Praying for a football team

Peter Crumpler on a nostalgia tour at Griffin Park

Thousands of pilgrims have been descending on a west London place of worship as it prepares to close after 116 years of playing a vital role in its local community.

But this is not a cathedral, church, synagogue, mosque or temple. It's a football ground where Brentford FC have played soccer in front of generations of loyal fans.

I paid my final respects to the much-loved venue when I visited Griffin Park last month. Yet, as an Anglican priest who grew up in this part of London and a Bees fan for half a century, I felt there was something missing. And it was more than the supporters.

It was back in early March that the ground was last packed with cheering fans. We saw the home side beat Sheffield Wednesday 5-0 in a thrilling match just days before sports grounds were shut because of Covid-19.

Matches were resumed in June behind closed doors, and the last competitive league fixture was played at Griffin Park on July 29 - a 3-1 victory over Swansea that earned Brentford a place in the Championship play-off final at Wembley.

Sadly, for Brentford fans, their team was beaten by rival west London side, Fulham, for a place in the lucrative Premier League.

This month, the club invited season ticketholders to make a final tour of the historic ground before it is demolished for new housing, and the club moves to a new purpose-built stadium about a mile away.

As I toured the ground with a small group of dedicated fans, I felt the silence hang heavy. The buzz of a matchday was a distant memory. The atmosphere was solemn, respectful, like mourning for a friend.

If this were a funeral, we would be committing the loved one into God's care. We would be sharing in our mourning, comforting each other. Saying familiar words of liturgy.

Instead, we were taking photos and swapping memories of the ground. Sharing stories of our years of supporting the club through success and heroic failure.

People talk about football being a religion, and it certainly plays a massive role in many people's lives, and in popular culture.

Like faith, it forms an important part in knitting generations together. Grandparents, parents and children, and lifelong friends are bound together by a deep enthusiasm for their team.

Many churches would covet the passion and commitment that football supporters commit to their club – and the diversity of their teams and fan bases is a challenge to many places of worship.

At the beginning of this momentous season, I wrote an article looking ahead to the end of Griffin Park. I described the historic ground as 'sacred space.'

In April, at the peak of lockdown, I wrote a Prayer for Brentford FC. Fans' networks shared it on social media and the reaction I received was deeply moving. I share it again now in the hope that it will resonate with sports fans everywhere:

Dear God, who kicked the universe into being,

We thank you for Brentford FC and all it means to so many.

We give thanks for the people who introduced us to the Club,

especially those now watching from a distant terrace.

We give thanks for the people we go to matches with now,

And look forward to being with them again.

We pray for the future

For the club to survive and thrive.

For a fitting farewell to Griffin Park,

And for the new stadium to be finished in time.

But above all and beyond football,

we stay home to support the NHS,

and applaud the frontline workers.

And look forward to every Brentford fan

being safely back together again,

Cheering Come on You Bees. Amen.

Rev Peter Crumpler is a Church of England priest in St Albans, Hertfordshire, and a former communications director for the Church of England.