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.