What is it about being a football fan that makes you veer from blind optimism to the darkest pessimism? It isn’t even hard to hold both positions almost simultaneously as the chants of “Super [insert team name] Super [team] FC, By Far the Greatest Team the World has ever seen” tend to come equally if not more often when the team is doing badly and facing relegation than when they’re about to pull off an easy victory. Indeed, it is probably easier to do this than to be purely positive, at least for me – the ironic (-ish) “We are the Barcelona of the lower leagues” song that Brentford fans have been singing for a few seasons makes me feel uneasy, even when it is during a success like winning the League 2 title at Darlington.
There are few teams whose fans generally avoid this strange split personality. Manchester United, because it has been so long since they have done anything other than very well that there is rarely cause for pessimism, particularly since the more Henny Penny of their fans went off to form FC United in the expectation that the sky would fall in after the takover by the Glazers. Arsenal too- again because they have widespread trust in the way that Arsene Wenger manages them.
In the lower leagues, Rochdale’s fans have this, although more in terms of the eternal resigned pessimism which allowed them to enjoy their almost unheard of promotion to League 1 a couple of seasons ago without this season’s struggle against relegation back home being overly depressing. Pretty much every other team has been too inconsistent either in recent time or in the context of its historic position (I’m looking at you here, Liverpool) to have achieved this sort of equilibrium. Even in the context of Leagues 1 and 2, clubs which have tasted promotion and relegation between them, perhaps with a stint in the Championship (and in Charlton, Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United, Bradford and Swindon’s cases, the Premier League) it is easy for fans to think that they are not at the right level.
Along with most others, I’d written off Brentford’s season a month or more ago. Losing to Colchester, Yeovil, Sheffield United, Orient and Bournemouth in little over a month meant that surely there was little left to do other than to pick up just enough points in the remaining ten games to avoid a relegation scrap. Selling our leading scorer, Gary Alexander, during that period did nothing to dispel that gloom. Pessimism? No, more like realism. Of course, this didn’t stop me having idle daydreams with the league table and thinking “well, if we just put together a good run of wins and stay unbeaten to the end of the season, we could, in theory, sneak into the play offs”. But it wasn’t serious, just daydreaming.
Then, suddenly, the team somehow put together a sequence of wins against Rochdale, Preston, Milton Keynes, Oldham and Bury. Tomorrow, it faces Notts County at home with the prospect that a win could propel it into sixth place, the final play-off place, with a real chance of staying there. I won’t be able to make it to that game, but have been wondering whether to set my sights on the last game of the season away at Chesterfield where, if things continue as they have, we could well secure a place in the play-offs.
The optimist in me also thinks that this might be our best ever chance in the play-offs. Brentford is notoriously bad at the play-offs, perhaps as a continued punishment for their introduction having been so vigorously supported by a former chairman, Martin Lange. The team has never won a play off final, having been soundly beaten by Crewe in 1997 and Stoke in 2002 and lost in the semi-finals four other times. Two of the six attempts at the play-offs were always doomed as Martin Allen had squeezed the very last drops of performance out of squads of somewhat limited talent just to get there and they players had nothing left to give to go up a level. In each of the other instances the play-offs were reached by a deflated team that had been challenging strongly for automatic promotion and had just fallen short at the end of the season to be beaten by teams on the up.
This time, if we were to make it, we’d be the team on the up. The other three spots are likely to be taken up by one of the Sheffield clubs, Huddersfield and Milton Keynes. Whichever of the Sheffield clubs is in the play-offs is likely to feel just as deflated as we did in 2002, possibly more so as the expectation amongst the fans at such large and formerly successful clubs is always to get promoted out of League 1 quickly. Huddersfield has somehow run out of steam – sacking Lee Clarke as manager while they were in the play-off spots and just after the end of their longest unbeaten run in history suggests that they had plateaued but that the expectation is that they ought to be doing better. We’ve already seen that Milton Keynes are nothing special.
So why is it that I don’t really believe that any of this will come off? That, even if securing a play-off spot in our last game is only dependent on getting a draw against a Chesterfield team that will almost certainly already have been relegated we will somehow contrive to lose? Is it just that “it’s Brentford, innit?”. Or is it that part of the fun and disappointment of following most teams is that we are “Schrodinger’s Fans“, co-existing in a state of both optimism and pessimism until the box containing the final result is opened?