Nobody can deny that Brentford were extremely poor in their recent and fully deserved 3-1 home defeat by Everton. In fact, it could be said the final score line even flattered the Bees who never got started and were totally outplayed by a previously struggling Everton team after a total non-performance where absolutely nothing went right. The team played like a set of strangers who had only been introduced to each other in the changing room immediately before the match. Of course, there were mitigating circumstances given the epidemic of serious injuries that had already swept through the club, depleting an already thin squad. The loss of speedy and influential striker Kevin Schade was the final straw, seriously injuring himself immediately prior to kickoff taking his final warm-up shot at goal – a totally ridiculous piece of ill fortune. Fate was certainly not smiling on the Bees.
The crowd – normally so encouraging and supportive and the team’s acknowledged twelfth man so often in the past, reacted grumpily to their team’s myriad shortcomings and the dreaded and unmistakable sound of booing broke out throughout the second half from certain sections of the crowd.
Surely those who joined in, whilst well within their rights to make their disappointment and disapproval known at the mediocre fare provided them, had unforgivably short memories given how magnificently a Brentford team, punching well over its weight had consistently performed over the past couple of seasons since their promotion in 2021.
Couldn’t they understand that their reaction was hardly likely to inspire an already stuttering team to perform better on the day?
It wasn’t lack of effort but simply their inability on the day to defend properly and put more than a couple of consecutive passes together which caused the defeat. Surely the team had more than enough credit in the bank for one mediocre performance to be overlooked and forgotten?
For my part I felt that the booing said far more about the fans than the team. Was there really such a sense of entitlement amongst them a mere decade after our local derby was against Leyton Orient rather than the might of Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea and their like?
The team, Thomas Frank and indeed owner Matthew Benham expressed their anger, surprise and disappointment at the behavior of some of the crowd.
Benham, normally a shadowy behind the scenes figure slow to seek the limelight, even expressed his strong views on The Griffin Park Grapevine fans’ forum.
Deep in the mists of time as a schoolboy I have vague memories of the team’s regular inept performances greeted with a disdainful bout of slow handclapping emanating mainly from the more elderly regulars sat in the Braemar Road stands. What I can more clearly remember is that the performances invariably deteriorated to even greater depths!
Booing is totally unproductive and I can illustrate that from the example of former Brentford stalwart Bob Booker whose time at Brentford often saw him booed unmercifully.
He was a Marmite figure throughout his time at Griffin Park: most supporters loved him, seeing a lot of themselves in his pluck, effort, non-stop energy, determination to win, team ethos and no little skill; others rejected him on sight as being unfit to wear the shirt. Still more damned him with faint praise, patronising and denigrating him for the very versatility that made him such a valuable member of the squad.
They made no allowance for his late arrival to the game. Unlike most of his fellow professionals, he had undergone no apprenticeship. Certain fans failed to credit his willingness to sacrifice himself for the good of the team and do his utmost, without complaint, in whatever position he was asked. He was the first Brentford player to wear every shirt from 2-11, feeling happy and proud to have done so. Surely he deserved appreciation and recognition, rather than a cacophony of jeers, insults and derision?
It is worth pointing out that there have been many examples of Brentford players who the fans loved to hate or hated to love; players who came in for regular and vituperative abuse for whatever they did on the pitch. Stan Webb, Barry Lloyd, Lee Frost, Keith Bowen, Booker’s brother-in-law Ian Bolton, Tom Finney, George Torrance, Steve Butler, Ian Holloway, Wayne Turner, Dean Martin, Leon Townley, Mark McCammon, Paul Brooker and Calum Willock spring to mind.
A Brentford programme from 1955 even contains an appeal from the manager, Bill Dodgin (Senior), for the supporters to show more patience and understanding towards a certain young player just making his way in the first team.
How does it feel as a footballer to be booed, barracked and abused from the terraces, particularly by your own so-called supporters? Does it inspire you to greater heights in order to try to stuff the critical words back down the throats from whence they came, or do you retreat into your shell and play less expansively, more cautiously, trying to eliminate risk from your game? Do you become determined not to make another mistake that could bring about even more criticism?
Joey Barton was typically forthright in his views on this subject: “External support is vital. I know this will sound cheesy, but when you know your fans are rooting for you, when you hear the low rumble of a supportive chant at a key moment, it does lift you.”
The main problems Bob faced were of pressure and unfulfilled expectations. “I have received lots of criticism both as a player and assistant manager, and if you are not careful it can destroy you,” he warns. “You begin to ask, ‘do I really need and deserve to be slaughtered when all I am doing is my best?’ As a player, you need the manager to believe in you. When things got really bad, Fred Callaghan would only play me away from home so that I could get some respite from the boo-boys. I played far better away from home because the pressure was off me and the fans who travelled to watch the team really got behind us. I felt supported and encouraged by them – it was no surprise that I once won an award as away player of the year. It showed what I could do when I knew that the fans were on my side and gave me their unconditional support.”
“The problems started very soon after the hat trick against Hull, which was both the best and the worst thing that could have happened to me. At first, there were a few murmurings of disapproval and grumbling whenever I made an error, which soon developed into constant abuse. ‘Get off Booker, you can’t even trap the ball, you’re rubbish,’ was typical of the insults I had to put up with. Things got so bad I could even hear people laughing at me, which was utterly soul-destroying. Given the size of our crowds, I could clearly hear every comment aimed at me.”
“The harder I tried, the worse it got. Nothing would go right for me. The ball would bounce off me. I would miss open goals. A simple five-yard pass became a real challenge. The crowd would boo longer and louder and I would go into my shell. It got to a stage where I froze whenever the ball was passed to me. I really did not want it anywhere near me. I hated the fact that my family, sitting in the stand, could hear every word and comment: it made me feel angry and embarrassed. It even affected my home life. I shut myself away and became a bit of a recluse.”
“As a player, you have to learn to adapt. But it isn’t pleasant or easy. Fans don’t care if you came from non-league or, in my case, local Saturday football; no allowances are made for your inexperience. Immediately after my hat trick I was floating on air and I felt no fear. But my balloon was pricked very soon afterwards and then playing football got a lot harder. The pressure of needing to win games, play well, keep your place in the team and earn another contract can be overwhelming. The expectations of supporters are massive, which is only fair – it is an old adage that they pay their money and are entitled to say what they like. But I wish they would give some consideration to the effect that their words can have.”
Booker had no delusions of grandeur. He knew that he had to find a similar strength of will and purpose if he was to cope with the constant barracking and criticism he was facing.
“There is no solution apart from keeping your head down, trying your best to ignore the taunts, and just getting on with your game until things turn around. If you don’t keep believing in yourself and grow a thick skin then you’re dead in the water. I knew I wasn’t really ready for this level of the game, but I had given up my job with good money and a trade behind me and I felt honoured to be a professional footballer, so I wasn’t going to give up or just let it drift away. It was really hard at times, but I am proud to say that I did not crumble. The experience I gained from working in the real world really helped me cope.”
A single goal can help. “It is hard to describe exactly how it feels when your confidence is high, but you seem to do everything instinctively and it all comes off for you. You take shots quicker than normal, you take one touch instead of two; if you’re playing in defence your timing of tackles is better and you win all your headers. In midfield, every pass you make is right on the money.”
Is Bob’s reaction to booing the norm? Former Bee Richard Poole played for the club as a young homegrown 16-year-old during the early and mid-70s. It was an era when Brentford were not blessed with a plethora of talent and, with budgets stretched, generally had to make do with whatever combination of players they could scrape together. Performances were inconsistent to say the least, veering from one extreme to the other, with the fans not slow to express their wrath and disapproval at some of the substandard fare they were forced to endure.
“I felt really sorry for my teammate, Stan Webb, as he was onto an absolute hiding to nothing from the moment he signed for us,” says Poole. “His move turned out to be a poisoned chalice because he had the near-impossible task of replacing a living legend in John O’Mara. The fans were furious at the lack of ambition shown by the club by selling O’Mara just after we had won promotion; they saw poor Stan simply as a cheap replacement, and took their frustration out on him. I thought he was a good influence around the club and really not a bad player at all. He had scored goals regularly in the Second Division at both his previous clubs, and, given half a chance, I am sure that he could have done the same for the Bees.”
“He was strong and could certainly mix it, but the constant barrage of criticism affected him. His performances suffered and he lost confidence. Given more time and a more sympathetic response from the Brentford supporters, he would have done much better at the club. I am sure that he must have been delighted, and seen it as suitable revenge, when he scored a crucial goal against us after he had moved to Darlington.”
Poole received some harsh criticism from Brentford fans when he returned in a reserve game for Watford shortly after his departure. His parents watched on, suffering.
“It was so bad that some of my new teammates asked me what was going on. The supporters who were giving me such a hard time lived really close to my family, and that was very upsetting. Generally, you do hear all the comments from the crowd, good and bad – particularly when there are not too many supporters in the ground. It certainly has an impact on your game.”
“When I first came into the side as a youngster, my concentration was totally on the game – to such an extent that I really only heard the crowd noise when there was a break in play. I remember an important home game against Colchester United, with Griffin Park full to the brim. I was waiting for a corner kick to be played into the penalty area and I heard a voice behind the goal shouting ‘Come on Richard!’ It really got through to me, inspired me and made me feel ten feet tall.”
“As for being booed by away fans, that simply meant that I must be doing my job properly and getting something right.
A emorable Brentford goal came at home to Bradford City. “I saw everyone standing up and applauding and, for me, it was like there were thousands and thousands of fans cheering me on and supporting me. Even now, over 40 years later, I get goose pimples just thinking about that magic and unforgettable moment. When you are a local boy and you are cheered on, it gives you such a boost; conversely, I can still remember that horrible reserve match for Watford against Brentford when I was booed, and it really affected my game.”
The similarity between Poole and Bob’s words about the effect of barracking on a player’s game and psyche is striking. Bob was not alone in his reaction and attitude to his treatment by some home supporters.
Hopefully the Everton booing was a one-off and was born out of frustration and will not be repeated.
The team deserves far better
Greville Waterman is BU Commissioning Editor