At the end it was a sad sight. David Raya wanted to get off the pitch and into the dressing room as fast as possible. Thomas Frank stood with a shell-shocked Christian Norgaard alone in the centre of the Wembley turf. Sergi Canos had to be consoled by his coach and colleagues. All that hope, all that promise had come to nothing. Yet the irony was that outplayed as the Bees were for much of this undistinguished match they were still in it with a chance with fifteen minutes to go in extra time.
So what really hurt was that it was the third time at the crunch point of this resumed season that the Bees had failed to take a promotion opportunity. A brilliant season had ended in anti-climax.
Many of the games since the COVID break have been played in a weird atmosphere, but this game took weirdness to a new level. Ninety thousand seats in a stadium with just the lightest sprinkle of them occupied. Instead the wonderful display of Brentford fan flags was moved from Griffin Park to what would have been the Bees end.
The man doing the COVID checks in a tent at the front door of Wembley told me there were 800 names on his expected attendance list. I’m not sure where they all were but they weren’t watching the game. Shout ‘Come On The Bees’ at the top of your voice and it echoed round the stadium. You could hear the players and they could hear you.
From the start it was clear that Fulham were going to be put one hell of a press on the Brentford centre-backs to prevent them playing out from the back. Preston were the first to develop this tactic and others had copied it since. Fulham took it to new extremes, their front line lining up three abreast in front of the Brentford back four for the first quarter of the game. Nobody in the Bees midfield could find any space to take a pass from Jansson or Pinnock as the Fulham midfield doubled Brentford’s trouble by stifling any forward movement. We barely left our own half, instead relying on long balls to the ever willing runner Ollie Watkins.
A first half stat told the story: one Fulham midfielder, Tom Cairney, completed more passes than Brentford’s three put together. Admittedly on half an hour Christian Norgaard had taken the full force of Harrison Reed’s boot on his foot, for which Reed got a yellow and after that little was seen of the Dane. Brentford were relieved to have gone in at half-time nil-nil.
After fifteen minutes of the second half Thomas Frank made an inevitable change to his midfield but it wasn’t to take one of them off. Instead he brought off Bryan Mbeumo who was having a game this young player will want to forget, moved Josh Dasilva forward on the right and Emiliano Marcondes into midfield. Things got a bit better and there was a further marginal improvement when Sergi Canos took over from Dasilva but Fulham were still more forceful going forward even if they didn’t make that many chances.In the Fulham technical area Aleksander Mitrovic, returning from injury, was an ever-present sub lurking in the hope of coming on. But Scott Parker waited until the final few of the 90 minutes to do that.
In the stadium there was a rush to the toilets before extra time began. For those neutrals watching at home on TV the decision was whether to watch another half an hour of what was not a great advert for Championship football. Bees fans had no choice but to carry on, painful as it was at times. Their team was fifteen minutes away from penalties when there was a sequence of events that led to Fulham taking the lead. David Raya who had been having a good game until that point was at the beginning and end of it. As Fulham attacked on the left Raya rushed from his goal out of the box and headed the ball. It fell to Onomah and Norgaard brought him down. While Mitrovic grabbed Marcondes by the throat and threw him to the ground and Jansson grappled with Hector, Joe Bryan was plotting what to do with the free-kick. He looked purposefully towards the blue and white lines of players across the box but it was a disguise, instead of swinging it over for a header as everybody expected he fired directly into the left hand corner of Raya’s net. It left the Spanish goalkeeper stranded as he anticipated a cross that never came. He changed direction too late. Fulham were ahead. Effectively that decided it. Fulham coach Scott Parker said later they’d studied Raya in previous games and spotted he over-anticipated crosses.
In response Thomas Frank went four, or was it five, up front going for an equaliser but Joe Bryan got a second good if more conventional goal after a one-two in the box. In the final minute of the 120 Henrik Dalsgaard got one back for the Bees but it was too late.
Afterwards Frank -asked about top players now being sold- said that Brentford would start the season with a very strong side “but with who I don’t know yet.”Bees fans will be wondering that too. His son sat up with the Brentford delegation above the royal box obviously disappointed that his dad’s team had lost. But when Matthew Benham left Wembley with his family he was remarkably calm, this £160m chance to recoup his £100m investment in Brentford had gone but there would be others and one starts in just over a month.
Brentford: Raya; Dalsgaard, Jansson, Pinnock, Henry (sub Fosu ); Jensen (Dervişoğlu ), Nørgaard, Dasilva ( Canós ); Mbeumo (Marcondes), Watkins, Benrahma
Fulham: Rodák; Odoi (Christie), Hector, Ream, Bryan; Reed, Cairney; Kebano (Knockaert), Onomah ( Le Marchand ), Decordova-Reid ( Mitrović ); Kamara (Instead the Cavaleiro)
We all hoped for something special in the final game at Griffin Park but who could have predicted this? Wonderful goals with our BMW re-tuned to perfection, exhaustive pressing as every player gave their all and, of course Brentford being Brentford, a scare towards the end. Those of us privileged to be inside the old stadium for the last time were left wishing there’d been thousands of fans in the stadium instead of just us, a couple of dozen directors and staff.
Before one of the biggest nights in the club’s history, just one step away from a game that could put us in the Premiership, there was barely an ounce of atmosphere. Even the last playing of ‘Hey Jude’ at Griffin Park was low key. But Peter Gilham launched his final ‘Brentfooooord’ and straight from kick-off it was clear that the Bees were in better shape for this game than the Swans who seemed daunted by the occasion. Rico Henry was back after his red card from the first leg was rescinded, just as Thomas Frank had predicted it would be. Josh Dasilva dropped to the bench to allow both Emiliano Marcondes and Matthias Jensen to start in midfield alongside Christian Norgaard.
And it was Jensen, who was poor in that first leg, who made the first goal with a contender for pass of the season, one Romaine Sawyers would have been proud of. The move started when David Raya, clearing up after a Swansea free kick, launched the ball to Jensen in right midfield.The Dane spotted a narrow path through to Ollie Watkins, a mere 50 yards ahead, and delivered the pass with such accuracy that Ollie was through on goal with defenders trailing in his wake. He despatched it with precision and power and ran off making his trademark finger to his lips salute to the imaginary away fans or was it a message to the Swansea bench for comments they made after Sunday’s game.
Bees were now level on aggregate and with the momentum to go ahead. It only took four minutes. Said Benrahma spotted Marcondes signalling a run into the box and the Algerian placed the cross perfectly onto his head. Two-nil, two-one on aggregrate. Swansea almost pegged it back when Gallagher was through on goal but David Raya pushed the shot away with such power that none of those following up got a second go at it. For the rest of the half Brentford were dominant and there could have easily been two more Bees goals.
B Team head coach Neil MacFarlane, Mads Bech Sorensen, Luka Racic and Ellery Balcombe were among those celebrating the goals.
For those of us who feared Swansea must make a better fist of the second half there was immediate relief when Rico Henry sped down the left wing and put over a cross which Bryan Mbeumo met first time lashing it into the goal .Even with a two-goal advantage Brentford never gave up pressing Swansea all over the pitch. Watkins was back to his very best, winning balls in the air, chasing down chances, harrying defenders. Benrahma too was everywhere he needed to be. This was a 100% team performance delivered with 100% effort.There was no real chance of Swansea scoring.
But then they did. A ball through the middle appeared to pose no immediate threat but Pontus Jansson, who until that point had mastered all that Ayew and Brewster could throw at him, tried a scorpion kick that went wrong. Brewster just needed to lob it over Raya. Pontus was furious with himself for what he later called ‘a sloppy, very bad mistake, my first this season’ and Said Benrahma went back to reassure his captain it wasn’t the end of the world.Suddenly the silent Swansea delegation in the Braemar Road stand rose to a man urging their team on. For the rest of the game the rival camps in the stands shouted themselves hoarse as Swansea raised their game but never really enough to threaten a goal. Sergi Canos came on for Bryan Mbeumo and he brought fresh energy as Brentford not only held off Swansea but went close themselves with Benrahma taking a snap shot that went just over the bar.
After the game Thomas Frank said the team had been irritated by the outcome of the first leg and that had been a driving force for the second. He’d told the team: ’we can’t not win in the final game at Griffin Park’. The players had been shown a video in which Bees fans talked about how important the game was to them.
Had the fans been in the stadium ‘Celebration’ would have been played and the teams would have done a long lap of honour to salute their supporters. Instead the players hugged each other and Thomas Frank then came to wave to Matthew Benham, his wife and son, and his club officials.He also embraced his own son
Thomas Frank embraces his son at pitch-side
What else do you do when your team has won a place in a Wembley final in the final game at your ground. Well Matthew Benham was keen to get on the pitch before it was eventually ripped ip and try a crossbar challenge. ‘I want to do a Trotta” he said.
Matthew Benham tries ‘a Trotta’.
He and chairman Cliff Crown enjoyed a relaxed beer with Thomas Frank at the side of the pitch. Outside fans were gathering in Braemar Road celebrating the victory. Matthew made a brief ‘balcony appearance’ outside the boardroom to salute them.
There were choruses of ‘there’s only one Matthew Benham’ and ‘only one Peter Gilham’ who also waved to the crowd.
Supporters also made their way round to Brook Road to what is normally the away fans entrance but is the ‘COVID protocol’ way in and out for the home players. Singing and cheering could be heard after eleven o’clock. Finally just before eleven thirty, Matthew Benham left the building and the Griffin Park floodlights went off for the last time.
Associate Director and long-term club sponsor Join Herting had taken his usual directors seat box for the last time.
Chief Executive Jon Varney savoured his season ticket seat for a final few minutes. I sat in the paddock where I first stood with my father over sixty years ago. It was sad to be saying goodbye but in truth our thoughts were also on Wembley.
Brentford: Raya; Dalsgaard, Jansson, Pinnock, Henry; Jensen, Nørgaard, Marcondes (sub Dasilva); Mbeumo (Canós), Benrahma, Watkins
Swansea City: Mulder; Naughton (Celina), van der Hoorn ( Cabango), Guehi; Roberts, Fulton (Dhanda), Grimes, Bidwell; Gallagher; Ayew, Brewst
Brentford will go into the second leg of this play-off at Griffin Park on Wednesday with more confidence than might be expected after their third consecutive defeat.
They know that for much of this game they were the more fluent team playing without the nerves or hesitancy we feared after the two games that put players and fans through an emotional wringer. Having beaten Swansea by at least two goals in earlier games this season they know that target is achievable. And they will be driven on by a righteous indignation at the decision by referee Keith Stroud to red card Rico Henry which, subject to a possible appeal, will keep him out of both the second leg and the final if the Bees get there.
Your reporter had a very clear view from the main stand in the Liberty Stadium and the uncomfortable truth is that when Rico set off for that ball he was always going to arrive second. But because of his extraordinary pace and his sliding tackle he arrived only a fraction of a second after Connor Roberts made the first touch and Rico cleared the ball and sent Roberts flying. The first response of the Sky and iFollow commentators was that it wasn’t even a foul but later the studio pundits opted for a yellow card rather than a red. Brentford can appeal the decision but significantly the pundits didn’t think the red would be overturned believing the powers-that-be will be influenced by the fact that Rico was not in full control of his tackle. Thomas Frank begged to differ saying ‘I’m 100% we will have a decision where Rico will play on Wednesday’. He confirmed there would be an appeal. He also couldn’t understand why VAR, not used in normal season Championship games, couldn’t be available for the play-offs where £170 million pounds was at stake. He thought that without the red card Brentford would have gone on and won the game.
Thomas had started the game with a mostly unchanged line-up rotating Emiliano Marcondes to bring back Matthias Jensen but resisting the temptation to start Tariqe Fosu or Sergi Canos instead of Bryan Mbeumo or bring Shandon Baptiste into midfield. Those same decisions will face him again on Wednesday because neither Mbeumo or Jensen shone at Swansea.
Swansea’s style of play allows their opponents space in midfield and Brentford used it with Said Benrahma often dropping deeper into central midfield to start his drives towards goal. Said had the first chance of the game with that rare sighting: a Benrahma header, but it went just wide.
Another early chance also came from a header: an Ollie Watkins back flick was well saved by Erwin Mulder in the Swansea goal. Brentford had most of the possession in the first quarter with Christian Nørgaard again outstanding in midfield. But their chances went begging especially when Rico Henry burst down the left and crossed for Watkins to head wide.
Swansea’s first chance was when Swansea striker Rhian Brewster, a Liverpool loanee, launched one of his now trademark ferocious drives which David Raya did very well to beat clear.Their second chance again featured Brewster. When the ball rebounded to him off the post after a corner he tried to head it into the Brentford goal, possibly from an offside position, but Raya was able to smoother it.
On balance the Bees deserved to go in at half time ahead and they would have if Said Benrahma had ended an extraordinary slalom run through the Swansea penalty area by shooting into rather than over the bar.
In the second half more Brentford chances followed -Jensen had one of the best which left him head in hands and then came yellow cards for him, Henrik Dalsgaard and Christian Nørgaard, as the game got rough round the edges.
When Pontus Jansson challenged Brewster in the box, a penalty was given against him. Andre Ayew did a stop-start run-up which gave Raya an extra moment to guess right and diving left he one-handedly saved the shot.
Then came the sending off and Thomas Frank brought on Mads Roerslev to cover at left back, Josh Dasilva made way. And up front Marcondes replaced Mbeumo.There were 25 minutes to go, either to hold out for a draw or snatch a winner. With only 8 of those minutes left Ayew, determined to redeem himself after the penalty miss, attacked from the right, Conor Gallagher (remember him from that costly goal against us at Charlton?) did a clever flick, and Jay Fulton set it up for Ayew to smash it into the corner of the net. For once Raya could do nothing about it.
Joel Valencia came on for a tiring Benrahma, and Shandon Baptiste for Jensen. Brentford’s only chance to get an equaliser came in the final few minutes when Ollie Watkins faced goal but couldn’t get the ball out from under his feet.
At the end Thomas Frank shook hands with the officials, his body language was calm but it’s difficult to believe words were not exchanged.
Swansea City: Mulder; Cabango, van der Hoorn, Guehi; Roberts, Fulton, Grimes, Bidwell; Gallagher; Ayew, Brewster.
Brentford: Raya; Dalsgaard, Jansson, Pinnock, Henry; Jensen (sub Baptiste), Nørgaard, Dasilva (Roerslev) Mbeumo (Marcondes), Benrahma (Valencia), Watkins.
So, at the end of an exhausting regular season, Brentford find themselves third in the Championship, in their highest position since falling out of the top flight over 70 years ago, with a goal difference of over 40, and yet absolutely devastated not to be in the Premier League. West Brom, who we chased down over seven games after lockdown, staggered over the finishing line with one point from the last two games, and with even QPR doing their best to help their West London rivals, it proved not to be our night.
Like at Stoke last Saturday, the very early signs were positive with Emiliano Marcondes, replacing Mathias Jensen in the starting line up, having a shot from the edge of the box in the first few minutes. But, as the half wore on, the very energetic high line of Barnsley meant that we were having great difficulty moving the ball out from the back. Indeed, although we didn’t have the benefit of all the statistics, it seemed a fair bet that David Raya was seeing more of the ball than our forward line. We were being pressured in and around our own box, and, at one point dragged Christian Norgaard back to share the load with Ethan and Pontus in attempting to play through it. News came in that QPR had scored against West Brom and hopes were raised that even if we just drew we would still prevail in the race for the promised land. Barnsley for all their hard work were not getting through our own defence and Rico Henry, in particular, was having a very strong game and repelling attacks down his side of the pitch. However, Ollie Watkins seemed very isolated up front, and we were finding it almost impossible to feed Said Benrahma the ball in areas where he might frighten the opposition. The midfield was crowded and more often than not, it was Barnsley that were getting on to the second ball and stifling our own efforts. There were a lot of niggly fouls, probably due to the importance of the game to both sides, and Robert Jones, the man in the middle, was rather pedantic in his management of the match without at this stage producing any yellow cards. Brentford had two scares in this period of the game, a claim for handball which might well have been given, and another for a foul by Ethan which looked like a penalty from the Braemar Road stand. They were both waved away but we had been warned. And then just as we were counting down to half time and the chance for us to regroup and perhaps reorganise for the second half, Barnsley scored their opening goal. We failed to clear a cross convincingly and Styles latched on to the ball and struck it with power into the net. It was difficult to keep pace with scores elsewhere but no sooner had Barnsley scored than the news went round the very small crowd that West Brom had equalised and so things had gone from bad to worst.
This only got worse with the news, four minutes into the second half that our rivals had scored again at home and it was difficult not to think that, even if we managed to recover, things were out of our hands. Thomas started to ring the changes and our performance picked up substantially. The biggest difference came on the hour with the arrival in midfield of Mathias Jensen, replacing Rico Henry. Barnsley had gradually become less of a threat and seemed more concerned to stop our movement with a succession of fouls and to waste time whenever possible. Shuffling the pack and putting more men in midfield immediately increased our impact on the game and as they fell back the distance between Ollie and the rest of the team diminished and he started to see more of the ball. Said too was finding space and he was helping to drive us forward, and Josh was a much greater presence in midfield. Their goalmouth was suddenly busier and it seemed much more likely that we would get the breakthrough. It came from a wonderful mazy run from Said, one of those where you feared he would be tripped or would lose control at the vital moment. He glided past at least three of the opposition, slid the ball to Tariq Fosu whose attempt rebounded to Josh who curled one of his trademark shots into the far corner. We were back in the game and to cap it off QPR had equalised. This might be our night after all.
I have to confess that the next twenty minutes was a bit of a blur, with one attack after another, some close, some not so close. The best move was definitely the one where Said once again made space for himself on the left, curled a beautiful ball across the whole defence to Ollie, who very narrowly failed to do what he has done all season. Undaunted we carried on. Ethan and Emiliano had been replaced by Tariq and Sergi Canos because the threat from Barnsley had diminished as ours had grown. They were, of course, not wasting time any more but their attacks were few and far between and were mopped up by our two remaining defenders, Henrik Dalsgaard and Pontus Jansson. There was slight bedlam in the stands with everyone shouting out scores from other matches – was it possible that QPR might score again, please God yes – and also of course shouting support for the team. Bryan Mbeumo was replaced by Shandon Baptiste just four minutes from time, but we knew that there had to be at least five minutes of added time and so there was still that chance we could nick the win. And then as we moved into six extra minutes, one of those rare breaks from Barnsley broke our hearts. As ever there were questions about a possible foul on Shandon at the start of the movement but with our makeshift defence and a couple of decent passes by their forwards the ball found its way into the net from the foot of Oduor.
The final five minutes seemed to take ten but nothing we did made any difference to the score. To take 24 points from 8 games and none from the last two was as disappointing as it was surprising, but we came up against a very strong team in Stoke at the weekend and Barnsley also thwarted us throughout the first half and somehow managed to limit us to one goal in the second. We were more like ourselves in the final quarter but ultimately it wasn’t enough. This everlasting season has yet another phase. The departure from the competition of Nottingham Forest was perhaps the shock of the night as they had looked as strong as any team in the top half up to the lockdown. They beat us home and away and were my own favourites to reach the final against us. But it’s now Swansea rather than Cardiff on Sunday and, as ever in the playoffs, form counts for nothing. We’d have settled for the playoffs at some points in the season. Let’s now rewrite the record books and close the deal.
Brentford: Raya; Dalsgaard, Jansson, Pinnock (sub Fosu), Henry (Jensen); Marcondes (Canós), Nørgaard, Dasilva; Mbeumo (Baptiste), Watkins, Benrahma
Barnsley: Walton; Sollbauer, Andersen, J. Williams; Ludewig (Schmidt), Mowatt, Ritzmaier (Odour), Styles; Thomas (Simões); Brown, Chaplin (Woodrow)
The only way to start this report is with the final score, 1 nil to Stoke City. Having seen WBA lose last night and having spent the rest of the night and this morning thinking about the opportunity created by that loss, it was deeply disappointing not to take advantage of it. Immediately afterwards, on social media, this was cruelly described as snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and comparisons were being drawn with the Trotta penalty against Doncaster, but this doesn’t tell the whole story. Before we kicked off this afternoon, we had played 7 high pressure games against dogged opposition, none more tough than against Preston only three days previously, and, as they did today, every member of the team gave their utmost. This is a team that, at its best, and it has been at its best over the same period, is a delight to watch and one that most other teams find impossible to negate. We were all wondering if the intensity of the challenge would take its toll and, together with perhaps the most organised defence we’ve faced in recent weeks, it seems that it might have done.
The pattern of the game was set right from the first minute, with Stoke getting the ball forward into wide areas and putting some great crosses into the box, where Vokes and Gregory were waiting for them. We tried throughout the game to get into our passing rhythm but too often the last pass in the final third was intercepted or the ball was taken off the toes of Ollie Watkins and Said Benrahma. Brian Mbeumo was busy down the right wing, and Rico Henry made some dashing runs down the left but the sharpness and pace of previous games seemed to be lacking in much of our work. Stoke, with Powell Batth and McClean adding their vast experience and knowing professionalism to the two powerful forwards, were making life very difficult, and Clucas was also very busy in midfield. Having said all that, we were quietly confident that for all their threat, they didn’t seem likely to score, and, after all, we would be content with a point if we couldn’t have all three. And then as the clock ticked on towards half time, David Raya failed to either secure a long shot from Clucas or push it away, and Gregory jumped on the rebound to put Stoke ahead. Even then we were not too downhearted as we judged we would create chances just as we have in almost every game this season and we would prevail. But it was not to be. The only notable event in our favour in the first half was a blatant foul on Ethan Pinnock in the box from a set piece that went unnoticed and unpunished. It was a clear penalty but the lack of a decision rather summed up our day. If we were going to get anything from the game we would have to do it despite the officials.
To be fair to Stoke, they had the best chance of the third quarter of the game with another beautifully weighted cross headed only narrowly wide with our central defenders both beaten, albeit for the only time in the match. Our tempo increased after the restart and we seemed to be getting into our stride, but rather fussy refereeing and incessant time wasting made this difficult. If this seems like sour grapes, it probably is, as there was little spark in our work, but one wonders how or why officials are so reluctant to get on top of such frustrating tactics designed to break up play.
Perhaps because our nerves were being shredded by the inability of our forward line to have any impact on the Stoke defence, it became very difficult to watch. Time and time again we passed the ball across the back line, through the midfield, chiefly by great work again by the tireless Christian Norgaard, to Said or Emiliano, who had replaced Josh da Silva on 59 minutes, only to see the move break down on the edge of the packed Stoke box. They were stretched across the park with only Gregory up front, and were so well drilled and, mainly within the rules, physical, that we really didn’t trouble Davies in goal until the last five minutes.Thomas tried a number of different permutations, bringing on Halil and Sergi for Rico and Matthias on 69 minutes, and then Shandon and Tariq for Bryan and Henrik for the last 10 minutes but it didn’t change the pattern of play, now largely Brentford in possession running into the wall that was Stoke’s defence and the odd but ineffective counter attacks. The only impact that Campbell had made as a substitute, in truth, was that his time wasting was so blatant as to finally see Mr Eltringham produce a yellow card. Such was the surprise felt by the official at this point that he then threw his yellow card to the ground and ran off without it. Emiliano I think it was that called him back and retrieved it.
We piled forward in the last five or ten minutes with more pace and purpose and once again Ethan was blatantly pushed over in the box and once again it went unpunished. And after a couple of half chances, one by Watkins that he put narrowly wide from close in on goal, and another by Sergi, where with more match sharpness he might have either had a better shot or a better cross from the right, it was Ethan who finally drew a very good save from Davies in the dying embers of this disappointing game.
I’m sure there will be many theories as to why we finally dropped three points and various views on how it might have been avoided, along the lines of “if only we’d started with x instead of y”, But none of us know what knocks this squad are carrying as a result of the last seven games and only Thomas and the back room team are in a position to balance inevitable tiredness against the need for certain individuals to be on the pitch. The one thing you couldn’t fault today was effort and it simply wasn’t enough on this occasion. Stoke were strong and ultimately too strong for us.
Eight games unbeaten is an extraordinary achievement in this most competitive of leagues, seven in the last few hectic weeks, and it is a tribute to the pressure put on WBA that they started to falter. We are still in the game, with two more chances to gain that promotion, next Wednesday and the play-offs. Four days rest and time to analyse this rare off day should see us bounce back for the game against Barnsley, a game still possibly the last one to be played at Griffin Park.
Stoke City: Davies; Batth, Chester, Martins Indi; Smith, Cousins, Clucas, McLean; Powell (sub Collin) Gregory (Sorensen), Vokes ( Campbell)
Brentford: Raya; Dalsgaard (Baptiste), Jansson, Pinnock, Henry (Dervişoğlu ); Jensen (Canós), Nørgaard, Dasilva (Marcondes ); Mbeumo (Fosu ), Watkins, Benrahma
“I can cope with the despair, it’s the hope I can’t stand”. These words, spoken by John Cleese in the film Clockwise, capture rather well the conflicting emotions as we continue to prolong the possibility of automatic promotion. This winning run has some similarities with his journey, as his character in the film, faced with overwhelming odds, over and over again, and increasingly narrowly, keeps snatching victory from the jaws of defeat and stays on track.
The game against Preston looked on paper as probably the most difficult hurdle remaining. They had beaten us at Deepdale and their style, similar to that of of Millwall and Cardiff, is one that traditionally has caused us problems. However, the early goal after only four minutes, stemming from a tackle by Ethan Pinnock near our corner flag and a subsequent quick passing movement and a sublime pass from Emiliano Marcondes to Ollie Watkins, looked as if it might calm our nerves. And for much of the first half, Brentford were able to control the match, with only a couple of stray passes out of defence causing any palpitations. Preston are one of those sides that are not too bothered about the possession statistics; they are well organised, they harry the opposition, and when play breaks down, they all get into the final third as quickly as possible. Their hard work and undoubted physicality meant that Rico Henry and Henrik Dalsgaard needed the support of their teammates to nullify the threat, and although the Bees were dominant, they didn’t make the most of their dominance and only caused Declan Rudd to pull off one save from a Said Benrahma shot in the first 45 minutes. Notable again for us at the game was the commanding voice of Pontus Jansson marshalling the defence and reminding the whole team to keep the pace in our forward play.
From the first minute of the second half we knew we were in for a much harder game, with Alex Neil moving from the rigid five at the back formation and pushing Preston much further up the pitch. In some respects he seemed to allow them to play more football, and they started to pass the ball through the midfield with many fewer long balls above their heads. A free kick from Darnell Fisher, whose main contribution had been to foul Rico throughout the first half without the referee taking any action, was probably Preston’s best chance of the game, drawing a great diving save from David Raya. There was a slight breeze against Preston which meant that Rudd’s kicks were holding up rather than going straight through to David Raya as in the first half. There were more occasions prior to the water break when the nerves of the few spectators were tested and it was no surprise when just before that break, Matthias Jensen was replaced by the fresh legs and bigger physical presence of Josh da Silva. It was unclear from the Braemar Road stand whether Thomas had the white board out during the break .I’m told that on TV it looked more like a white pad, but very little changed in the pattern of the game when play resumed.
As we knew they would, PNE started to ring the changes. Whatever Alex Neil may have said after the game, this was make or break for their season, and he didn’t want to go down without trying different players. So, on 75 minutes, on came Jaydon Stockley, Scott Sinclair and Brad Potts, which, particularly with Stockley, increased the physical threat up front and promised to make life for Pontus, Henrik and Ethan even more uncomfortable. In response, Brentford got slightly smaller with the tiring Bryan Mbeumo replaced by Joel Valencia. Stockley had the immediate predicted impact getting on the end of long balls and more often than ideal seeing the ball bounce off him to a teammate. We started looking anxiously at the clock as our fewer breaks upfield were matched by balls into the box, one in particular causing some alarm and ultimately pain to Emiliano as the clearance smashed into his midriff rather than reaching midfield. Having said all that, Raya was not called into action and most of the trouble was nullified by the defence in front of him.
Alex Neil’s final changes saw Harrop and Bodin on 84 minutes but by that stage we appeared to be coping with the more direct threat of Stockley and having most of the ball, without making the most of the breaks we created. Watkins was pulling their defence all over the area just outside the 18 yard box, demonstrating once again how well he has managed the transformation from winger to fully fledged centre forward, but neither he nor Benrahma could quite turn chances into that crucial second goal. Joel Valencia was busy but was finding it difficult to get into the game, and it was with some surprise we saw the equally slight Jan Zamburek enter the fray for the final 7 minutes. However, he linked up well with those around him and helped Brentford see the game out, with only one or two final flourishes from the opposition. Throughout the game, the quiet competence of Christian Norgaard could easily have been overlooked but he was the constant fulcrum in midfield, a calm and calming influence, constantly moving into space, making himself available and playing the simple ball to a teammate.
And so we still have hope.
Brentford: Raya; Dalsgaard, Jansson, Pinnock, Henry; Jensen (Dasilva ), Nørgaard, Marcondes (Žambůrek); Mbeumo (Valencia), Watkins, Benrahma
Preston North End: Rudd; Fisher (Stockley ), Storey, Bauer, Hughes, Rafferty; Ledson (Harrop), Johnson; Barkhuizen (Sinclair), Browne (Potts), Maguire (Bodin)