It is not very often that, as a Brentford fan, you witness a game which you can mark as an “I was there” occasion which will live long in your memory and club folklore. That has only a little to do with the undisputable fact that it is a club which has spent only one season higher than the third tier of English football in the past 59 years since being relegated in 1954.
The game on Tuesday night at Bramall Lane against Sheffield United easily fits this definition. I joked on twitter beforehand that if the game was as good as the drive over the Peak District in spring evening sunshine with the roof down it would be one to savour and so it turned out! As a game between us in third place in League 1 and opponents in fifth place with only another couple of games left to play in the regular season afterwards, it was poised to be important for both clubs. However, too many times in the past, such situations have proven to be anti-climactic. Often, there has been a fatalism before the game or once behind in it, amongst much of the crowd that “it’s Brentford, innit?” and an expectation that somehow we will conspire to underperform, be exposed for our limitations after the hubris of approaching success even in our limited terms or be penalised for some freakish reason.
Not this time. Many reports have already been written and the game was so eventful that I couldn’t capture it any more vividly than the collective responses on the messageboards. However, any game with four penalties (two missed), three sendings off, four goals, ten minutes of stoppage time and a last minute equaliser is always going to be thrillingly eventful. That it wasn’t a particularly dirty game (the egregious Dave Kitson aside, whose “performance” has added him to the pantheon of hate figures alongside Gary Owers, Jamie Cureton and Martin Rowlands) but still yielded so many booking and sendings off only scratches at the surface of how appalling the referee Keith Stroud was. That both sets of fans were united in generously rating him at 0/10 also tells its own tale. That the game managed to be utterly riveting despite Mr Stroud’s best efforts only emphasises how fantastic an occasion it was.
It was a live display of Brentford’s irresistable forces meeting Sheffield United’s immoveable objects. Two completely contrasting styles of play and two teams performing at the limits of their abilities.
I wrote early last season after our fixture at Bramall Lane when we were comfortably beaten of small signs of optimism about how the then newly installed Brentford manager, Uwe Rosler, was going about building a team and a style of football. Tuesday night’s game showed how far we have come down that path. Whereas last season the players were tentatively learning to play a passing game and to combine it with being incisive and attacking now we see how this has come to fruition. Last time at Sheffield United, we looked lightweight. This time, despite having an average age of under 23 for the starting eleven and a group of relatively small players, the team made Sheffield United look agricultural, heavy and limited. Even better, after the heroics the previous weekend of scoring two goals in 90 seconds to turn a 2-1 defeat into a 3-2 win against Portsmouth, the players showed the determination and strength of character to react to being reduced to 9 men while 2-1 down against 10 in the best way. Even after Saunders missed a penalty which would have brought the score to 2-2, the players continued to press decisively (rather than merely optimistically) for an equaliser. 19 year old Jake Reeves, who had looked a little boy lost in the same fixture the previous season marshalled midfield and was all set to push the team forward to grab a winner in the 6 minutes of time added on in the second half.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of all of this was the attitude of the fans. Instead of the fatalism that going behind (particularly to a goal from a player, Kitson, who ought to have been sent off much earlier) would normally induce, everyone around me seemed to believe that an equaliser would come even after missing the second penalty. There were a couple of murmurs of discontent about Bradley Wright-Phillips’ work rate and attitude as he seemed to drift around disinterestedly but these were dispelled when he spotted a gap between two of the Blades’ statuesque defenders and their otherwise excellent keeper who was rooted to the ground as BWP scored the equaliser. It was a neatly placed shot which seemed to move in perfect slow motion without it ever being in any doubt that it would gently snuggle up to the back of the net. I’m sure I was cheering before it crossed the line.
Mention must also be made of Clayton Donaldson. Last season he received criticism for not seeming to have lived up to fans’ expectations after having scored 28 goals in League 2 for Crewe the previous season. Even for large parts of this season he has been criticised for not seeming to be able to score “easy” chances that you would expect a striker to put away. Curiously, this criticism has come even while he has sat near the top of the division’s goal-scoring chart throughout and having done so while most often playing out wide. On Tuesday night he utterly terrorised Sheffield United’s defenders, making them look even larger and slower than they really were. Not only this, but he played exceptionally deep in his own half for much of the game, often starting from alongside the Brentford penalty area or even after having tracked a player back to the Brentford goal-line. Another one of him on the other wing and we’d be almost unplayable. Perhaps next season we might do if Stuart Dallas can develop as well as Donaldson has, as was hinted at in the otherwise depressing game at Carlisle. It seems weird to think that that “typical” Brentford disappointment of a game was barely a month ago.
So, two games to go and I’m both optimistic that we can get the two wins which would guarantee automatic promotion and if we miss out, have a team with the spirit, energy and quality to give us a good chance of breaking our play-off hoodoo (although I still wouldn’t want to meet Yeovil in the play-offs as they seem to have the key to beating us at will). I won’t be at the away game at Hartlepool, which may well be tricky despite the opposition having already been relegated and having a top scorer who has only netted five times all season. I hope that the team can go and get the win there that they are capable of so as to make the final game at home against Doncaster at least as memorable as Tuesday’s performance in Sheffield. At the very least, unlike the similar game in 2002, when we needed a win at home against Reading to take automatic promotion, were Doncaster to take the lead or equalise against us, the team and fans will still believe we can win. I hope. At the very least I won’t have a job interview the next day at which I have to apologise for having a somewhat croaky voice!