Not with a bang: Middlesbrough v Brentford

Brentford scraped into the Championship play-offs on the last day of the season and entered them with few expectations. After losing narrowly 2-1 in the home leg at Griffin Park, the away fixture was always going to be a tough one for the club to get through to progress to the final at Wembley, particularly having already lost 4-0 at the Riverside Stadium earlier in the season. However, for the first time since perhaps Brentford’s first ever appearance in the play-offs (before my time!) the general feeling was that these were bonus games which would be brilliant to get through, but no problem if we didn’t. All but one of the 21 seasons I’ve supported the club have involved hoping that we might make it into the Championship so getting upset about not getting promoted from it in our first season would be a bit churlish. All it would take is a bit of belief…

 Unfortunately, as the photo of Middlesbrough’s North Stand before kick off shows, the belief was mainly in the home team! Early in the season, Brentford manager, Mark Warburton, was asked whether he had a Plan B and replied that it was to do Plan A better. At the time, this seemed like an admirable commitment to the stylish and attacking, short passing football that had taken the Bees to automatic promotion from League 1 and into a serious, and to most outside observers, unexpected challenge at the top of the Championship. But, particularly after the disagreements between Warburton and owner Matthew Benham over strengthening the squad in the January transfer window and the role of the manager more generally, it has in the final third of the season seemed to be also an admission of a lack of flexibility and resilience when even a well-executed Plan A was not working.

And so it turned out. The Bees’ line up looked very familiar with no surprises from the usual starting XI. The aim appeared to have been to have avoided conceding early and to hope to go ahead so as to level the tie. The team did manage to see out the first quarter of an hour without any real scares but in this time we also saw Middlesbrough’s game plan – they didn’t need to overcommit recklessly in going forward as they had a lead and they knew from the three previous games against us in the season to deny our flair players space and time. This apparently had turned into heavy aggression in the first leg (which I didn’t see) and Boro were unafraid of committing fouls in midfield in the opening exchanges of the second leg. Things might have been different had the referee seen fit to make an early booking, but instead he preferred to keep the game moving and in this the Bees themselves were perhaps complicit – it looked like the referee was about to have his “last one I’m letting go” chat with Tomlin after his third foul but before he could, the Bees had taken the free kick quickly and play had moved on, giving him another foul before getting his talking to. However, the reality is that while annoying, the fouls were not malicious or dangerous and there was generally an attempt to take the ball in each case, albeit somewhat recklessly as to whether failing would lead to a free kick in a non-threatening area near the right touchline half way in the Brentford half.

Shortly after that period, Middlesbrough took the lead through Tomlin with a well struck shot from just outside the penalty area which took a small but insignificant deflection – it was probably going to beat Button either way even though he got close. With a two goal deficit to reverse the game became harder and the need to push up greater. However, despite a few flashes of skill and tenacity from Jota and Pritchard, there were few chances. Gray perhaps could have done better with an effort from close range. But, few Bees could have had serious complaints when Boro scored their second goal early in the second half to effectively end the game as a contest.

Finally we saw some changes to the team, but the replacement of Jota and Bidwell by Toral and Dallas was not particularly innovative (although Dallas is an attacking player he has also filled in for Bidwell earlier in the season) and didn’t really change things. The final change of Long on for Diagouraga did involve a switch to playing two attackers, although it would probably have made more sense to have removed the seemingly undroppable Douglas instead. Diagouraga has been a revelation this season after only a year ago having been sent out on loan to Portsmouth in League 2 and looking like he wouldn’t be good enough for the Championship. He has instead been perhaps the most consistently strong performer in the team and had played decently well, even if not up to the standard of the Middlesbrough central midfield partnership. Long showed again that he has that striker’s instinct and single-minded aim of going for goal, but with 20 minutes to get three goals to keep the tie alive, it was surely Roy of the Rovers-style fantasy to expect much from a 20 year old who has barely played more than a couple of dozen league games in his career. Particularly when he hadn’t even been given any time on the pitch in the last couple of games since returning from mysterious injuries which hadn’t been sufficiently serious to rule him out of playing for Everton’s U21 team.

To the team’s credit, they did keep on plugging away fruitlessly, and so it was also not unexpected when Boro’s Adomah scored their third and final goal. The reaction to each of the goals from the home fans was incredibly loud in a near capacity 33k crowd. It was probably the loudest match I’ve been to, even surpassing the noise made by Stoke fans when they scored against us in the 2002 League 1 final in Cardiff.

So, that was it, another season over. It has been a great one to follow. The team is likely to look rather different next season, but, as with each of the previous ones since Matthew Benham bought the club, that will inevitably be because good new players have come, rather than because the stars of one good season have been “stolen” from us by bigger clubs for derisory transfer fees. Rumours have it that next season’s budget will be several times higher than this season’s and the statistically-based player acquisition model that unearthed unexpected gems like Jota give confidence that we could well improve even beyond the fantasy-land of this season. As a signal of intent on this front, the club has announced the appointment of joint Directors of Football for next season – one being Rasmus Ankerssen, the Executive Chairman of the other club owned by Benham (FCM of Denmark who have just won the Danish league and will be in qualifying for the Champions League next season after applying that statistical model to an unfashionable small town club) and the other a PhD statistician from Benham’s sports odds business.

In any case, it is unlikely that we’ll get Pritchard back from Tottenham who might be tempted to ease him towards a first team place or loan him out to another Premier League team. It has been a real treat to see players of the skill of Pritchard and Jota, particularly for those of us who remember the honest but over the hill cloggers under Micky Adams in 97-98 or the procession of dire fare under Wally Downes after the dismantling of the 01-02 squad. But, in any case, it is nice to end a season feeling positive even where we haven’t won anything.

As for Middlesbrough, I hope they do manage to get past Norwich in the play off final (sorry Jason), not least because, like Yeovil a couple of seasons ago, they were one of the few teams to have thoroughly worked us out (a 10-1 aggregate over four games speaks for itself!) so it would be good to avoid them next season. While at times their physicality was difficult to take, there was also no lack of skill and they look like they could, if they buy sensibly, perform well in the Premier League. They aren’t likely to be like QPR anyway!

    Of course, after all that general positivity in defeat it was absolutely lovely to find someone had crashed into my car while it was parked up during the match. Although to be fair, she did leave a very nice and apologetic note.

Too Shy Shy

I didn’t write much about the General Election campaign beyond a comment on Labour’s Zero Hours Contracts proposals. I’d felt for a long while that somehow, despite Ed Miliband’s oddness he was probably going to hobble somehow into Number 10 and that if he did, he’d probably be weak enough not to do anything too radical or harmful – most of his policy announcements or statements of general philosophy were pretty vapid and consisted of criticising the effects of market based policies but only replacing them with a temporary fix to hit a particular failing rather than to strike at the cause of that failing (eg by fixing energy prices- hastily amended to read retrospectively as capping them when in fact they fell regardless of intervention and those who’d fixed their rates ended up paying more than those who stayed on variable tariffs).

Since the surprise result last week of a clear Tory majority there has been a lot of speculation about what went wrong. Why did the polls stay level pegging even up to the eve of the election? Innumerable Labour MPs and pundits suddenly announcing that they knew their campaign and leader were duds all along (which struck me as deeply unfair – if they thought that, why not do something about it rather than let poor Ed, an obviously decent man, carry the can before circling to fight over the remains?).

The most interesting line has been about the phenomenon of the “Shy Tory” to explain why there were many more Conservative votes in fact than would have been predicted by the opinion polls. The first General Election I could vote in was in 1992 where the Shy Tory first came into view. I’d been a rather lackadaisical student Tory activist and my recollection is that nobody even in the student Conservative Association thought Major had much chance (perhaps skewed by fruitlessly trudging the streets of safely Labour Oxford East, perhaps because the Association’s membership included more right wing luminaries like Mark Reckless) so the overall result was a surprise.

The day before the election, on my train home from London I had the chance to read an interesting (if very long!) statistical analysis of opinion polling for the last 50 years of elections compared with the actual votes. I recommend reading it if you have time. The striking conclusion that it came to was that in 10 of the previous 12 elections, the opinions had understated the Tory vote share (now 11 of the past 13). It doesn’t go into the psychological or political reasons why this might be the case in any detail but rather looks at the methodology of polling (which was changed after 1992 because of how wrong it had got that result). Most strikingly of all, on its final page it suggests a Tory lead of 6 points for 2015, which is pretty much spot on. After reading it I was tempted, in the face of everything else coming out of the media, to put a bet on a Tory majority (which would have stymied it!).

From a personal perspective I can well see that there may be a Shy Tory effect. Those who read this blog regularly or know me well in real life (and in some cases describe it/me as rabidly right wing- though I’d prefer to think I’m at least reasonably measured and rational about it!) will not perhaps see me as particularly shy. However, I tend not to talk politics much with people I don’t already know well. At least not on a party basis. Curiously, I’ve found that often if you just talk about particular things that are happening or could be done, the discussion is more interesting and friendly. Until the point at which it transpires that what you’ve just said is Tory policy. Whereupon it gets taken down for being a sham or a front for some corporate conspiracy theory or a misdirection away from something else. Which makes further discussion redundant.

I was rather mortified last week when Mrs B told me she’d told the mum of one of OMB’s school friends, who I get on with well and who is also a local Labour councillor, that I’m a Tory member (fortunately she didn’t seem to hold it against me!). Even good friends of mine will accept it only generally in the context of it being an eccentricity that years of friendship makes just about tolerable. Memorably after the 2010 election one friend said she’d assumed I was a LibDem as it was as right wing as would fit with her idea of people she’d spend time with. So, I didn’t join with the rest of my facebook timeline in bombarding everyone with political messages (largely Labour, some Green) ahead of the election or indeed gloating about the result afterwards. It just isn’t worth the bother.

I think the phenomenon of Shy Tories will continue to exist until either there is an acceptance that not everything (or even most things) which might be proposed by the Tories are by definition evil or uncaring, or when many of those things are accepted and proposed by others so that you can support them without having to mention or be one of the Tories (the Blair effect). The reality is possibly that at least some Tories aren’t so much shy as just more introverted than those who want to shout their moral crusades on marches and placards, sound off on social media campaigns or to dominate a dinner party or pub night by chivvying everyone up to agree with them. We can find the campaigns run by The Sun and the Daily Mail to be cringeworthy without having to support those they are aimed against or be drawn into defending them and their proprietors.

Super Saturday – The End of the Beginning?

I set off yesterday for the last regular game of Brentford’s first season in the Championship with only the faintest glimmer of hope that the team could qualify for the play-offs. The permutations and combinations of results needed were only a little shy of the complexities of the current General Election campaign. Indeed, meeting fellow Bee, Ben on the train from Leeds at the unearthly hour of 0745 (he’d got on at Skipton at 0700 and had judiciously resisted the temptation to start on the fine ales he’d brought us for the trip until after we’d breakfasted!) we found ourselves spending much longer talking about the election than we did in assessing Brentford’s chances. While getting a win against already relegated Wigan wasn’t too difficult a proposition, the need for either of Ipswich or Derby to lose and for Wolves not to beat also relegated Millwall too heavily in addition to our winning meant that a top 6 finish was only partially in our hands.

After getting across London to Brentford and stopping off for a “quick sharpener” in The Globe, we made our way to a packed out Ealing Road stand. The last time I’d stood in the uncovered corner of the stand was on the fateful day two years previously against Doncaster. The less said about that day the better. Even before we’d found a space to stand, news started filtering through that Ipswich had taken the lead away at Blackburn. So before a ball had been kicked at Griffin Park, it looked like we were relying on Derby to lose against Reading. Reading who we had comfortably beaten the week before and who had lost four games in a row as their league form crumbled compared to their heroics in their FA Cup Semi Final against Arsenal at Wembley. Reading, whose principal contribution to Brentford promotion efforts had been to score a late equaliser 13 years ago to deny us automatic promotion and ultimately to defeat against Stoke at the Milennium Stadium, Cardiff.

Wigan put out a reasonably strong team and a collective sigh of relief went round the ground as Pritchard’s well struck free kick took a deflection before looping past their despairing keeper to give the Bees the lead. After defensive errors stemming from playing too intricately out from the back had resulted in points being dropped against Derby and Bolton in recent weeks it was good to see Button being keener to make long clearances (still aiming at our players) rather than always passing short to a defender. It was unsurprising after the match to find that unlike most games we’ve played, Wigan actually had more possession and completed more passes than the Bees. As the game wore on, miraculously all the permutations for once clicked into our favour. Reading scored, Derby missed a penalty on the stroke of half time and then conceded two more in the second half to lose 3-0 and plummet to 8th spot. Blackburn turned their early conceded goal into a 3-1 lead and held on to win 3-2 against Ipswich (whose fans, if they’d travelled from Suffolk on one of the official supporters’ coaches had endured a 3am start to get to the 12.15 kick offs). Wolves scored 4 at home against Millwall, but also conceded 2 (to think, if we’d only beaten them 1-0 rather than 4-0 earlier in the season they’d have finished above us on goal difference). After Jota delicately placed the ball in Wigan’s net shortly after the beginning of the second half and Gray scored from a neat pass from that man Jota we were even comfortable enough to not mind Tarkowski’s last minute tamely struck penalty being saved. That aside, the team played fluently and attractively without needing to add particular urgency or recklessness.

Quite rightly, club stalwart, Peter Gilham announced that the man of the match award would go to the whole team.

  So, now for the Championship play-offs next week starting at home against Middlesbrough. They dished out our heaviest defeat, 4-0 in the away fixture earlier in the season and were fortunate to win 1-0 at Griffin Park a couple of months ago. Having the meanest defence in the division as well as some excellent strikers, in particular Bamford on loan from Chelsea, they will be a tough proposition. But, curiously given our dreadful play-off record, it seems more than mere whistling in the wind to remember that we’ve never lost in the Championship play-offs. If we play well we know now that we can perform well against any team in the division and arriving somewhat unexpectedly in 5th spot the pressure is likely to be greater for all the other 3 teams in what must be the world’s most lucrative mini-competition. Middlesbrough and Norwich will both be likely to feel slightly deflated by having missed out on automatic promotion. Ipswich, having qualified in 6th after the scare of defeat to Blackburn may also have some seeds of doubt in their minds, particularly given the likely frenetic atmosphere of two legs against their local rivals, Norwich.

While our recent form since the fateful news about manager Mark Warburton leaving at the end of the season regardless of whether we win promotion has been patchy compared to earlier in the season, by nevertheless battling to the end to get into the play-offs with the small and tightly knit squad that he gambled on when the opportunity to address our lack of forward options and the frailties in central defence which most recently were exploited by Derby and Bolton was rejected we can’t be dismissed. As some have pointed out, Derby did use January’s transfer window to add quality players to their squad and look where they are now! Clearly in their case, although Darren Bent has scored a lot for them (and missed yesterday’s fateful penalty), it seems that it was at the cost of Derby changing its style of play to accommodate long balls into him, thereby abandoning the qualities they had which had given them three different spells at the top of the division. We will never know whether the options Matthew Benham presented to Warburton in January would have failed like that or complemented the squad in the way that say, Kenwyne Jones’s loan to Bournemouth did in helping them to winning the title. While most Bees fans who have digested the news of Warburton’s departure and the reasons for it so that “in Benham we trust”, the reality for the next fortnight is that we will need to trust in Warburton and the squad we have. They’ve earned their right to be still vying for promotion. They may not all still be here next season, but as long as they don’t go to QPR or Fulham, their contribution to the new Brentford, which has travelled so far from its early days of JPT Trophy Final defeat (again) against Carlisle, through to today, should never be forgotten or underestimated. I just hope that Andre Gray keeps scoring to shut up again the whingers stood behind me yesterday who called for him to be substituted and dropped for being “lazy and useless”. And perhaps that Chris Long, on loan from Everton, recovers from his numerous mysterious injuries to be an option off the bench, rather than us needing to rely on Harlee Dean going up top again. Even if he is the only Brentford player to have scored in a play-off final!

  

Could we really steal Bournemouth’s thunder by becoming the second tinpot outfit to compete in next season’s Premier League? Anything can happen. It used to be we could shrug off every indignity and failure with a “it’s Brentford innit?”. But, with the stars aligning for us yesterday, QPR heading for relegation, Fulham beaten twice in the league and drifting, not to mention Yeovil subsiding without much of a struggle back to League 2, why not? And if we don’t, next season promises even more. And that is something I’m still not accustomed to thinking even though we’ve now had 5 years of steady and significant improvement.