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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Grexit Risk Overstated

A week ago, after being outplayed by a Czech Republic that had itself been hammered 4-1 by Russia, the chances of Greece progressing to the Quarter Finals of Euro 2012 seemed fanciful. There was still a chance, but a slim one. Or so it seemed even in the light of Greece’s unlikely and unexpected victory in the 2004 tournament.

Similarly, a week ago, ahead of Greece’s second General Election of 2012, with something like 60% of voters having supported parties which wanted to rip up the terms on which Greece had received eurozone bailout funds, it seemed highly likely that the country would soon by forcibly ejected from the euro.

But, football and politics are both funny old games. Today, Greece appears to have voted just enough in favour of the two established governing parties to enable them to form a coalition which will work to keep the country within the euro. Somehow, even more unusually than that, the national football team managed to nick a 1-0 victory against a Russian team that 10 days ago looked like potential tournament winners, knocking them out and taking themselves through to a Quarter Final.

However, just as with the euro, in Euro 2012, the Germans will be the ones to decide. As it is they who will stand between Greece and a Semi-Final. Just as Germany has navigated the global financial crisis comfortably its team has barely looked troubled in winning all three group matches. But, it isn’t inconceivable that Germany might relent and ease Greece’s bailout conditions in order to keep the euro intact even though this would be hugely unpopular politically amongst German voters. And stranger things have already happened than Greece beating them on the pitch on Friday. Who’d bet on Grexit now?

England doesn’t Expect

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The Euro 2012 tournament in Poland and Ukraine is an unusual one for England because, for possibly the first time since 1990, expectations in the media and amongst fans are low. Normally there’s a football frenzy and tabloid calls to emulate the 1966 spirit. Even though in reality England’s sole World Cup victory is today about as meaningful for current chances as the two World Cups won by Uruguay are for their position in the world of football now.

Italia 90 started with England being relatively unfancied and the media highly critical of Bobby Robson and his team. This was not helped by the lacklustre team performances in the group stage which we limped through and how close the team came to failing to win in the first knock out round against Belgium. Yet after that there came the pulsating game against the surprise package of Cameroon who had shocked the holders Argentina in their opening game and the semi final against West Germany which came down to the metaphorical coin toss of a penalty shoot out. It was by a long margin England’s best tournament performance other then 1966.

However, the European championships are in many ways a tougher challenge than World Cups. There are no real minnows even in the group stage, and with Greece having won the tournament in 2004 it would be foolhardy to write anyone off even if they looked as poor as the Republic of Ireland did against Croatia. If England qualifies through the group stage it will face, most likely, one of the last two winners of the World Cup, or a team which has managed to beat one or both of them.

Today, England faces a France team which is on a fine unbeaten run of 21 games with 15 wins in that time. Since 1990 and both England and France’s nadirs of failing to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, England has had a solitary semi final at home in the 96 European championship and no other tournament performances where (perhaps barring their exit to Argentina in 98) realistically you could say that the team merited progression to the semi finals.

So, England can take the unaccustomed role of underdog. The team has a lot of younger players who are far from household names, several being not even regular starters for the Premier League clubs they play for. They have a serious and thoughtful and, unusually for England, experienced and English manager in Roy Hodgson. Having few stars parading themselves like worldbeaters and missing Rooney through a typically needless suspension might mean that the team that actually plays can be unencumbered by their own egos and which might just appreciate the great honour of playing for England.

I hope, but don’t expect, and, for once, that healthy state seems to be shared generally.

Update 24 June

Well, so far so good! Unflashy, workmanlike performances against France and Sweden in the qualifying group established England as hard to beat but capable of enough invention to threaten up front even without Rooney. They also didn’t fall apart when things went against them or look like they just didn’t have “another gear” to go up when needed. The back four have, Terry apart, had decent pace, Terry’s experience at marshalling them and being able to read things well enough to compensate for when he’s caught out by faster attackers. Gerrard (curiously but not inappropriately autocorrected by my iPhone to Ferrari) has been both outstanding and consistent. Parker has been what in a mmorpg would be called a tank, sticking his body everywhere to stop opponents and balls being played forwards. Although perhaps crawling on all fours to head the ball away from an attacker’s foot is taking things a bit far! Walcott, Young and Oxlade-Chamberlain have provided pace and unpredictability going forward and both Welbeck and Carroll, while perhaps not being world class have done well up front.

Rooney’s return coincided with a dominant performance against Ukraine, sufficiently dominant that we were able to indulge Rooney missing at least two clear headed chances which Andy Carroll would have been likely to have scored. My preference in an ideal world might have been to have left a successful team alone and kept Rooney on the bench but, given the reaction of press and public to things like Graham Taylor substituting Gary Lineker in euro 92 when we needed a goal, can quite understand why Hodgson made the easier choice of reinstating Rooney, who is an excellent player.

Not that he looked anything other than rusty and as off the pace as someone who’d played no competitive football for over a month would be expected to look. Luckily for him and us he was able to put away an easy chance early in the second half to break his long dry spell in tournaments and slightly quieter critics like myself who thought we should make a change if we didn’t score in the first ten minutes of the half. In the event he has now had most of a full game to regain match sharpness and to fit into a team that won’t encourage him to the sort of desperate recklessness in chasing a game that would lead to another suspension and years more whatiffery.

So, now we play Italy for a semi final place against Germany. The Italians themselves have been unspectacular but adequate in qualifying for the quarter final. In many respects they are set up similarly to Hodgson’s England, being based on organisation and graft (no not the stuff of their latest corruption scandal!) which provides a base for creative players like Pirlo and the “unpredictable” Balotelli. Balotelli is clearly bonkers but in a time of dreariness in so much of life I can’t help but like his form of semi-contained chaos. He’s a bit of a contemporary Robin Friday, as the Super Furry Animals homage “Man Don’t Give a Fuck” could equally apply to him as his nonchalant overhead kick goal against the tournament’s weakest team, Ireland perhaps epitomised.

I won’t jinx things as I think Italy will still start as favourites. Their historical strength and record is impossible to ignore, having won the world cup only 6 years ago. Moreover, one of my bugbears is the trend for teams to have a star on their shirts to denote their World cup wins. England has one, spain has one (fair enough as holders). Notably, Italy with FOUR wins don’t bother with putting any stars on their jerseys. When England has won enough not to need to crow about it or hark back to a team whose remaining living members are in their seventies, that will be the point when we should stop being underdogs against the likes of Italy.

That said, although I still don’t think our due is to progress past tonight, England would not be flukes if they got through to the Final. And that is something we haven’t been able to say since most of the team were in junior school.

Update 27 June

So, we lost, on penalties again. Nevertheless it was a decent tournament performance for England. I’ve heard a few delusional people saying that it would have all been different had we appointed Harry Redknapp as manager or brought Rio Ferdinand and a couple of others into the squad. The more realistic will have realised that none of those things would have made a lot of difference. England doesn’t have a Pirlo, Cristiano Ronaldo or Fabregas either in the squad picked by Hodgson or back at home. We also don’t have any “world class” strikers other than the ring rusty Rooney.

The quarter finals are the par for England and we qualified for them well. In terms of recent records in the tournament we were the worst team at that stage (Portugal being beaten finalists in 2004, Greece having won in 2004, and the Czech Republic having made a semi final and a final since 1996; the records of Germany, Italy, France and Spain not needing to be repeated). Indeed, given the records of Russia and the Netherlands it wouldn’t be unfair to say that we were only just in the top ten countries at the tournament , let alone the top 8 or top 4.

So, barring an outstanding performance (which could fairly have taken us further than our rating would suggest) Hodgson’s team did well enough. In reality it is still hard to work out how Italy failed to score in the game so the team should take some credit for being solid enough to have taken the game to penalties.

If Hodgson can find a little more creativity and invention in attacking players at least there is the base for raising the target during qualification for the 2014 World Cup and hopefully carrying that into the tournament (perhaps with a draw as favourable as the one we had in 1990 where we only had to beat Belgium and Cameroon to make the semi-final).

As for the tournament which continues at the semi-final stage tonight at the moment the most comfortable and consistently performing side, as so often, is Germany. Then again that was how it seemed during the 2010 World Cup when they waltzed past England and Argentina before losing to Spain in the semi-final. They should be able to beat Italy who have had less time to recover after the gruelling game against England. Spain have not played brilliantly but may find that Portugal suit them as opponents better than anyone they’ve met so far. It would be historic if Spain managed to be the first country to retain the title but it is too close to call it between them and Germany.