This is a story about soccer (football without hands). But note: This is not a football story.
I first heard about the Brentford Bees at a business dinner in 2003. It was the same night in which I met Monty, a master raconteur who spent the evening entertaining us with stories about his sad-sack, lower division English football team. He recounted tale after tale about how his Bees sustained long periods of incompetence with occasional flashes of pretty-goodness—just enough success to create twinges of hope in the hearts of loyal fans, followed by the inevitable, almost unthinkable pratfall that would remind everyone of the true essence of Brentford. I was not much of a soccer fan at the time, but I found the Bees’ ineptitude irresistible. That very night I decided that Brentford would be my team.
Over the next several years, Monty had to teach me about promotion and relegation, why at the end of every season we seemed to sell off our best players and start over, how it was that we played in League Two which is actually the fourth division of English Football. (You understood that right: My Bees weren’t second-rate; they were fourth-rate.) I learned that Brentford supporters even have a saying—“It’s Brentford, innit?”—a shared bit of understanding that eventually, no matter how much you love them, the Bees will break your heart.
Allow me to illustrate: In the final seconds of the final game of 2013 (against Doncaster Rovers), the Bees had a chance to win the game and the league by converting a last-minute penalty kick. Alas, the ball hit the crossbar and bounced away, and in the scramble that followed Doncaster took the ball to the other end and scored as time expired. Thus the Bees turned near-certain victory into heartbreaking defeat—precisely the sort of thing you should expect if you are going to root for Brentford.
Fast forward to 2019/20. With the help of new ownership and better coaching, the Bees had climbed all the way into the second division (known as the Championship in order to maximize confusion). A victory in either of their last two games would have meant automatic promotion to the Premier League, considered the greatest league in all of football. (By now you should know where this is going.) Of course (of course!), the Bees lost both games and the playoff that followed—their ninth playoff failure in as many tries. Then, within weeks, we sold off our two best players, because, well, it’s Brentford, innit?
Given that fire sale, the 2020/21 season promised more of the same disappointment. A shorter off-season and a condensed schedule resulted in numerous injuries, forcing Brentford to scrap their way through the season with makeshift lineups. In spite of all of that, somehow the Bees pieced together two long unbeaten streaks, even rising briefly to the top of the league table. A late-season dip left us in third place, facing yet another playoff to try to secure promotion to the Premier League. Facing a two-goal deficit in the semi-finals, the Bees mounted an unimaginable comeback, scoring the winning goal with just minutes to play. The following week, Brentford did what their unwavering fans could only have dreamed of, beating Swansea 2-0 in the playoff final to earn their first-ever place in the Premiership. Fans wept openly, not quite believing what had happened to their beloved Bees. After decades of suffering, their faith in the team had finally been rewarded.
But like I said, this is not a football story.
The way I see it, we’re not so different from the Brentford Bees, you and I. We too are full of aspirations and good intentions, but too often our execution falls short. We try (for the most part), but on too many occasions we fail to perform at our best. Carelessness, bad habits, self-destructive behavior—they all get in the way. Repeatedly. As a result, we disappoint those we care about the most. Sometimes we even break their hearts. And yet through all of this fall-shortedness, those who love us never quite give up hope. They may not always like us, but having seen us (on occasion) at our best, they know what’s possible and cling to the notion that our Best Self could become our True Self—if only. Perhaps this time, or next time, or soon, at any rate, we will put it all together, rise above our weaknesses and become who we were meant to be.
This story about football is for all of us who break promises we cannot seem to keep, no matter how hard we try. And it’s also for all of those who believe in us in spite of all the disappointment, who hang with us through failure after failure, who continue to hope against all reason that eventually we will get it right. It’s about the kind of love and commitment that does not waver even though we do. Above all, it’s a reminder that, no matter on which side of disappointment you may find yourself, you should never give up hope that someday your day will come.
Photo: Getty Images