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.

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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.

Fifty Shades of Benham?

       A young self-made multimillionaire. A naive football club which has barely escaped numerous abusive relationships. The promise of untold wealth and excitement, but only if some unorthodox tastes and dreams are realised. But you’ll have to trust in him and give him the control he wants. You’ll have to be punished if you think you know better or think you can just settle for a bit of it. But you can have a safe word to make it stop because in the end he loves you and respects you. That safe word is Woking.

Perhaps there are some parallels between the strange goings on at Brentford and the product of Brentford resident EL James’ fevered imagination. The film version of Fifty Shades of Grey was released on the same day as Brentford suffered their own red room of pain at Charlton and no matter how many chants in support of club, players or management were mustered, Charlton hadn’t agreed any safe word.

However, the real parallel or lack thereof between Fifty Shades and the developing story about whether manager Mark Warburton was to be replaced at the end of the season is in whether owner Matthew Benham is like Christian Grey and how you view Grey in the books. Most fans of the trilogy see them as a naughty and erotic fantasy- Mills & Boon without the coyness for a generation that can attend Ann Summers parties without embarrassment or shame. They can identify with the fantasy of Ana Steele without actually wanting to be tied up and thrashed soundly after a trip to B&Q to acquire the appropriate wall fixings. But some critics also point out that basically, Grey is a classic abusive controlling man who might have some superficial appeal and sound caring and generous but who actually cares for nothing other than his own need to have someone to manipulate however he wants.

It would be too easy, given the understandable sympathy that most Bees fans will have for Warburton after the great work he has done in managing the team to the upper end of the Championship to suddenly feel that they’ve been duped by Benham and that in fact he is the typical megalomaniac club owner who cares nothing for the club or any of the people within it unless they bend to his will. Like Noades he’s now, in their minds, ready to take his ball home if he can’t play his way.

But, as I wrote last week, that depends on imputing bad faith. Or some form of sociopathic disorder (yeah, you gotta be a sociopath to get that rich, man!). It also involves being ready to imagine Brentford as a weak and unwilling participant in Benham’s game, with no agency and no choice, dazzled by the riches. But just as that might be an unfair reading of what so many otherwise strong and capable women found appealing in the Fifty Shades books, so too here. True, Ana Steele does seem to me to be a bit of a wet blanket, but while she likes the trappings of wealth she gets from her relationship with Grey, she wasn’t ever particularly looking for them, nor did she dislike her life and prospects before. It isn’t too hard to believe that she might genuinely be happy and free within what looks to be an unconventional relationship.

Similarly, when Benham first got formally involved with the ownership of Brentford, the club was slowly emerging from the painful work of getting on a sustainable financial footing after the depredations of Noades. But it was emerging from it. Fans were happy in the knowledge that the club could realistically think to survive in the lower divisions it had inhabited for most of the previous half a century and maybe slowly over time build to a little more by careful stewardship. Benham didn’t then come in waving a chequebook and promising a one way trip to the Premier League and if he had, he’d have been sent on his way- we didn’t particularly want it (many aren’t sure they want it now when it is realistically achievable, even if still unlikely) and had seen too many clubs go closer to the wall even than we had after pursuing that objective. What we have seen is that there is a path towards doing that without being unsustainable. The question facing fans now is whether we can take the jagged edges of that journey or want to squat in Grey’s penthouse while despising everything that got him or us there. Have we been groomed by an abuser or have we just grown complacent in recent years at the relief in not having to worry about what was going on behind the scenes so that we throw a tantrum when we see what needs to be done to keep going?