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)