Half man. Half Robot. All Burridge.

15 Jun

Another date with the reality of our situation is coming. Fast. As Brentford fans continue to bask in the excitement of our play-off win, Wednesday sees the Premier League fixture list released. The moment we discover when The Bees will entertain and (hopefully) visit the famous names we’ve only seen in sticker books, on Match of the Day, the odd cup tie or perhaps their own ad-hoc visits to the lower leagues. Leeds United, Wolves, Manchester City, Everton, Liverpool. The list is a long one and is laden with anticipation. As was noted in the previous column, there’s not one opponent who doesn’t provide an added element of intrigue.

Yet before we get there, its time for another book back at last season from another of our special guest columnists. This time, the man that has seen it all. The man who has described most of it to us. Brentford’s commentator par-excellence and the king of I-follow, Mark Burridge. We caught up this week for a chat about all things from play-offs and Premier League to commentary and covid. Mark talks through his highlights on the pitch, his players of the season and the ethos coursing through the club – on and off the pitch.  Enjoy…..

As for today’s headline, we WILL get there…..

Mark and team at Wembley

Mark, let’s start at the end. 29th May at Wembley. For those in the stands it was the culmination of a life’s dream. Can you put it into words, both as a fan and a commentator.

How did you keep your cool? Did you? Any tears shed?

It was ultimate professional performance from players and staff, started fast, a brilliant counter attacking second goal and then they just comfortably managed the game. Swansea had only scored 3 goals twice all season, so I was convinced it was our day early in the match. There was no way back for Steve Cooper’s team. Every player was 7/8 out of 10 and when that happens with Brentford the opposition are in for a long day.

Being relaxed early on made it all more enjoyable, the fans clearly felt that way too, so many smiling faces on display at half time. It was a strange feeling at the end, nothing dramatic from me as the result had been clear for some time, particularly after the red card.

I felt intense relief, pride, a sense of justice and simply enjoyed the celebrations around me. The tears, hugs, generations of families together, a truly special moment that you knew had to be enjoyed. Stuart Wakeford came to embrace Marcus Gayle and like many fans, the final whistle was the signal for raw emotion and Stuart had found it overpowering. There was such a genuine warmth.

Marcus and Stu embrace

That very same togetherness was everywhere within our eyesight. Some fans had sunk to their knees, others waving flags, shirts, hats. It was our day, at last. The football gods, had called time on play off & cup final pain for Bees fans, at least for now. The infamous Doncaster penalty, the most cruel and numbing of last minute dramas, well if this now was the pay off we’ll shake hands and call a truce!

Knowing that we were finally going to leave Wembley as winners and had experienced just what reward the play offs could be, was very new to Bees supporters.. Martin Lange was smiling down on us.

We were going to carry on with broadcasting until after the trophy presentation, so it was just a time to treasure. Then I looked at my phone and saw a ridiculous number of Whatsapp messages…

After clicking on the first few, it was a still of my Dad in the stands which I knew might happen if we were victorious, as Sky wanted to feature some of the elder fans who were inside Wembley and had been watching Brentford the last time we were in the top flight (which has now gone viral much to Dad’s bemusement).

That really was an emotional moment and I started to think of our dear friend Greville, of Dan & Jamie Powell, how much this would mean to them after such a difficult time in the respective lives. They are here at Wembley, somewhere, loving this and drinking it in.

It was a beautiful emotion right then that I couldn’t put into words.

I just felt incredible gratitude that this moment could be shared by so many & mean so much to so many fans all around the world. Dry eyes suddenly became a little tearful, I’d never enjoyed a moment so much watching others and trying to describe what was taking place in front of our eyes. 

Being with Marcus Gayle & Ben Burgess and hearing their emotion and their thoughts on what this will do for the Club and community was another reminder of why ex pros have such an affinity Brentford Football Club. Contrasting backgrounds with Ben on loan for just one season (2001/2) but has always kept in touch with BFC, writes such good articles in the match day programme and does a sterling job on commentary when he joins us for games in his native north west.

Marcus is the fan who became a Bees professional footballer, Premiership player, World Cup international and then a role model through his work with Kick it Out. The man who had bought a season ticket and was enjoying the games as a fan again until we bumped into each other in a local food shop in 2016 and we had a conversation about joining us on match day commentary.

As everyone knows Marcus is now our proud Club Ambassador. Having seen him make his debut for Brentford many years ago, then to share this victory with both he and Ben, with my Dad in the stadium as well, it simply does not get any better than this. What a magical end to a long season.

You and the team have provided an absolute lifeline this season, With the gates to Lionel Road locked you’ve kept us going with the usual passionate commentary. To us, that side of things felt ‘normal’ but what was it like commentating in what was effectively an empty room? How do you maintain the enthusiasm?

I’ve heard others say working at stadia was joyless and soulless and can certainly understand why that would be said but everyone working at a match would no doubt have realised they were in a very privileged position. Travelling to and from games alone (EFL guidance) was something different and it was often a case of arrive, set up equipment and leave as soon as possible. It was all very well organised but quite surreal compared a usual match day

The games generally lacked the intensity & energy you would enjoy with crowds, which was to be expected. The players may well be professionals but they are human beings first and foremost, so it was tough for them, particularly with the condensed season. It was very difficult without crowds but we got use to it early on and had experience of this at the end of last season. The fans are the energy of football. They are to players, others fans and certainly commentators too!.

I had encountered some of the top names commentating on radio a few times without background noise and it was a hard listen. At Lionel Rd the gantry vantage point is simply incredible (a MUST see when tours are available) but we were the only ones up there broadcasting unless it was a SKY game, with the press level pitch side there’s so little you would hear in the way background noise, as we were are quite detached. 

One of the SKY commentators said he would find it very difficult without the fake noise they would have piped in their ears during the game. It certainly must have helped somewhat.

Fortunately I was lucky to be around people with a great knowledge of the game, all things Brentford and who were passionate, yet measured.

It wasn’t until the Bournemouth away leg in the play off semi final that it probably dawned on Marcus Gayle & I just how different football felt again. This totally changed again for the play off home leg. The volume was simply remarkable. Off  the scale. With just 4,000! This bodes well for next season!

iFollow raised about £42m for EFL Clubs. Were you aware just how important the service was to fellow fans. Did you feel it was important to stay as positive as you did?

There was hope that fans would be back after a few months, at least in reasonable numbers. So we had a numbers of ex players booked to join us who would be experiencing Lionel Rd for the first time and would be introduced to the fans inside the stadium before the match. Covid saw so many changes throughout the season, mirroring the case levels so it was effectively an ever changing feast. Some ex-players had to be cancelled and dignitary numbers were often being lowered from an already miniscule number.

Contrary to what was said after one game we certainly did not have 200 fans in the ground!!

Considering supporters had missed out on what should have been a packed house for the very last game at Griffin Park and then not had the chance to be at the first game at the new stadium it is fair to say that Bees fans had every right to feel very disappointed and frustrated. Allowing the options to freeze ST’s and offering iFollow free for so many games, along with the GP Tours are all examples of the Club being in tune with supporters. The input from the various fan groups playing a big part in the right decisions being made.

iFollow suddenly had a much larger audience and with it quite a few adverts! We never knew when they were coming on! Plus half time discussions were cut short because of the same. The cost to watch the games appeared to be good value and did allow fans to stay in touch with the season, even if it’s nothing like being at the game. 

Some supporters freely admitted they enjoyed it more as it allowed the opportunity to see all games when they might previously have only attend a handful during a usual season.

Covering both audio & visual commentary at the same time was also something that required tolerance from fans, as it is not perfect plus there appeared to be the occasional technical issue.

Overall though, iFollow worked well during a very testing time for everyone.

These past 16 months have tested the mental health of everyone and football has been so important for us all to feel connected to ‘normality’ so we were very aware that Brentford’s success might have mean more to people than ever before. Match day routines changed for everyone. No drink with your mates before, maybe now it was sit around the laptop, or the whole family around the TV.

We were positive because I know everyone involved on commentary regularly felt this team would get promotion from quite a long way out. When the squad was struggling for rhythm and consistency I don’t feel it is unfair to say so. Following the draw at Wycombe we did say as much.

We knew fans were getting frustrated. It was fast approaching winter, with much fear & uncertainty away from football itself and message platforms were the only outlet to vent an opinion.

At most games supporters will use up emotional energy at the game but last season was so very different and you probably saw the best and worst of social media. We couldn’t cover the ‘Boro away game due to Covid issues and the local BBC team did a great job. Once Brentford took control they were full of praise for our Club. Unfortunately there was criticism on a phone in by several home fans post match who, rightly or wrongly, felt the commentators were too generous to the opposition.

We have always intended, as is very the Brentford way, to be respectful to the opposition but it is a Bees service so you are representing the fans. Often away fans will connect to the opposition service, presumably just to hear what is said about their team. After the Leeds game last season we had their fans writing on Twitter how nice it was to hear opposition commentary say they the best team we had played since Wolves, some extending this as the ‘fairest’ they had heard.

Giving an honest opinion, hopefully a fair one is all you can really do. Some will like it, others not.

We love the game because not everyone sees it the same way.

What was a real tonic throughout the season is getting some lovely messages from fans, something for which we are very grateful.

What do you think was our performance of the season?

There were some key ones for me.

The 3 points at Barnsley came in the middle of monthly wins in South Yorkshire and got our season going. Some robustness was starting to become clear.

We were excellent for a long time at Watford, showed great character to get a point in the end and the Bournemouth league win at home was probably the best of the season at Lionel Rd

The formation change at Preston was much needed at a difficult time, the 5-0 win against a normally solid side was flawless.

The Cherries feature heavily for me in the whole season, the win at The Vitality Stadium at the end of the season was another important 3 points. 

Jonathan Woodgate’s team were on a great run at the time with 7 (errr brackets) straight wins, scoring for fun and clearly believing they had timed it right, to entering the upcoming play offs with an air of invincibility. Brentford winning, with 10 men for nearly 50 mins, dealt a blow to Bournemouth from which they never truly recovered.

In the end there can though only be one game that had absolutely everything.

Football is about excitement and drama, none of which you truly experience without fans. We all wish there were more supporters in The Brentford Community Stadium, on 22nd May but in this wretched season 4,000 was a huge bonus. 

It was the day Lionel Road finally became our new home, rather fitting in a week that saw bulldozers doing their worst at the wonderful Griffin Park.

So much has been written about that play off win but there wasn’t a hint of panic when Bournemouth went 2-0 up in the tie, in rather strange circumstances. Brentford still believed, Thomas Frank believed. Lionel Rd still believed. Our fans believed. Bournemouth did not.

So it proved, as we witnessed a catastrophic decision making meltdown by the opposition whilst under pressure from a rampant Brentford team that refused to give up. After Chris Mepham’s red card there was an air of inevitability about the outcome, yet it remained wonderfully tense at the same time.

Forss strikes late and Lionel Road erupted.

Begovic goes up for a corner in time added on and we notice the M4 Elevated Section is at gridlock both ways. ’Everyone wants a piece of this game’ we said, as it did feel the whole world would have been engaged in this thriller.

The scenes at the end will never fade either.

It was a reminder just why you love football and  simply worship Brentford Football Club.

There can be only one for Mark

Ivan Toney is, understandably, in line for our player of the season. You’ve seen a lot of Brentford teams over the years, is he our best ever? And who else do you think deserves to make up the ‘top three’ at the end of season awards

Without doubt Ivan Toney is the best for me. Not just for his goals. Barry Fry said he was also Peterborough’s best defender and we’ve all seen why. The amount of times we have seen our striker heading away from an opposition set piece. ‘I get back and defend because I want to help the team, I want to win’ he said at Wembley.

That’s what we had witnessed all season. He was a little rusty at the start of the campaign but once up to speed you could see Ivan’s quality.

It was at Sheffield Wednesday in October that he showed us what an incredible touch he possesses, linking up play with the cutest of touches and headers to feet. That’s when I thought there wasn’t much missing from his game. He scores, he’s brave, he has the skills of a midfielder, he defends, he leads. Can play out wide too, just see the quality of his cross for Ghoddos’ goal in the win against Luton!

Ivan was substituted late against Rotherham in the away game, allowing Aaron Pressley to make his debut. Before leaving the pitch he urged all his players to stay focussed for the last few minutes to see out the win, one of the little things you notice at a game that make you realise what a special team player he is too.

One of the greatest leaders in a red & white shirt we have ever seen. Pure winner.

My second choice would be Vitaly Janelt. Half man, half robot. A signing I thought likely to be ‘one for the future’, like many no doubt. Following the injury to Christian Norgaard the timing of his introduction was perfect. A solid debut up at Hillsborough, then impressive in the win at Oakwell, followed up with scoring his first Brentford goal against QPR.

Then he just kept getting better.

At Cardiff he got scythed down twice but just got up and on with it. A man made of steel.

He scores big goals as well – none more than against Bournemouth in the play off second leg.

Editors note: There have been more than a few from Vitaly – although not all commentated on by Mark…. 😉

Third choice has to go to Sergi Canos.

The way he has come back after a tough start to the season and following a bad injury has been remarkable. Nothing but admiration for him and the flexibility to play wing back so effectively was vital in helping gain promotion. 9 goals for the season, including a hat trick at Cardiff, he has been a bright spark for us on & off the pitch.

Love his ‘We want more’ tweets after each win. Still only 24. Hard to believe.

Sergi got 3 out of 3 against Cardiff City

Over the years you’ve been alongside the likes of Greville Waterman, Luis Melville, Geoff Buckingham, and co, what do you think the current team bring to the commentary?

Diversity, knowledge, pragmatism, humility and a big understanding of all things Brentford, both past and present.

They have all been excellent plus Karleigh Osborne & Charlie MacDonald fantastic new additions.

We always say to ex players ‘just come in when you like, at any time, fans want to hear your views more’. Their opinions are vital to make it work on a match day.

Where do you thing Brentford will finish in the Premier League next season?

I’ll go for 15th in our first season in The Premier League. Bees will take some big scalps and also possibly have a few uncomfortable scoreline.

Lionel Rd will be an important advantage when near or at full capacity. The crowd can play a very big part, as always. It will be fascinating to see how new signings blend in, alongside the players we all believe will prove their quality at the top level.

One thing is for sure, Brentford will have no intention of being tourists.

Finally, just how special do you feel last season has been for everyone connected with Brentford Football Club?

It has been a truly remarkable achievement to gain promotion this past season.

The team had the shortest of breaks last summer before the new campaign got underway and had also lost two huge players in Watkins and Benrahma.

There was a somewhat inevitable hangover from last season and the squad were at a new stadium where there was little advantage as fans had never been experienced – it was never going to feel like ‘home’ under these circumstances. After the last game it most certainly will do!

We lost the fewest amount of games (joint with Norwich), were top scorers again, and went of an unbeaten run of 21 games, then ending with another one of 12. Considering the gruelling schedule, this says all about the quality & character of the players and management but also speaks volumes about some of those not in the spotlight, such as Neil Greig, head of medical, plus Chris Domoney (aka ‘Sladey’) who looks after the aching limbs and muscles so well, whilst his effervescent personality can be infectious for all around.

Take in the Carabao Cup run as well, where we reached the semi final (including a quick taster of VAR) then to go on to achieve the ultimate prize is unheard of at this level.

How often do you hear of knockout tournament runs derailing a promotion campaign? Not to Brentford though, who bucked the trend with a relatively small squad.

If you also factor in losing the talismanic Christian Norgaard for a big part of the season, as well as captain Pontus Jansson, then hitting the top of the table only to promptly lose two more big players in Rico Henry and Josh Dasilva, you start to realise a little bit more about the magnitude of this success, to still achieve promotion.

Off the pitch we also have our heroes. Such as Bees fans Jamie Powell & Billy Coleman, whom the Club and fans have supported through extremely difficult times.

This shows the strength and warmth of the Brentford family. We all need each other. Together we are stronger.

The fans groups, Bees United, Bias, the social media message boards. All have played their part in trying to keeping fans engaged. When automatic promotion slipped away there were many reasoned voices stating the case to stay positive, including this column, and it has been very much appreciated by many.

Jim Levack also wrote an informative article towards the end of the season after a timely conversation with a staff member following the Cardiff game.  It was a time for cool heads.

There were also so many confident fans who sparked calmer debate ahead of the season extension.  After all if you’ve supported the Bees for some time the mere thought of play offs make your head spin a little! Yet there were so many believers this time who probably helped others to keep the faith.

Next season will hopefully see crowds back and we can all enjoy football as we have been use to over the years. In The Premier League.

The Club is in good shape. Both on and off the pitch. It is run by people with understanding of others, true empathy, kindness and warmth. You will be treated as a supporter, not a customer.

Brentford is entering a new chapter, the brand is set to grow. Most of us never dreamed we would see our football club play in the top flight. Yet he we are. Awaiting the fixtures this Wednesday.

Bring on the fixtures…The Bees haven’t played Liverpool since the FA Cup in 1989

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