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.