Whenever, as a youngster, we used to travel into London by road - on a family outing or school trip or whatever - I used to notice the floodlights aside the start of the elevated section of the M4. From an early age I was aware it was Griffin Park, the home of Brentford FC. I'd always wanted to attend a game there, particularly of late after learning that it was a ground with a pub on each corner! Bristol Rovers' scheduled visits always seemed to coincide with something else, though, be it a not-to-be-missed Maidenhead United away game (becoming increasingly rare) or, as per last season's 3-1 win in September, a holiday to Lesbos. This season was different, however, with Saturday 26th February long since pencilled in as the day that I would make my Griffin Park bow. And with the wife in tow!
The rain was slight as we exited Ealing Broadway, walked past Ealing Studios and several pubs along the South Ealing Road before stopping at the Ealing Park Tavern – once of the best gastro-pubs I've been in – for pre-match drinks with other fans (of both the red-and-white striped and blue-and-white quartered persuasion). After a Kopparberg or two - and then running a gauntlet crossing the Great West Road/Ealing Road roundabout - we soon arrived at at the ground, with a packed New Inn the first of the corner pubs. We walked down New Road past quaint terraced housing, a steady stream of home fans and then the second corner pub – a similarly decent-looking, if small, Royal Oak – before entering the away end, standing in the lower section of the Brook Road stand with the majority of the other 856 travelling Gasheads.
Rovers entered the match on the back of a 1-0 home win over Oldham, which had been preceded by five straight defeats. Entrenched in the relegation places, new manager Dave Penney was struggling to integrate a plethora of loan and short-term contract signings. As is the Ragbag way, there were rumblings off-the-field as well, with some supporters wearing black and gold scarves in an anti-Glazer-esque protest at the continued incompetence of the Board.
The game was a decent one, albeit with clear-cut chances few and far between. It was settled by a soft first-half penalty, converted by Brentford captain Gary Alexander after Rovers keeper Conrad Logan was adjudged to have brought down Bees winger Myles Weston. There looked to be minimal contact and one away fan - who carried himself in a manner befitting a mention or two in Chris Brown's 'Bovver' and stood alongside me in the toilets at halftime - was so incensed by the penalty award that he was imploring anyone who would listen to invade the pitch and get the match abandoned!
The aforementioned Weston was impressive early on although he later drifted out of the action as his every touch - after the dive for the penalty - was met with boos/insults from the Rovers support, and new right-back Danny Senda (whom I saw play for W@nky Wanderers against MUFC Ltd in a Berks & Bucks Cup Final several years ago) seemed to get up to speed with the game. Other Brentford players to catch the eye were former non-league defenders Leon Legge (who played for Lewes against the Magpies on more than one occasion), Sam Wood (ex-Bromley) and - in particular - Karleigh Osbourne (Hayes, amongst others). Midfielder Toumani Diagouraga was also busy and tidy throughout, whilst home keeper Richard Lee was MoM (indicative of a decent Rovers display - characterised by a committed performance from rotund loan striker Rene Howe - that deserved a point).
One player who didn't leave a positive lasting impression, however, was Brentford's diminutive winger Sam Saunders - another ex-non-leaguer (Carshalton Athletic and others) - who seemed inclined to needlessly incite the away support at every opportunity and clearly thought he was a better player than his frequently miss-controlled first touch would suggest. Speaking to Macleod (M) in the days afterwards, it transpired that Saunders acted up in a similar manner when Leeds United visited Griffin Park last season. Small man syndrome, methinks.
Despite Howe exhibiting superb touch and great hold-up play throughout - and top scorer Will Hoskins going close on a couple of occasions - Alexander's penalty was the only goal. The Rovers players - and the manager - were applauded from the pitch at the end, however, by a noisy away crowd and I left hopeful that this encouraging team display could be built upon in subsequent games. Instead, the Gas would lose 1-0 at home to Colchester United and then 2-0 at home to Dagenham & Redbridge during the next week. Penney was sacked less than two months after taking the reigns (having lost nine of his 13 games in charge). Captain Stuart Campbell has since been appointed player-manger until the end of the season and Rovers have taken ten points from his five games. The players obviously wanted the authoritarian Penney gone. Not very professional, but at least it looks as if Rovers now have a fighting chance of completing a 'Great Escape'. I really hope so, and not least because it'll mean another trip to Griffin Park!
If we do get to return next season, then I'm sure that the wife won't need much persuading to accompany me again ... so long as I promise her another visit to the Ealing Park Tavern, en route! I'd also like to actually have a drink in some - if not necessarily all - of the corner pubs. After the final whistle we turned left at the away end exit in order to complete a circle of the ground, and observe the two boozers we hadn't yet passed (to make sure it wasn't a myth!). The Griffin (complete with large plasma screens and heaters in the patio garden) looked the best of the bunch. The Princess Royal, in contrast, looked the type of place that you might want to give a wide berth, especially when with the missus.
After a Guinness & Black or three in the Park Tavern (where the Six Nations encounter between England and France was on TV, in the corner, largely ignored by the Bees and Rovers fans present) we met with my parents back in Ealing. They were travelling home, complete with hefty luggage, from a Eurostar trip to Lille. We drank in the lively and highly recommended (Fruli on tap!) North Star before making good use of a voucher discount offer in the local Pizza Express.
Not your usual away day, then (despite the result being a let down, as is often the case these days!), but enjoyable nevertheless. If Brentford weren't a contender for "everyone's favourite second team" - ie. they're a proper family club, all nice and quiet (I honestly didn't hear any noise from the home crowd until an uninspired chant of "Brentford, Brentford, Brentford" in injury time) - then I'd certainly consider going to a few more games at 'Four Pub Park'. As it is, here's hoping Rovers beat the drop and/or MUFC Ltd have a decent run in the FA Cup, resulting in an away tie in TW8.
Sadly, I'm not sure which scenario is more unlikely!