like a pin ball. Ipswich’s Jordan Spence is the first player to be booked by referee Mr Robert Jones and it is only a quarter past three.
Tim and his friend arrive about five minutes later, but the game doesn’t improve; why should it? Two blokes beside me seem to be discussing whether someone’s hair is permed or not. An Airbus 380 flies over. There is little vocal support for the team from the Ipswich fans but plenty of singing of “Mick McCarthy, Get out of our club” to the usual tune of Sloop John B. Haven’t they heard? He’s going at the end of the season. It doesn’t seem likely that he will suddenly bugger off in the first half of a match, does it? These people need to get over this and just get behind the team. But many Ipswich fans love to accentuate the negative.
As a Brentford ball beyond the Ipswich defence reaches the penalty area Town ‘keeper Bartosz Bialkowski and Town captain Luke Chambers collide and it looks like Chambers has ’done his shoulder’ as a result. Chambers is replaced by substitute Myles Kenlock; in terms of spectacle the collision is the highlight of the first half although it inevitably prolongs proceedings. It’s been an even first half with both teams as bad as one another, so it seems that it’s not only Mick McCarthy’s football that is, in the words of the song, ‘shit’.
The second half is much the same as the first, although Brentford improve and are having much more of the ball with Ipswich rarely venturing towards their own fans; but who can blame them. The negativity in the Brook Road stand turns up a notch with a new song. At first I think they’re singing “We’re the arseholes, we’re the arseholes, we’re the arseholes over here” but then it becomes clear that the words is numbskulls, not arseholes, a reference to Mick McCarthy labelling some supporters numbskulls in a recent interview. Numbskulls is a word that seems to resonate with these supporters for some reason, as if they have found their true identity and along with chants of “We hate Mick McCarthy” they sing “Mick McCarthy’s blue and white numbskulls”. But their negativity isn’t confined to Mick McCarthy as they also very unjustly dust off Sloop John B once again to sing “I wanna go home, I wanna go home, Brentford’s a shithole, I wanna go home” . Only a numbskull could label a football ground with a pub on each corner a “shithole”.
A bald-headed bloke stood next to me, who has been joining in with the numbskull chants remarks that it looks like being a goalless draw “Yeah, if we’re lucky” I reply, tuning in to the pervading negativity. We’re not lucky. To our left in the New Road stand, a simple pitched roof structure with a line of thirteen bright red metal stanchions that line the pitchside, there are about twenty middle aged blokes all in identical grey flat caps, all sat together in a couple of rows. At about twenty to five most of them get up and file out through the back of the stand. Shortly afterwards Town’s Jonas Knudsen naively bumps Brentford’s Sergi Canos who falls to the ground. Referee Roberts who seconds earlier ignored a similar incident in which Town’s Luke Hyam appeared to be pushed over, awards Brentford a penalty. As a huge Ginsters pasty rolls into view on the pitchside electronic advertisement hoardings, Brentford’s French former St Etienne forward Neal Maupay steps up to score, sending the ball gently into the right hand side of the goal as Bartosz Bialakowski dives obligingly to the left.
With Ipswich losing, the Town ‘supporters’ that bother to sing now give free reign to their unpleasant feelings and unleash Sloop John B yet again to proffer the standard complaint that Mick McCarthy’s football belongs in the toilet. No criticism of Knudsen is made, obviously Mick coaches him to give away penalties when he can. As the game rattles along towards its conclusion Ipswich finally get forward a little more and muscular Martyn Waghorn gets through a couple of times. Kenlock the substitute is in turn substituted as the need for more effective attacking players builds, and Town play with two wingers. The sun is now shining and on the bench, well off it really, because he always stands up, Mick has taken off his coat as if to confirm that he’s not going anywhere soon and to stick it to the numbskulls.
A final flurry from Town isn’t enough and despite four minutes of added on time the game is lost. We make a swift exit to the railway station. It hasn’t been a good game, the result doesn’t help and the Ipswich supporters and their obsession with moaning at Mick McCarthy has made it worse. But Brentford has been grand, it’s a lovely ground to visit, so I don’t begrudge them the win even though the penalty that secured it owed more to the referee than any foul. I shall keep my programme and match ticket to help me remember Griffin Park, just like Mr Benn would have.