Image above: Bill Hagerty
An old score to settle
It was a long time coming for Brentford and a return after 74 years to England’s top football flight. But here they are – well, nearly – at the dawn of a new challenge, one that comes gift-wrapped in a significant chapter of the club’s colourful history.
When the Premier League fixtures were published this week, the Bees’ first opponents out of the hat were Arsenal, the illustrious north London heavyweights with a special place in the memories of those aficionados way out west who never forget any of the many dramas involving their own favourites.
It was Arsenal that on 26 May 1947 visited Griffin Park to score the solitary goal that marked their hosts’ departure from the First Division – England’s premier league before it adopted a more glamorous image and a new name. It was the end of a 12-year term and the last time Brentford was to compete at the top level, old name or new, until the 2-0 drubbing of Swansea at Wembley Stadium on 29 May this year saw a dented old dream come true.
So the return match with the Gunners on Friday 13 August at 8pm, as the much-desired new season kicks off, may be seen by those of romantic persuasion as payback time. Having finished eighth in the Premiership this past season, Arsenal are ripe for being despatched from the new Community Stadium back to their Emirates home with nothing to show from the journey other than cheeks pink with embarrassment. So goes theories propounded on social media and in various pubs, from the Express Tavern to the Griffin and beyond.
Back in 1947, Brentford were languishing close to the bottom-but-one in the division when Arsenal came to call. Only Leeds United stood between them and the wooden spoon, while Arsenal were thirteenth in a table topped by Liverpool, with Manchester United, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Stoke City and Blackpool jostling for position below them.
Not quite the powerhouse it was soon to become, Arsenal nonetheless fielded such luminaries-in-waiting as George Swindin in goal, Wally Barnes and Jimmy Logie, as well as England international and later top manager Joe Mercer. Brentford’s ageing team – the line-up fielded against Aston Villa the previous February was the oldest in the club’s history – was largely out of puff, although the heroic goalkeeping of ever-present Scot Joe Crozier, only 31, earned him the accolade of much later being hailed as the best Bees’ keeper of all time. Sorry about that, Mr Raya.
Bearing in mind the cataclysmic season that saw relegation confirmed even before the Arsenal team stepped from their coach, it seems astonishing that Brentford were beaten by just one goal, scored by inside forward Paddy Sloan, an Irishman from Lurgan who served as a sergeant-pilot in the Royal Air Force during the war had and, in a wartime arrangement, turned out for Brentford half-a-dozen times when hostilities allowed.
Less surprising was a gate of 17,976 (as against a high of 35,604). presumably consisting of die-hard supporters, indefatigable optimists and relatives of the players and staff. This was of course in pre-television days and long before the sale of a chunk of the Braemar Road premises and the savage reduction in the capacity of paying customers that could be attracted through the turnstiles. (The Griffin pub, six years older than Brentford FC, was and is in business: football grounds may come and go, put drinking establishments with loyal clientele are hard to shift.)
The repercussions of Brentford FC’s fall from football’s peak – well, close to it; they had managed fifth place and sixth a couple of times – included the beginning of the end for manager Harry Curtis, already a club legend but patently heading towards the end of a managerial career that would total 23 years with the club.
Periods of elation and despair followed, with Brentford leading a yo-yo existence embracing variously all three and sometimes four of the divisions below the First or the Premier League. Stability in the Championship came with a series of talented managers, Mark Warburton, Dean Smith and the current incumbent, Thomas Frank, fashioning the playing squads into major threats in the division.
Which is why, following the club’s first success in ten play-offs for promotion from one division or another, Brentford eventually reached the Premier League with the most important great bound of all.
In this short break before the Premier League resumes activities, and the Bees join with fellow new boys in the block, Norwich and Watford – both of them more familiar in the top tier than Brentford – in what is considered the greatest football show on earth, there will be more hard work, more comings and goings of players, more fan speculation.
And then, the arrival of Arsenal and down to the serious business of competing with the best.
Bill Hagerty is a contributing editor to the Bees United supporters’ group.