‘It’s surreal’: meet a Brentford fan who saw them in the top flight 74 years ago

Derek Burridge returns to his garden table clutching a glossy hardback, published to commemorate Brentford’s 125th anniversary seven years ago and begins to flick through its pages, evoking golden memories of first going to games at Griffin Park during the second world war. He tells how a trio of players, signed from Middlesbrough for a pittance in the 1930s, transformed the club, but the match that sticks out in his mind is Brentford’s 4-1 trouncing of Wolves in 1946-47, their last season in the top flight.

Brentford’s final game that season was a narrow home defeat by Arsenal and, rather fittingly, they host the same opponents when they kick off the Premier League season under the lights on Friday. Just as he was 74 years ago, Burridge will be looking on from the stands. Such perfect symmetry is down to the fixture generator but there is another quirk, too: Burridge grew up at No 69 Lionel Road, at the other end of the street from Brentford’s striking new home, and his mother lived there until she died in 2006.

In the minutes before Brentford celebrated promotion at Wembley in May, the television cameras picked out Burridge, one of two supporters present who also attended the Arsenal game in 1947. “We had [Joe] Crozier, a Scottish goalkeeper, and lots of other household names. Dai Hopkins … that was my real era, my time,” says Burridge, 88. “We have had a lot of good players. Leslie Smith, an England forward. Stan Bowles. A lot of them came down to us in the evening of their careers. But now we are totally different.”

He radiates the same fervour and fondness whether talking about another of his heroes, the 1960s star Johnny Brooks, or Saïd Benrahma, his all-time favourite player – “He could create and make things out of nothing … and make defenders look silly as well” – or being reminded that the midfielder Josh Dasilva will miss the start of the season because of a hip injury. “When Brentford lose, it ruins my weekend,” he says. “I’m lifted because of what we’ve done and I think it is thoroughly deserved. It still feels very surreal.”

It is difficult to envisage Ivan Toney or his Brentford teammates getting public transport to the game on Fridaybut Burridge, who started going to matches as a 10‑year‑old, recalls a different era. “In those days no cars were allowed for private people so all of the players had to go on the underground to get to South Ealing Road and they would have to catch the bus to then get to the ground. As a kid, after the match I went back out on the bus to get a few autographs. They didn’t have much of a choice because they wanted to get back to South Ealing station. It was a good thing for me,” he says, laughing.

On a blistering summer’s afternoon in Surrey he, together with his son Mark, talks through the highs and lows of following Brentford down the years: losing at home to Morecambe in League Two in 2007; watching Marcello Trotta’s stoppage-time penalty smack the crossbar before Doncaster went up the other end to clinch promotion from League One at Brentford’s expense in 2013; the agony on Frank McLintock’s face after losing the Freight Rover Trophy final to Wigan in 1985; beating Millwall 3-2 after trailing 2-0 with six minutes of normal time to play a couple of years ago; and a 6-4 victory over York City in 1970. “Bloody hell, yes,” Derek says, reliving that thriller in his mind.

But the comeback victory over Bournemouth in the play-off semi-final last season, he says, eclipses everything. “Toney is not a bad penalty taker,” he says, before mimicking the striker rolling the ball in from 12 yards. “You think: ‘Argghh,’ and then: ‘Aaaah.’ We can’t believe how cool he is. In my eyes, that was the best game. I got more pleasure out of that than anything. The emotion, the tension of being 1-0 down [in the first leg] and then going 1-0 down again with 4,000 fans there. We could’ve gone backwards once we gave that goal away but we didn’t panic. The sound was incredible.”

On Burridge’s living-room wall is a framed montage of pictures from his days as England’s top-ranked table‑tennis player and he tells how “Range” Cartmell, formerly Brentford’s lead trainer, would help keep him moving. “If I ever got a little twitch in the back or anything like that, I would go and see him and he would treat me accordingly. He used to hold an old electro thing in one hand and then massage you with the other. Later in my career, Eddie Lyons would come over and do something. ‘Magic hands,’” he says, smiling.

Has it always been Brentford? “Only,” Burridge replies. “I don’t see how you can have two clubs. Not properly, anyway. I’m very much a one-club person. But I’ve enjoyed it; that’s what you do. If you support a club, you support them. It’s part of your life. It’s not: ‘Oh, I’m not going to support them any more because they lose too many matches.’ It was one of the highlights of my life … and it is still is the highlight of my life,” he says with great warmth.

After 90 minutes reflecting on 78 years as a Brentford supporter, it is prediction time. Where will Thomas Frank’s side rank come the end of the season? “I would think … where do we think they’re going to finish?” he says, patting Sandy, a retired greyhound whose race name was Comeonyoubees and who is looked after by Mark, also a Brentford fanatic. “I think halfway down the table. I think we will hold our own. I’m really looking forward to it.”