Twenty-five years ago this week, FrontRowSoccer.com editor Michael Lewis journeyed to London to pursue ambitious project: write about English soccer, sometimes with local flavor, other times with a U.S. twist. He wound up attending seven matches over 12 days in all four professional leagues. He wrote the stories for Soccer New York, a print publication, in January 1996.
As it turned out, this series comes at a time when crowds in London have been forbidden due to the discovery of a mutated strain of COVID-19. FrontRowSoccer.com already had planned to re-post this series as it comes on the 25th anniversary of this trip.
By Michael Lewis
LONDON – A local bartender likes to boast that the Brentford Football Club is the only team of the 92 pro teams in English soccer that has a bar or pub on every corner of the ground.
Griffin Park is surrounded by four pubs.
It was 2:15 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 30, 45 minutes before Brentford’s scheduled kickoff against the Wycombe Wanderers in its last game of 1995 and the bar wasn’t doing it usual bustling business.
The match was called off due to the two most feared words in an English football fan’s vocabulary:
Brentford was far from alone. Of the 46 matches on tap, only 12 were played, nine in the Premier League.
That’s life when you play without a break during the dead of winter.
There were maybe a dozen men at The Princess Royal, situated on one of the corners surrounding Griffin Park.
“You wouldn’t be able to talk to me right now,” pub owner Joe McVeigh told a visitor. “We would have 300-400 jammed in. They were expecting a crowd of 5,000-6,000.”
McVeigh had bought extra food and liquid refreshments for the game and the holidays,”
“It is disappointing,” said McVeigh, who had to call off the extra staff that handle the game-day patrons. “We’re lucky tomorrow’s New Year’s Eve.”
At Griffin Park, there were no crowds. A fan here and fan there came to office to buy tickets for future game. Chris Wood, 20, who has supported the team for 12 years, came by to buy a ticket for the English FA Cup match at Norwich City.
Wood, a landscaper, is one of those staunch fans the second division club is famous for. In 1967, another London-based club, the Queens Park Rangers, tried to merge and buy Brentford, but fans at a Sunday morning meeting passed the hat around to keep the club alive. That gave an avid supporter like Wood something to live for.
Wood, who has visited 72 of the 92 football grounds, was disappointed with the postponement, but had a realistic attitude.
“It’s part of the game,” he said. “You get used to it.”
Calling the match was a difficult decision for Brentford to make, according to marketing manager Peter Gilham, who came in with the rest of the office staff to work that day (the team held a morning practice, and the players went home to their families).
The decision was made at 3 p.m. Friday – exactly 24 hours prior to the match (It’s no use to make the decision in the morning,” Gilham said) – when the club brought out a local referee to test the pitch. He deemed it unplayable. The safety of the players was the most important factor.
“It’s not a decision we make lightly,” Gilham said. “Wycombe is a local game for us, so we are hit financially.”
Due to a recent spell of unseasonably cold weather, Brentford’s New Year’s Day match at Swansea City was in jeopardy.
“If you’re playing a team quite a distance from you – over 100 miles – you have to tell them in good time,” Gilham said. “You can’t tell them the day of the game because they’re traveling.”
So, calling off a match in south London is a rarity.
“We don’t get too many games called off in this part of England,” Gilham said. “we don’t get the adverse conditions we get in the north.”
Most of the Premier League teams have underground heating to avert postponements.
“We couldn’t afford it at the moment,” Gilham said. “The number of times we would need it wouldn’t be cost effective. It’s not a foolproof method, either.”
Gilham didn’t discuss specifics, but the team did take a financially, which isn’t good for a team in the second division. Club officials were expecting a larger than usual crowd because Wycombe (pronounced wick-com) is a mere 30 miles away. Brentford averages 5,131 spectators a game.
“You budget for a certain amount at different times during the season,” he said. “This plays around with our cash flow.”
For example, the 3,500 programs printed specifically for the game – it had a picture of the team with a Happy New Year banner in the front and the date – essentially was useless. Except fora handful of program collects, they will never be sold.
“They’re almost a write-off,” Gilham said.
There are other factors.
Brentford is trying to stay out of the relegation zone to the third division. So, game piling up near the end of the season cannot help matter, either. Last year Brentford finished second in the division but needed a playoff to move up to the first division. After tying Huddersfield at home and away, the club lost in penalty kicks, 4-3.
“It took a long time to get going this year,” Gilham said. “We have struggled. The players were so near last year. So close, yet so far. It’s difficult to drag yourself again.”
Being in the second division forces clubs like Brentford to do some creative marketing to make ends meet.
On this day, the club held a Christmas draw for a lucky fan for summer trip to the United States.
While the fans in the stadium can’t see it, there is a huge advertisement on the roof for the airplane passengers because the ground is located on a flight path to Heathrow Airport.
So, the Brentford Football Club keeps plugging away.