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.

The Battle of Bramall Lane

It is not very often that, as a Brentford fan, you witness a game which you can mark as an “I was there” occasion which will live long in your memory and club folklore. That has only a little to do with the undisputable fact that it is a club which has spent only one season higher than the third tier of English football in the past 59 years since being relegated in 1954.

The game on Tuesday night at Bramall Lane against Sheffield United easily fits this definition. I joked on twitter beforehand that if the game was as good as the drive over the Peak District in spring evening sunshine with the roof down it would be one to savour and so it turned out! As a game between us in third place in League 1 and opponents in fifth place with only another couple of games left to play in the regular season afterwards, it was poised to be important for both clubs. However, too many times in the past, such situations have proven to be anti-climactic. Often, there has been a fatalism before the game or once behind in it, amongst much of the crowd that “it’s Brentford, innit?” and an expectation that somehow we will conspire to underperform, be exposed for our limitations after the hubris of approaching success even in our limited terms or be penalised for some freakish reason.

Not this time. Many reports have already been written and the game was so eventful that I couldn’t capture it any more vividly than the collective responses on the messageboards. However, any game with four penalties (two missed), three sendings off, four goals, ten minutes of stoppage time and a last minute equaliser is always going to be thrillingly eventful. That it wasn’t a particularly dirty game (the egregious Dave Kitson aside, whose “performance” has added him to the pantheon of hate figures alongside Gary Owers, Jamie Cureton and Martin Rowlands) but still yielded so many booking and sendings off only scratches at the surface of how appalling the referee Keith Stroud was. That both sets of fans were united in generously rating him at 0/10 also tells its own tale. That the game managed to be utterly riveting despite Mr Stroud’s best efforts only emphasises how fantastic an occasion it was.

It was a live display of Brentford’s irresistable forces meeting Sheffield United’s immoveable objects. Two completely contrasting styles of play and two teams performing at the limits of their abilities.

I wrote early last season after our fixture at Bramall Lane when we were comfortably beaten of small signs of optimism about how the then newly installed Brentford manager, Uwe Rosler, was going about building a team and a style of football. Tuesday night’s game showed how far we have come down that path. Whereas last season the players were tentatively learning to play a passing game and to combine it with being incisive and attacking now we see how this has come to fruition. Last time at Sheffield United, we looked lightweight. This time, despite having an average age of under 23 for the starting eleven and a group of relatively small players, the team made Sheffield United look agricultural, heavy and limited. Even better, after the heroics the previous weekend of scoring two goals in 90 seconds to turn a 2-1 defeat into a 3-2 win against Portsmouth, the players showed the determination and strength of character to react to being reduced to 9 men while 2-1 down against 10 in the best way. Even after Saunders missed a penalty which would have brought the score to 2-2, the players continued to press decisively (rather than merely optimistically) for an equaliser. 19 year old Jake Reeves, who had looked a little boy lost in the same fixture the previous season marshalled midfield and was all set to push the team forward to grab a winner in the 6 minutes of time added on in the second half.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of all of this was the attitude of the fans. Instead of the fatalism that going behind (particularly to a goal from a player, Kitson, who ought to have been sent off much earlier) would normally induce, everyone around me seemed to believe that an equaliser would come even after missing the second penalty. There were a couple of murmurs of discontent about Bradley Wright-Phillips’ work rate and attitude as he seemed to drift around disinterestedly but these were dispelled when he spotted a gap between two of the Blades’ statuesque defenders and their otherwise excellent keeper who was rooted to the ground as BWP scored the equaliser. It was a neatly placed shot which seemed to move in perfect slow motion without it ever being in any doubt that it would gently snuggle up to the back of the net. I’m sure I was cheering before it crossed the line.

Mention must also be made of Clayton Donaldson. Last season he received criticism for not seeming to have lived up to fans’ expectations after having scored 28 goals in League 2 for Crewe the previous season. Even for large parts of this season he has been criticised for not seeming to be able to score “easy” chances that you would expect a striker to put away. Curiously, this criticism has come even while he has sat near the top of the division’s goal-scoring chart throughout and having done so while most often playing out wide. On Tuesday night he utterly terrorised Sheffield United’s defenders, making them look even larger and slower than they really were. Not only this, but he played exceptionally deep in his own half for much of the game, often starting from alongside the Brentford penalty area or even after having tracked a player back to the Brentford goal-line. Another one of him on the other wing and we’d be almost unplayable. Perhaps next season we might do if Stuart Dallas can develop as well as Donaldson has, as was hinted at in the otherwise depressing game at Carlisle. It seems weird to think that that “typical” Brentford disappointment of a game was barely a month ago.

So, two games to go and I’m both optimistic that we can get the two wins which would guarantee automatic promotion and if we miss out, have a team with the spirit, energy and quality to give us a good chance of breaking our play-off hoodoo (although I still wouldn’t want to meet Yeovil in the play-offs as they seem to have the key to beating us at will). I won’t be at the away game at Hartlepool, which may well be tricky despite the opposition having already been relegated and having a top scorer who has only netted five times all season. I hope that the team can go and get the win there that they are capable of so as to make the final game at home against Doncaster at least as memorable as Tuesday’s performance in Sheffield. At the very least, unlike the similar game in 2002, when we needed a win at home against Reading to take automatic promotion, were Doncaster to take the lead or equalise against us, the team and fans will still believe we can win. I hope. At the very least I won’t have a job interview the next day at which I have to apologise for having a somewhat croaky voice!

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Carlisle No-Go’s

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When it comes to supporting Brentford, long experience has taught me not to get my hopes up too much. So it probably serves me right that immediately after I expressed some vague optimism the team surrendered meekly to Stevenage to end their run of six successive defeats. Nevertheless, I wasn’t dissuaded from making the trip up to Carlisle, themselves in the midst of a very poor run, even if OMB decided in the morning before I set off that he didn’t want to come after all.

If heaven is a place on earth, Carlisle isn’t it. Not on a freezing cold afternoon anyway. That it is practically in Scotland was emphasised in the away seats by the large number of Scots Brentford fans swelling the attendance to 254 Bees. Wherever they might have come from, that’s a creditable following for a match so far away from West London – it was 120 miles away from me in Leeds.

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Unfortunately, although the performance wasn’t particularly terrible, the team barely looked like scoring all afternoon. Under Uwe Rosler it is admirable that the natural instinct of the team is to pass the ball around neatly and to look for opportunities rather than to hoof the ball forward aimlessly as it has for rather too many of the seasons I’ve followed the team. However, there was little incisiveness in front of goal so despite dominating possession and continuing to look by far the better team throughout the first half even after Carlisle took a fortuitous lead in one of their rare forays into the Brentford half, there were also few real chances testing Carlisle’s goalkeeper. I still thought at half time that it was surely only a matter of time before all that possession would pay off.

Stuart Dallas was particularly impressive in playing out wide on the left and it looked as if the switch midway in the half so that he went on the right and Donaldson on the left was about to pay off immediately when he centred the ball for a good firm shot from Forshaw to be well saved. Unfortunately, that was about as good as it got. In the second half, apart from a Dallas shot from distance that was tipped over the bar there wasn’t much to raise hopes. Trotta was ineffectual enough that it was a surprise that Donaldson came off for Bradley Wright-Phillips rather than him. But Wright-Phillips showed little more in front of goal. Perhaps Hayes might have been a better foil for him, but he wasn’t brought on and we might never find out as it was announced today that Hayes has been sent on loan to Crawley for a month. Youth player Charlie Adams fizzed about, clearly enjoying his league debut but not producing anything as the match and team wearily surrendered to a 2-0 defeat after Carlisle got a breakaway second goal against the run of play following Liam Moore losing possession. The only one of the senior players who looked genuinely up for it was Toumani “Dave” Diagouraga but unfortunately he’s not known for his accurate shooting so he wasn’t able to turn the game.

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So, it was chilly, even if not too chilly for Bees fan Billy the Fish to wear shorts, and there was little to warm the fans from the action on the pitch. At least I got to tick a new ground off the list so that I never have to succumb to the temptation of going to Carlisle again. I blame myself for wishing good luck to the Carlisle fan I chatted to in the free car park a little way from the ground. OMB made the right choice.

Maybe these two weak defeats will be enough to shake the team into turning back on the style with home games this week against Swindon and Preston. I hope so, as I’m intending to go to the next, rather more local, away game at Sheffield United in a couple of weeks time. Even keeping my positivity hat on, that game will be a symbolic test of how far the club has really progressed over the last couple of seasons since we last visited Bramall Lane. The squad is certainly far stronger now and is far less tentative about the style of play introduced by Rosler. Rosler himself has also had time to try to iron out some of the mistakes borne of inexperience in that game like making the wrong substitutions at half time, although recent tinkering with the first team and inexplicably retaining faith in Trotta don’t fuel too much optimism.

Otherwise we’ve got a local derby against Martin Allen’s Gillingham to look forward to next season.