Now then, Now then, Brentford 

 One of the “advantages” of living so far away from  Brentford is that the same away games each season form the majority of the games I see. This does allow at least for me to make comparisons between them from season to season and therefore to see how we have progressed (eg against Sheffield United from here to here). Or not. There was a big difference between the 1-1 draw against Leeds at Elland Road we managed in League 1 under Andy Scott and the 1-0 victory last season in the Championship. In the former, we were still a small club, just back up from League 2 and pleased to be able to come away with a point from such a big name club on its way back to promotion to nearer its more natural home and a promised land which had evaded us for all but one season in over 50. In the latter, just before the revelations of the imminent parting between the club and its most successful post-war manager, we had, for once, genuine cause to believe that we could not only match such illustrious clubs but be on a trajectory to pass them.

Since then, there has been a great deal of upheaval with not just Mark Warburton and the management team departing but also many players. Only four of the Brentford players who appeared in that game a mere 7 months ago are still at the club. And, while Leeds continue to live in the past, particularly with their risible “Champions of Europe” chant, and indeed in Brentford’s past with the appointment of Uwe Rosler and the acquisition of Stuart Dallas, they have progressed too. So, this afternoon was an interesting first look for me not only at the new Brentford in its early stages but also a chance to reflect on the old.

  – Lasse Vibe making a charge but who’s there to pass to?

In terms of the past, Rosler set Leeds out in his typically cautious fashion. This was reasssuring as one of the many things it seems Brentford has needed to do this season is to tighten up defensively – too many goals were conceded weakly last season in the entertainingly cavalier set up under Warburton which relied on continually pressing forward but this season, with the absence of the unseen work of Douglas, from reports it has sounded like we’ve been too weak in midfield to provide the cover to the back four that solving that problem demands. So it was unsurprising to see a very defensive midfield trio of McCormack, Diagouraga and Kerschbaumer and it was also pleasing in the first half to see this negate the prospects of any real threat from Leeds. 

Another worry has been the loss of the scorers of about 70% of last season’s league goals. While that is pretty much the proportion of the goalscorers from our League 1 promotion season who moved on before the beginning of last season so that we at least have a precedent for our ability to absorb such a turnover, until the newcomers have showed they can score with similar regularity, it will remain a concern. Our front three in the new 433 formation which replaced the 451 possibly adopted due to the necessity of living with only a single effective striker last season, lined up as Judge, Djuricin and Vibe. Djuricin was making his debut on season long loan from Red Bull Salzburg and was particularly interesting to see because it seems that his was one of the transfers which the club wanted to make last January but which were rejected by Warburton. If he turns out to be a donkey, the plethora of voices on facebook castigating owner, Matthew Benham, for not abandoning his own strategy for the club and giving Warburton his head, will have a big glass of “told you so”.

Thankfully, Djuricin looked to me like precisely the sort of traditional, strong, striker with an instinct for goal that we possibly haven’t had since the days of Bobby Taylor. It was he who scored Brentford’s goal and could have had at least another couple. His final act before being substituted in the second half was to hit the post with a neatly directed shot. If he carries on as he did today, I think he could be an excellent signing. Vibe, the Danish international, also impressed with tireless running down the wings and it was clear from the post-match interview with Uwe Rosler and the many Leeds fans’ messages into BBC Radio Leeds that Leeds could not cope with either him or Judge.

Unfortunately, I was much less impressed by Hofmann who came on for Djuricin. Indeed, I have to say that to me he had rather too much of Nick Proschwitz about his performance today at least until he did what strikers should do, and so rarely seem to for us, and ghosted ahead of the pack at a corner and hit a chance tantalisingly wide. But the rest of the time, he was the missing striker in the photo above, undoing the work of Vibe and Judge in unflattering contrast to Djuricin. I was unsurprised when he was himself substituted, although it was evidently for an injury as he appeared to have his arm in a sling. That did, however, give the opportunity to see the 18 year old Liverpool loanee Sergi Canos who looked very lively and an exciting prospect. But, unfortunately, as a winger, he was probably not what we needed in the final moments having conceded an equaliser.

The equaliser had come, almost inevitably, from Dallas capitalising on a slip in midfield as we sought to play the ball out from the back and the ball then being played to Antenucci who had come on in the second half in an uncharacteristically attacking move for Rosler (much of the post match radio comment from Leeds fans focused on the disappointment of them playing 451 with the lumbering Wood up front on his own against our decent centre backs).

More disappointingly, the error which led to this was of another of our new signings, Ryan Woods, described by fans of his former club, Shewsbury, as the ginger Pirlo. He had come on a few minutes earlier for his debut replacing McCormack in defensive midfield, with McCormack moving to right back as Odubajo’s replacement, Maxime Colin, went off. I thought Colin had a good game and looks more of a natural defender than Moses. The back four do now seem to have the makings of a solid and settled unit.

Woods’ first touch was a Pritchard-esque backheel flick over his shoulder and there were plenty of signs of his wanting to be at the centre of things and pinging passes round the ground. Unfortunately, he still on this showing has a little way to go to adjust to the pace and intensity of Championship football and to develop the understandings with his team mates to allow him to do what he seems capable of. I hope that my fellow fans will give him the opportunity to do so rather than turn into boo boys for the loss of two further points we deserved to have won.

Next stop, Middlesbrough, and with it, the biggest test of how and whether we have progressed since last season. If we can compete at all at the Riverside on Tuesday, it might just start to help those who hanker for the world which disappeared just after we last played Leeds to see why the changes have happened. It’ll take longer and a lot more points for them to like it, but it’ll be a(nother) start.

A final word about Uwe Rosler. I was not one of the fans who got particularly upset when he left us midway through our last season in League 1 for the bright lights of Wigan. Yes we have some big new ambitions and most of us (and most importantly, our owner) believe in them and will be doing what they can to achieve them, but going to a club that had only just come down from the Premier League and was the reigning holder of the FA Cup was a good move. I can’t blame him for it and was even prepared to put the underhand way in which Forshaw was lured there down more to the unpleasant owners of the club than Rosler himself.

However, after his fist pumps and celebrations directed at the Brentford fans when Leeds equalised, frankly I’m out of reasonableness. He’d have been within his rights to celebrate with the 25,000 Leeds fans who had, to their credit, not got on his or his team’s back despite them trailing to us. But goading us? That puts him only a couple of rungs up from Martin Rowlands’ badge kissing. Sorry.

Advertisements

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.

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.