3,2,1,0 – Northern Disappointments

Once again we are reaching the final stages of a season and once again, Brentford entered them in positive form. Two seasons ago we were just outside the play-offs but with some winnable games ahead, which, alas, we failed to win. Last season, well, probably best not to go there again after the drama of the final seconds of the final match of the season and the seemingly inevitable play-off final defeat. Just over a week ago we were lying in second place within striking distance of Wolves and with a 3 point cushion above Orient with the rest of the pack seemingly too far back for the race to automatic promotion to be anything other than a contest between us and those two other teams. Then came a string of three northern away games in 8 days, first at Rotherham, followed by Oldham and Sheffield United.

Now, after those 3 games, we have had 2 draws, one defeat and have scored no goals. The defeat at Rotherham continued the Millers’ great run which has brought them to within a point of Orient while at the same time, Preston have also caught up so that Brentford finished the sequence looking over its shoulders not just at a fading Orient but also at a pair of teams charging up the table and with the confidence to challenge for automatic promotion. Wolves have put 6 points of clear space between first and second and although the gap between Brentford and the chasing pack has grown to 5 points, somehow a chasing group of three seems more threatening than when we only had to worry about Orient.

Rotherham 3 Brentford 0

The less said about this game the better. Fortunately, due to traffic caused by the Manchester derby which meant that Mrs B couldn’t get back from working in Manchester in time to let me go to Rotherham, I missed the game. I was a little disappointed as I’d have liked to have gone to the New York Stadium, if only to tick it off the list and to have the novel experience of seeing us play them away at a nice ground (their fans might have feelings of nostalgia for Millmoor, but as an away fan it was a grim experience walking into it through a scrapyard and a narrow cobbled alleyway where a Swansea fan had been trampled to death by a police horse a few seasons before and the less said about the experience of games at the Don Valley Arena the better). Just a bad day at the office for the Bees and a good game not to have made.

Oldham 0 Brentford 0

Boundary Park is normally a chilly and dreary place to visit. Uncharacteristically, this game was played in mild and watery but still warming sunshine. I had to watch half of it in sunglasses! I was surprised to find that one stand had been demolished and was in the early stages of being rebuilt. I was also pleased to find that Oldham had ditched its policy from the last time I visited of categorising the away stand as being the best in the ground and charging a then extortionate £25 a ticket (even if it did mean I got to saw a rare Paul Brooker goal). Perhaps it is too cynical to say the reason for this was that due to the rebuilding works involving relocating home fans in half of the stand the club realised it couldn’t get away with charging that much.

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The game itself was fairly nondescript. Tarkowski played well in front of his former club. Dallas, who’s gradually developing into a decent player, but still not quite at the level needed for regular starts, was denied a clear chance on goal late on by an excellent reflex save from Rachubka. Otherwise, the team played neatly and comfortably in its now familiar methodical passing and probing style without looking particularly threatening, especially during the first hour before Grigg was replaced by Trotta. It isn’t that Grigg does anything particularly wrong, he just doesn’t really look like he’s going to score. As the team is set up to try and pass the ball into the goal, it needs a centre-forward with skill and guile to be at the end of each move or to be pulling defenders out of position to allow the midfielders and wide players to deliver the coup de grace. Trotta just fits that bill much better. We’d need to be set up very differently to play to Grigg’s strengths. McCormack was restored to central midfield but seemed a little out of sorts and he and Douglas, rather than commanding the centre of the pitch, seemed to get in each others ways a little. Diagouraga came on later in the game and McCormack looked more comfortable going back to right back in place of Yennaris (who had looked good and up to the pace of the game despite his youth and inexperience). Diagouraga showed his customary energy and drive, but also looked a level below the skill of the rest of the team in terms of his ability to make telling short touches of the ball, although his longer passes seem to have benefited from his time on loan at Portsmouth.

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OMB enjoyed the game although as you can see from the photo, by the end he had taken to drawing monsters to entertain himself rather than holding out hope that his pre-match prediction of a 4-2 win would come to fruition. Probably the real highlight of the game was the constant and generally amusing banter between the home fans to our right and a vocal Bees contingent. A ten minute vocal battle between competing chants of Lee Johnson/Warburton’s Barmy Army, accompanied by the Oldham fans’ drummer which turned into a krautrock style drone with the voices seeming to feedback on each other was the standout here. The result was fair, particularly considering that Oldham had managed to draw away at Orient while we were being beaten by Rotherham, but at this stage in the season, after so many disappointments most Bees just want wins.

Sheffield United 0 Brentford 0

 

The games away against Sheffield United over the last three seasons have been for me, something of an indicator of our general level and the extent to which we have progressed. I admit that in part that is because it is one of my local games and the only fixture that I have been able to compare three seasons in a row! Two seasons ago, in the very early days of Uwe Rosler’s time at the club, we were comfortably beaten and while there were signs for optimism it was clear we weren’t quite good enough to challenge seriously for promotion. Last season, we witnessed the tremendous Battle of Bramall Lane, where the heroic draw we managed ended up feeling like a Pyrrhic victory as it deprived us of Donaldson for a game and drained the team of energy just when it was most needed. Could we go one better this time round? In a word, no.

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It was always going to be a tough game. After their abysmal start to the season where they managed to have an even worse play-off hangover than we did, Sheffield United have had a great second half including a forthcoming FA Cup semi-final. Perhaps we’d have had a better chance had the game been played when first scheduled, earlier in that cup run and with the team in relegation danger. In the end the game was between two very evenly matched teams, both playing incisive passing football and defending strongly, with Sheffield United being content to rely on counter-attacking much of the time. In those circumstances it was unsurprising that the teams cancelled each other out. The two outstanding moments were excellent pieces of play by defenders. One, a perfect interception by Tarkowski off the toes of a United striker on the edge of the six yard box with an open goal in front of him. The other, far more contentiously, a tackle by Freeman to dispossess Trotta when clear through the middle and bearing down on goal.

After the incredible refereeing antics of last season’s fixture, this latter tackle provided an opportunity for more referee madness. As Trotta went over, the referee immediately pointed to the penalty spot and brandished a red card. Not unexpectedly, being right in front of the home end, this was received with howls of anguish from the Blades fans. However, while I was just praying that Forshaw would claim the penalty, the game seemed to have stopped for far too long. After what seemed like an eternity, the referee was persuaded by his assistant that Freeman had in fact got the ball, so he reversed his decision and awarded a drop ball instead. It looked a clear penalty from the away end and the referee was looking at the incident from a similar angle, but the radio commentators and also Brentford Manager, Mark Warburton agreed that from a better angle it was clearly a great tackle. Ultimately the right decision was made, but after the unfairnesses of the previous game at Bramall Lane I can’t have been the only Bee to have thought we could have done with luck levelling itself out for us just this once!

There were a number of chances for the Bees to have won the game in the second half, but somehow each shot seemed tamer than the last. It was good to see Craig back in central defence and to see Tarkowski continuing to excel. Dallas was a good replacement for Judge, even if he ought to have done better with a chance he dragged across the goal. Diagouraga again provided energy while looking not quite good enough for the team we now have. That’s despite him clearly working hard and having improved as a player. It’s just that the team has progressed from being one where he was one of the better players to one where he no longer is likely to be.

Again, 0-0 was a fair result. After a meagre 2 points from three games the gap for the chasing pack to make up is bigger than it was and it would not take stellar results in our remaining 7 games to prevent them from being able to make up the five or six points they need. But, 20 years of watching Brentford contrive to fail to get promoted from League 1 means it is hard not to be pessimistic. I fear that anything short of six points from the two upcoming home games against Notts County and Crawley will have the fans fearful, even if that is unfair on what is probably our best team in 20 years.

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Perfect Ten

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I didn’t think I’d see a team and performance this season that would outdo Brentford’s with ten men away against Bradford City this season for dispirited weakness. So thanks must go to the beleaguered Bristol City team in its 3-1 defeat to Brentford on a slightly soggy Griffin Park pitch. It is amazing how in the space of half a season we have gone from such cluelessness ourselves to recording a tenth consecutive home victory keeping us at the top of the League 1 table.

It was a strange build up to the game. There had been a long online conversation between Brentford fans convinced the game would be called off with many for some reason even hoping for this despite our good form and the fact that our opponents’ sole away victory had come months ago at Carlisle. Even odder were City manager, Steve Cotterill’s comments in interview with the BBC saying that he’d be rotating his squad and hoped not to weaken it too much. Seeing their top scorer, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (JET as one wag behind me on the Ealing Road terrace tried to sing), left on the bench suggested that Cotterill wasn’t joking. The suspicion that they’d turned up expecting to lose was heightened when their number 5, Flint, scored a neat own goal five minutes into the game when under no pressure. Orient and Wolves fans seeing that might well have had their fingers readying to dial the Football League to complain at that point.

However, it soon looked like it wasn’t going to be quite that easy when a handful of minutes later former Bee, Karleigh Osborne found himself in acres of space to fire across Button to equalise. Then, the peculiarity continued as he immediately pulled up with an injury requiring substitution.

Any nerves were quietened as the Bees scored twice more to stroll to a comfortable 3-1 lead by half time. First with Alan Judge’s first goal for the club then, through Marcello Trotta. Having been standing behind the goal when he missed that penalty against Doncaster at the end of last season, it was a testament his talent, courage and hard work and moreso, the fairness of Bees fans that his name was sung out by the same fans who’d happily have shot him then.

The second half was somewhat disappointing in that while we were never under any serious threat we also didn’t score again. Listen to me! Sounding like a Chelsea fan moaning about only winning rather than thrashing an opponent. It did give an opportunity to see Arsenal youngster Chuba Akpom in action. I’m not sure he’s quite strong enough to make an impact but he showed little flashes of skill and some incredible little bursts of pace which hint at the player he might become as he matures. I remain unconvinced by Will Grigg. Overall I think the substitutions in the second half rather took away our momentum, but with a comfortable lead while missing Dean, Forshaw and Saunders, perhaps it is too much to expect every sub to be fantastic! Especially given McCormack’s magisterial performance restored to midfield and Trotta’s demonstration of the skill and determination that have seen him graduate to the Italy U21 squad.

Logan played well enough at right back to give manager Mark Warburton a nice selection headache. Can we do without McCormack in midfield when Forshaw returns? Or is Saville due a rest then? Kevin O’Connor also had a composed game at centre back in Dean’s absence. He didn’t put a foot wrong and distributed the ball well. Although perhaps in part that was a sign of how little City threatened. Meanwhile, City’s defence seemed to be having a competition to see whether Flint or number 3 Williams were the worst full backs in the division. All in, a poor reward for the decently large away following for a midweek game when their club were in the relegation positions.

A final point. While like every other Bee I’d like to be able to turn back the clock and make Trotta’s penalty against Doncaster go in, or at least have had the team turn up to the first half of last season’s play off final, seeing Yeovil surrender a two goal lead to lose 3-2 and sink to the bottom of the Championship makes me appreciate this season even more. Schadenfreude, don’t you love it?

Halfway there

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Something strange has happened. Not just that Brentford is topping the League 1 table – they’ve done that numerous times in the 20 years I’ve followed the club only to contrive to miss out on promotion with dreary predictability. What is strange is that they look secure even though the transfer window is about to open. The current unbeaten run of 11 league games, 10 of which were wins, doesn’t have the precarious feel that previous good runs have had. Unlike last season or the time we reached the play-off final before in 2002, we have a great squad, not just a good first XI – instead of forlornly relying on the likes of Mark McCammon to come off the bench we have a player of the goalscoring pedigree of Farid El-Alagui to play havoc with tiring defences in the last 20 minutes of games.

Losing Uwe Rosler to Wigan – the first time a Brentford manager has been poached mid-season by a higher division team – didn’t lead to deflation but instead, if anything, more positive performances driving us to the top of the table. Although Mark Warburton, the new manager, is in his first manager’s job, his previous role as Sporting Director at the club meant that he has been able to continue the work put in over the last two seasons to transform the club and its playing ethos. The transformation between the two away games at Sheffield United showed this (here and here) but, as ever, we fell short at the end in the last two seasons.

After losing to Stevenage this season (graveyard of our ambitions two seasons ago) it looked like perhaps the forward momentum gradually built up was illusory. I had only seen our meek 4-0 defeat at Bradford by then, but even though the early and fully justified dismissal of keeper Button made things tough, an ambitious and confident side would not have collapsed so spectacularly. Yet, 11 games later, there we are, top of the league. In that run I’ve seen the home games against Peterborough and Swindon. Both very strong teams capable of punishing anyone on their day. In another season, going from 1-0 up to 2-1 down in the space of a couple of minutes in the middle of the second half, as we did against Peterborough, would have marked the end of the contest. Instead, we scored twice in the last 10 minutes to win. Against Swindon, twice we fell behind and again, won 3-2. Both games ultimately seemed more comfortable wins than the scorelines suggested.

In terms of points per game in 2013, all bar one of the clubs who got more than Brentford through the calendar year were ones at the top of the Premier League. The other was Orient, who have themselves had an amazing year. That level of consistency is what, I think is the strangest thing to witness as a Brentford fan. I and many other lower division fans often half-jest that we get more from seeing a gritty 0-0 than many of the top club fans get from seeing their club win. I’m beginning to realise that that is because we’re not used to winning as a regular and expected outcome.

It is usual for clubs at all levels to go through a bad patch of results. The real test in 2014 for Brentford will be in how it deals with such a bad patch if it comes. Around the turn of the year in 01-02 we had five straight defeats which ultimately denied us automatic promotion. Even though we came back from them so as to still be in contention at the end of the season, they were hard to take. Peterborough are going through a similarly dark period of form. Hopefully they won’t recover from that during tomorrow’s game to end our run. Perhaps we have, like Yeovil last season who had 5 defeats in a row early on and ultimately vanquished us in the play-off final, already had our bad spell. But, at the moment, the performances on the pitch, the feeling that there is still more that could be eked out from the players and the general optimism around club and fans suggests that there is no good reason why we can’t have a second half to the season which matches the first.

We can save agonising over the play-offs to next season and an assault on the Premier League! Wouldn’t it be nice to see Griffin Park off with a season in the top division before we move to the new ground at Lionel Road?