It started back in early 1993, when I was about to turn eight-years old. My older brother had been a supporter for close to ten years, but this was the first time that I was excited about a game and cheered when Arsenal won. The only thing I recall about the 1992-93 season was the magical cup run that Arsenal went on, beating Sheffield Wednesday in both the league and FA Cup final. I have vivid memories of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup the next year, which ended with an unexpected 1-nil win over Parma in Copenhagen. I will always remember that wonderful strike by Alan Smith. The following season, I was all in; I had pictures all over my bedroom wall, would read Shoot magazine from cover to cover as well as writing down games and scores into a notebook. I remember asking my brother to test me near the end of the season – I was able to repeat every score-line and even the name of each goal-scorer. Ian Wright was my God. In 1995, we lost to Real Zaragoza in the Cup Winners’ Cup final with the last kick of the game; Nayim’s crazy long range shot from forty-five yards sailed over the head of David Seaman. That moment stuck with me for a long time as I cried and cried and cried. Perhaps someone should have educated me about football before I was given permission to dive headfirst into it. This intense beginning to my journey into the life of a football fan set me in stubborn ways that took many years to shift. Each season after 1995 gained more momentum for me and Arsenal became a massive part of my life; their results generally set my mood for the next few days after a match.
Arsenal were never aware that I was playing away until the League Cup game against Brentford in September 2018, when I turned up in a half-and-half scarf.
Fast-forward to when I moved to London on 10 October 2010 (10.10.10, an easy one to remember). The first season and-a-half were all about getting to see my beloved Arsenal in the Emirates Stadium. I went to at least one game a month. Living in West London, however, I was only a ten-minute bus journey to a mid-table League One side called Brentford. It took me a while to go there but once I did, I really enjoyed it. It brought me back to some of my favourite football memories, watching football on TV and going to Irish international matches at Lansdowne Road: an older stadium with lots of character, standing terraces, and players fighting for every single ball. Not having to wait fifteen minutes for the privilege of cramming into a packed train to Arsenal was also quite nice. There was something satisfying about going watch my local team and not necessarily caring about whether they won the game or not. But I was to learn that this would not last long. This mediocre football team were about to be transformed when the Manchester City legend Uwe Rösler came into the club, changing everything almost over-night! Brentford slowly became this free-flowing, high-tempo football team which, in turn, brought me as much joy as it did when I went to watch Arsenal play. I suddenly found myself going to watch around ten or twelve games a season for both teams and a defeat for either one deeply annoyed me. I witnessed League One Play-Off Final heartache versus Yeovil Town but basked in the glory of automatic promotion to the Championship the following year. I truly fell in love with Brentford during the 2014-15 season, their first in the championship. Brentford romped to a fifth-place finish and got the chance to play Middlesbrough home and away. I will never forget when Andre Gray scored the equaliser and the Ealing Road terrace erupted, but I also appreciated the noise made by Middlesbrough supporters when they scored their late winner. This was the football experience in the purest form that I’ve ever witnessed.
Over the course of the next few years, Brentford kept their business model consistent and managed mid-table finishes every year, generally making Griffin Park a fortress. Yet, they seemed unable to win away from home very often. During this time, topflight football changed dramatically for me. Money being spent on wages and players excelled at a rate I could not believe, and the levels of simulation and cheating was very difficult to watch. I could pay £50 to watch Arsenal and their opponents falling all over the place in a giant stadium that had very little atmosphere or watch Brentford for £20 where everything was left of the field. I can honestly say that diving is a rare occurrence in every division below the Premiership. The fans of big teams wanted wins at all costs and did not need much encouragement to shout abuse at players, managers, and referees. I never found this to be an issue at Brentford, expectations were realistic. I did not fall in love with football to watch grown men swear and shout abuse. It was the beauty of walking up the steps to see the pitch for the first time, the feeling of reading the match programme and enjoying the skilful players spray passes in the warmup. For me, this beauty is somewhat lost in a 60,000-seater stadium. Yet, this was something I found in abundance at Brentford. Part of the magic of lower-league football is the closeness of it like when you are standing behind the goal, near to the corner flag, and the set-piece-taker can hear you just five meters away. There is a joy in singing “cheerio” to the away fans when you win, but also an appreciation when they sing it back when your team has been spanked. At Brentford, there is an appreciation that this is football – you win, and you lose, but there is always another game. Over the years supporting Arsenal, I lost this vision, and it wasn’t until I found Griffin Park and Brentford that I rediscovered my love for the beautiful game.
The heart always tells me to support Arsenal because it has been my life for so long, but my head screams Brentford. Although when push comes to shove, Arsenal and I are like a married couple; we have been through so much together. To everyone who knows me, I am the big Arsenal supporter and I never believed it was possible for my two loves to be in the same room. Arsenal were never aware that I was playing away until the League Cup game against Brentford in September 2018, when I turned up in a half-and-half scarf and clapped every pass and goal from each team. That was the strangest night I have ever had being a football fan.
This season, it looks like Brentford can finally take the leap that they have been threatening for the last eighteen months; they might become a Premier League team. I always used to laugh at people who claim that they support two teams. This is a plea to those who feel the same; it is possible. A man born and reared for twenty-five years, in the middle of the Irish countryside can become a man torn between two proverbial lovers, one from West London and one from North London. Hopefully, I will be able to find a balance, giving both teams the attention and love that they rightly deserve.