Zack Goldman on a treacherous Saturday for his Brentford.
Football is known around the globe as “The Beautiful Game,” but its capacity for pulchritude is undoubtedly matched by a penchant for cruelty.
I live in England and work for a club in the lowest rung of the Football League.
My truest of soccer loves, however, resides miles away in a quiet corner of West London. Brentford Football Club, the Bees, are my poison of choice, a cornerstone of the local community that prides itself on being a family club—one that punches above its weight, but doesn’t weigh a lot to begin with, which has given rise to its self-spun moniker “the Barcelona of the lower leagues.”
Long lovable doormats and one of the last remaining properly fan-owned clubs in the professional football pyramid, Brentford has undergone a bit of a cultural shift in the past two years. Its shareholding masses (of which I was a member) agreed to relinquish control to a committed benefactor whose sights are set on transforming the Bees into a more prominent piece of the London football jigsaw. Plans for a new stadium were drawn up, the wage bill was increased, and, most importantly, a new manager was hired: One Uwe Rösler, a bald, brawny, disciplined, and yet remarkably silly—by any standards, but especially by those for a former East German international—tactician who has created a squad with mettle, guile, and something rarely seen at Griffin Park: lots of talent.
The Bees have morphed from a club settling for mid-table mediocrity in League One, the third division of English football, into one doggedly pushing for promotion and scaring teams not only in our division, but much higher up the ladder—like Chelsea, whom we were minutes away from beating in this year’s FA Cup.
Today, though, was much more important than Chelsea. Today, we could win automatic promotion to The Championship. The stage was set in Disney sports movie-like terms. Brentford versus Doncaster. Win and we go up. Lose or draw and we have to enter the playoffs, while Doncaster replace us as the team automatically promoted. All to play for—simple as that.
The game started off brightly enough. We register the first major chance of the match within minutes as Bradley Wright-Phillips—yes, half-brother of Shaun and son of Arsenal legend Ian Wright—flies into the area and drags a left-footed effort across the face of goal, bruising the base of the right upright. From there, the game ebbed and flowed mostly in Doncaster’s half, but dangerous chances were few and far between.
As the halftime whistle came, Brentford were much the better side, but the nerves were showing both on the pitch and in the stands where the longest-ever queue for the toilet had formed. In danger of missing the beginning of the second half, I jumped out of the line and back into my seat, risking potential disaster with a bladder full of Ribena and a heart stuffed with boyish dreams.
Then, came… well, nothing. Not a single real chance for either side during the next 45 minutes. A lot of horrible, clumsy challenges, some abysmal classic lower-division long-ball, and a ton of time-wasting from Neil Sullivan, Doncaster’s 43 year-old goalkeeper who once stood between the sticks at Stamford Bridge and White Hart Lane.
Hopes were waning, fears were slowly solidifying into concrete blocks of reality, and heads dropped in tune with spirits as the Bees faithful reckoned with the fact that we would once again fall short—once again come so close, but not far enough, as we had done so many times before, including this year against Chelsea. Heartbreak was our middle name and glorious failure was our game…
In the fifth minute of stoppage time…..we are awarded a penalty.
As if we’ve already won promotion, the crowd erupts. Grown men in silly red-and-white striped shirts lose their shit. I had an awkward moment with a teenage boy next to me where we’re not quite sure whether or not to hug so we just sort of grab each other’s arms and yell really loudly.
Up steps Kevin O’Connor, the club’s captain and longest-serving active player by a country mile—a fairy tale ending to this season that wouldn’t pass an intern’s desk in Hollywood because of the “cheese factor.”
But, as “King Kev” approaches the ball, he finds it already in the hands of Marcello Trotta, an on-loan striker from local “rivals” (in the loosest sense) Fulham. As O’Connor pleads for the ball—and the crowd with him—it becomes clear that he is not going to get it. And, it is at this point that I know we have lost.
I cannot explain the feeling—but I knew this wasn’t going to end well. Trotta has scored some big goals since arriving at Brentford, but his poor discipline and work rate have not gone unnoticed. The 20 year-old Italian has starkly stood apart from the side Rösler has put together, which has succeeded more than anything because of an unflappable “one for all” mentality.
But, Trotta ends up with the ball. Places it on the spot. Steps back. Runs up. And the rest is history.
As the ball crashes against the bar, and Doncaster clear their lines in the ensuing scramble, Billy Paynter astutely situates himself into a cherry-picking position that is rarely seen outside of elementary school blacktop basketball courts. Standing at the halfway line ready for the clearance, Paynter has the entire field in front of him. As Brentford players sink to their knees, shirts pulled over their heads, tears in their eyes, backs on the Griffin Park turf, Paynter races down the wing, slots the ball across the face of goal to James Coppinger who scores in an empty net in front of jubilant, flare-wielding Donny fans in the double-decker away end.
1-0 Doncaster. Not only are they promoted, but that goal makes them league champions after results elsewhere go their way.
From ultimate high to ultimate low for one side; from ultimate low to ultimate high for another. And that—that is football.
The moment was heartbreaking. Even more heartbreaking, though, were the reactions of fans around me who had been following the team for decades. Not shock, not disbelief—just horror in resignation. Yet again, the bubble had burst at the final hurdle. All day there had been anxiety that disappointment would yet again fall upon the Brentford faithful. And it did, in the cruelest of ways. The older woman next to me is in tears—and I have to get up and leave as the final whistle sounds and incensed Brentford supporters rush the pitch, hurtling themselves onto the field without seemingly having a logical reason for doing so. It’s that horrible moment where everyone cares so much about something that they stop actually caring about themselves and what they’re doing. It’s getting depressing and hooligan-y, and so I leave.
Not long after exiting the stadium—in a particularly meditative state that only comes during a long walk back to the train with a cheeseburger in hand—I realized that this was about more than just heartbreak.
This was a profoundly resonant example of the circularity and remarkable nature of football. I am disappointed at the outcome, yes, but this is why we come to soccer in the first place. This sport has been described, at its most entertaining, as theatre—but it’s better than that. It is an unpredictable, emotionally taxing, life-affirming event that one experiences in the company of others, both friends and strangers alike, that bonds its captive audience with an energy that vibrates the soul. Some might call that ridiculous or hyperbolic—but those people have never seen their team throw it all away in the last minute of a season, or win the title on the final roll of the dice.
So, as I hop back on the Piccadilly line for the long journey home, somewhere in my somberness is a small, quiet rejoice. Because I know that no matter how old I get or how many games I’ve seen, this game will always surprise and always amaze. It will never ever stop being special. It will never get old.
As we head for the tunnel near Hammersmith, I like to pretend that my stomach ache is caused by the emotional weight of today’s football, when, in fact, I know it was very likely induced by way of questionable hamburger meat. But it doesn’t matter, really—we’ve grown used to aches. They’re part of the rich fabric of life when you’re a football fan. And so are the smiles.
Plus, we’ve still got playoffs.