Third season: Wolves at the door
Brentford 1, Wolves 4; 27 December 2023
It never rains but it pours – and it certainly did when a reinvigorated Wolves side dropped by to contest the Bee’s final home game of the year.
Struggling to find eleven players with plenty of first-team experience, Thomas Frank did the best he could, avoiding selecting any passer-by who looked injury-free and up for a kick-about. But even his spirit must have been dampened. Residual damage to nine or ten regulars may have made his job nightmarishly difficult, but then nobody said it would be easy.
Even the much-improved Wolves’ squad could not have dreamed that Brentford would help them out when the going got really rough. Nathan Collins, for example. One of the few first-team regulars restored after his own injury, the roving centre-back with a hunger for goals spoiled his usual immaculate game by sending an inadequate back-pass towards keeper Mark Flekken, leaving Hee-chan Hwang to sprint faster to the ball and despatch it with ease.
Already a goal down – scored by Mario Lemina only seconds before this calamity – Brentford then had time to plunder one of their own, Yoane Wissa seizing on a Neal Maupay chip to diminish the deficit. But hope proved less than eternal, with South Korean Hee-chan scoring his second before the break and a further opposition goal coming after it.
Displaying their familiar do-or-die grit, Brentford moved up a gear or two after the break. This was partly due to Mikkel Damsgaard being substituted for Yehor Yarmoliuk and, later, the creative Mathias Jensen replacing Mads Roerslev, which totally transformed the midfield.
Damsgaard, in particular, darted here, there and everywhere else, providing a non-stop service for the front runners, Maupay and Wissa. Sadly, the finishing was not as good as the preparation – oh, how Bryan Mbeumo is missed – but the fact that Wolves’ first real chance of scoring since half time was restricted to striking an upright after Jensen had made his 67-minute welcome reappearance was testimony to the change in fortunes.
Before being substituted by Jean-Ricter Bellegarde, the twice scoring Hee-chan offered a lesson in front-running that Maupay – as busy as any Bee, but often lacking the sting – and Wissa, a fizzer when on form but blowing hot and cold here, could not match. The talented Keane Lewis-Potter worked hard but failed to convert a golden goalmouth chance and began to look jaded before the end.
In defence, Ethan Pinnock worked tirelessly – what a splendid season he is having – but as often happens when backs are to walls, Bellegarde was able to take advantage of Collins’ second blunder to add a fourth goal in the seventy-ninth minute.
‘We made two big mistakes, which doesn’t help us,’ lamented Frank at the final whistle. Guess whose were those particular errors?
So the Premier League looked grim come the finish. With Wolves elevated to eleventh – it seems only a blink away that the Bees were up there in the top ten, reaching for the stars – Brentford find themselves in fourteenth and only four points above the relegation zone.
Whisper who dares, Ivan Toney is on the brink of being available following his long suspension. And the Bees’ next opponents, Crystal Palace, are actually a place (and four points) below them in the table.
Watch this space and, as I told my mate Charlie, reflect on this being the first time we’ve conceded four goals since returning to the top flight. What’s more, revenge can be sweet and Wolves will be back to play at the Gtech in a FA Cup-tie almost before we know it.
‘Hardly worth them going home, is it?’ said Charlie.
Brentford: Flekken; Roerslev (substitute Jensen 67’), Collins, Pinnock, Ghoddos; Yarmoliuk (sub Damsgaard 45) Nørgaard, Janelt; Wissa (sub Olakigbe 86), Maupay; Lewis-Potter (sub Peart-Harris 86).
Wolverhampton Wanderers: Sá; Kilman, Bueno, Gomes; Nélson Semedo (sub Doherty 64), João Gomes, Lemina; Ait-Nouri (sub Bueno 80); Sarabia, (sub Doyle 65), Matheus Cunha; Hwang Hee-chan (sub Bellegarde 45+7).
Third season: Basement blues
Crystal Palace 3, Brentford 1; 30 December 2023
Palace and the Bees had much in common at Selhurst Park. Misfortune combined with a nasty slide down the Premier League table meant that the three points up for grabs were crucial. And we all know what can happen when two close-to-desperate sides scrabble for a rare victory: someone is likely to end up with mud on his face.
For Brentford, still beset with more injury problems than your average A & E hospital ward, the afternoon began so promisingly. Within two minutes of kick-off, Keane Lewis-Porter, not prolific in the goal-snatching department, was positioned perfectly to skid into a volley after Mathias Jensen and Mads Roerslev brought home the Danish bacon on the right. Keeper Dean Henderson couldn’t cope.
Whereupon three-and-a-half minutes ticked by while VAR pondered whether or not Lewis-Porter was onside. One wonders if supporters should be entertained with re-runs of past triumphs to while away the time while such deliberations are completed. As it was, Brentford were given the nod and went one-up.
The visitors were possibly at their leanest in terms of putting together a combative team, so it came as no surprise when after twelve minutes more a cross from Jordan Ayew found Michael Olise at the far post to register the equaliser with a flamboyant mid-air volley.
Six minutes from the break Eberechi Eze wrong-footed Mark Flekken to put Palace ahead and Olise – a striker of class and style – put the result to bed after 58 minutes with a solo effort. For the Bees, Neal Maupay came close in a late Brentford flurry, but Henderson pulled off a splendid save.
Palace welcomed the win following a run of eight winless games, while Brentford registered their fifth Premier League consecutive defeat. And the return to the fold of Ivan Toney still seems a long time coming.
Brentford: Flekken; Zanka, Pinnock, Collins; Roerslev (substitute Onyeka 63m), Jensen (sub Maupay 63), Nørgaard (sub Damsgaard 67), Janelt (sub Yarmoliuk 80), Ghoddos; Wissa, Lewis-Potter (sub Olakigbe 80).
FA Cup: The Cup underfloweth
Brentford 1, Wolverhampton Wanderers 1; 05 January 2024
Question: which is the most painful – losing 1-4, or hanging on for a 1-1 draw? Clue: the draw was achieved, if that’s the word, after the opposition had a player sent off after just nine minutes.
Answer: Don’t ask! Or simply seek the opinion of any of the Brentford faithful who turned out in the hope that their team would take revenge on a Wolves side that delivered a drubbing at the Gtech Stadium in the last home game of the season. Surely early-season promise could not evaporate at the determined hands of the Molineux men? Or the Crystal Palace squad, which won 3-1 the week after? Is this the second of the rapid hat-trick against Brentford by Wolves (put February 10 in your diary if a glutton for punishment)?
We know the reason or reasons for the slump, of course. Such was the length of Thomas Franks’ injury list, he could have laid those on it head-to-toe to receive medical attention the length of the pitch. And it seemed that whenever one of the stricken began to reach match fitness, one or two new ones would join the queue at the far end.
So the message has had to be that the survival of the fittest determines the starting line-ups. At least, it would have been solely so had not the Africa Cup of Nations hove into view, demanding the presence of all those qualifying from one of the 54 countries from that continent alone.
And so to the FA Cup third round game itself, which more or less began with a punt of a clearance into the east stand by Zanka, which suggested that (a) the Bees’ defence was functioning okay, or (b) Wolves were able to penetrate deep into the home side’s territory without too much trouble.
There was not much time to ponder this before Wolves’ midfielder João Gomes made a tackle from the rear on Christian Nørgaard that had the touchline medics out of their traps almost before the Bees’ skipper had hit the ground. Gomes looked rueful, acknowledging his error, but rueful doesn’t wash in such circumstances and referee Tony Harrington had no hesitation in producing a red card.
Nørgaard having hopped from the field supported by two human crutches, and replaced by Vitaly Janelt, Brentford set about exploiting the advantages of an extra player. Nathan Collins thumped a shot only inches over the crossbar and Josh Dasilva – welcome back, Josh – manoeuvred himself into a shooting position but lacked the power to beat excellent keeper José Sá at full stretch.
Then a cross from Matthias Jensen penetrated the goal area to the extent that the ball pinged and ponged its way for a moment before Neal Maupay carefully chose a vacant route for it to take without bothering Sá’s undoubted skills.
But post-break the game changed. Brentford seemed to allow the visitors to take charge and the home defence was required to work overtime. All five subs were deployed, and tempers became frayed as Wolves launched waves of attacks like an advancing tide. Maupay was shoved by Sá in one of his rare appearances in the penalty area and it looked as if only an equaliser would do for the visitors’ marauding front-runners.
Never think such thoughts! On 64 minutes Tommy Doyle found himself in a vacant space way out of reach of the defence and his thunderbolt of a shot was in the net before Thomas Strakosha could even contemplate responding.
Jensen departed from the fray after stopping a ball with his kisser and then there was no more, other than for Wolves’ head coach Gary O’Neil to complain that, what with Gomes having been punished for a bad foul, Mikkel Damsgaard should have been dismissed for stamping on Doyle in a tussle for the ball.
‘Could have been worse’, I told my mate Charlie. ‘We could have lost.’
‘There’s always the replay,’ said Charlie.
Brentford; Strakosha; Zanka (substitute Yarmoliuk 73m), Pinnock, Collins; Roerslev (sub Peart-Harris 45), Damsgaard, Nørgaard , Jensen (sub Baptiste 73), Lewis-Potter; Dasilva (sub Olakigbe 63), Maupay.
Wolves: C; Kilman, Bueno, Gomes; Nélson Semedo. João Gomes, Doyle, Doherty; Sarabia (sub Neto 55), Matthias Cunha; Bellegarde (sub Chirewa 90+1).
FA Cup third round replay
Wolverhampton Wanderers 3, Brentford 2; 16 January 2024
This was a game Brentford were just not fated to win. Twice in front, despite another injury list resembling more a doctor’s waiting room queue than a collection of athletes, the good old Bees’ spirit had kicked in once again. Happy days, indeed, but not necessarily for those destined to last the full ninety minutes, plus half-an-hour extra time hopefully for luck.
Kristoffer Ajer set the tone inside the first quarter-hour, drawing a superb save from keeper José Sá but leaving Nathan Collins to slide in to convert. Nélson Semedo tapped in an equaliser on 36 minutes, after his first effort had been repelled by Bees’ Thomas Strakosha. But Neal Maupay restored the visitors’ lead six minutes into the second half – excellent goal poaching seemed to have returned to his armoury at last – and it began to look as if the 1-1 draw following a 4-1 Premier League hiding at the Gtech might signal a continuing revival in fortunes.
Sadly, it was not to be. Wolves played catch-up for the second time on 72 minutes when 18-year-old sub Nathan Fraser fired them back into serious contention after just two of those minutes and then, in extra time, the home side were awarded a hotly-disputed penalty when Pedro Neto was toppled in the area. Matheus Cunha duly settled Wolves’ passage into the fourth round.
So near and yet so far! And over at the League programme, urgent attention was being called for.
Wolves: Sá; Kilman, Bueno, Gomes; Nélson Semedo; Hodge (substitute Lemina 70m), Doyle, João Gomes, Doherty (sub Neto 57); Sarabia (sub Bueno 87), Bellegarde (sub Fraser 70), Matheus Cunha (sub Dawson 109).
Brentford; Strakosha; Collins, Ajer (substitute Sanka 62m), Mee; Roerslev, Damsgaard (sub Baptiste 61), Janelt, Jensen (sub Yarmoliuk 90+4), Lewis-Potter (sub Olakigbe 99); Dasilva (sub Peart-Harris 62), Maupay.
THIRD SEASON: Welcome back Ivan
Brentford 3 Nottingham Forest 2; 20 January 2024
Thomas Frank made no secret of what he hoped to get from the game: Ivan Toney to score and the team to win. Too much to ask? Not really, especially as Toney was on the scoresheet at 19 minutes to equalise Forest’s three-minutes opener.
It wasn’t any old goal, of course. Toney was playing his first match following
eight months’ suspension (266 days, actually, since Nottingham Forest lost 1-2 at the Gtech). Toney scored that day also – a free kick not dissimilar to his comeback strike, except that was from even further away from the goal. This time it was also controversial, causing some of the Forest camp to howl when Toney moved the ball slightly before taking an extraordinary free kick, but it died away when it seemed no-one could actually say which law had been infringed.
Toney remained unflustered, as is his habit. His shot kept low for the entire journey into just inside the right-hand upright, somehow managing to skip over the prone Forest player deployed to prevent the ball breaching the human wall. Goalkeeper Matt Turner stood no chance at all.
Bearing in mind that Forest, having gone ahead through dos Santos Danilo after just three minutes, were dominant up until the equaliser, the change in Brentford’s attitude and fluidity of play was especially remarkable. The defence became more regimental in quickly reshaping their line, pushing the opposition back towards halfway with their frustration suffering silently with only gritted teeth to show.
Brentford’s ascendancy continued with Mathias Jensen – regaining his poise since returning from getting demobbed from the squad’s injury list – flighted a corner into the penalty area, where the defence appeared to have a momentary blackout. Ben Mee must have noticed and he arrived at speed to place a perfect airborne header beyond Turner’s skills.
Come half-time and the team seemed to be enjoying themselves and their lead. Could it last? Of course not!
Presumably the interval chit-chat consisted of more than discussions about the weather (cold but bright). Certainly, upon resumption Forest largely gave up trying to penetrate the home side’s confidence in their own territory. Pot-shots and more sophisticated long-range efforts began to irritate the defence and Toney and his cohorts began to struggle when attempting to surge goalwards.
Keane Lewis-Potter saw his effort smack the crossbar, otherwise chances to score diminished as Forest gained the upper hand and gained parity through a masterly flick by Chris Wood that fizzed into the far side of Mark Flekken’s goal. Forest’s mobile choir engaged once again with a selection of chants, some of which might have demoralised Toney if he was the type to take the slightest notice of such ribald frippery.
As it was, he was to be found covering every yard of the Gtech pitch, winning every ball in the air – how does he do that? – to helping Lewis-Potter and Mikkel Damsgaard grow in stature by the minute and trying to assist Neal Maupay as he found himself teeny compared to some of the muscular visiting centre backs.
Thwarted he may have been on many occasions, Maupay had a triumph on 68 minutes when Mads Roerslev produced a highly serviceable cross in Neal’s direction. Attended by two big fellows – big compared to Neal, that is – he made a turn so definitive his attendants ended up almost dancing a foxtrot together as the striker struck, his left-foot driving the ball wide of the hapless Turner.
Forest immediately called upon referee Darren England to disallow the goal on the grounds of handball by Maupay but VAR swiftly delivered a not-guilty verdict, which did nothing to deter the visitors from giving notice later that they would complain about Toney’s goal and Maupay’s, one of his finest.
The visitors were still smarting from what they saw as chicanery when Mr England added ten minutes to the action and the home crowd suffered frayed nerves as three points ticked away with the extra time. My mate Charlie, a knowledgeable student of the game, was resolute in insisting that referees can exercise discretion on free kick ball placement, give or take a yard.
He didn’t move it a yard, I told Charlie. ‘No, now how about another puzzle’, said Charlie. When Toney scored and ran to the dug-outs to hold up a shirt with the legend “For you Uncle Brian”. Who is Uncle Brian?’
Brentford: Flekken; Collins, Pinnock, Mee; Roerslev (substitute Ajer 90m), Damsgaard, (Baptiste 74), Janelt, Jensen (Yarmoliuk 90+7), Lewis-Potter (Dasilva 90), Maupay (Reguilón 74), Toney.
Nottingham Forest: Turner; Montiel (substituted Aquilera 86m), Omobamidele, Santiago Costa dos Santos, Tavares; Mangala, Danilo; Dominquez, Yates (N Williams 62), Hudson-Odoi; Wood.
THIRD SEASON: Eight-minute misery
Tottenham Hotspur 3, Brentford 2
The new firm – Neal Maupay replacing Bryan Mbeumo as Ivan Toney’s upfront partner – struck twice to put Brentford a whisper away from a point at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, but it wasn’t quite enough. Spurs, with the mercurial James Maddison returning from injury, managed a trio of goals within eight minutes early in the second half to steal the thunder from a thrilling London encounter.
What a fright they gave the slick home side, though, when Mads Roerslev ran clear to score his first Premier League goal. A shame that the offside flag had been waved before the ball found the net; it was a signal of intent that made Spurs realise the first ten minutes or so was not quite the stroll in the park they hoped for.
Proof was provided five minutes later when the recently-returned Toney bore down on Guglielmo Vicario but saw his shot rebound from the goalkeeper’s knee. No matter: despite scuffing his shot, Maupay was on hand somehow to bundle the ball into the net for his fourth goal in as many matches.
The dual creators then offered the crowd a dart-throwing mime celebration that Maddison apparently had thought his own. The Spur was not best pleased at the mimicry.
Mark Flekken spectacularly turned away a goal-bound Spurs’ effort before the Bees were at it again, sort of. Nathan Collins missing a free header, Ethan Pinnock shot wide and a Toney header lacked the power to beat Vicario.
And then the sky fell in. Four minutes after the interval, Destiny Udogie had a shot blocked but succeeded with his second attempt; then, no more than a minute later, half-time sub Brennan Johnson poached one from close in. Finally Brazilian Richardlison was on hand to finish off a diverted Maddison shot to complete the set.
Chances came and went at both ends, as did substitutes. Then Udogie made a gift of a back-pass before falling, maybe expressing regret, as Toney thankfully slotted the ball past the advancing keeper.
Brentford regained their poise and would have shared the points if Shandon Baptiste’s golden opportunity had not sailed over the crossbar.
A shame, that. But make no mistake, signs indicate things are looking up as the Bees’ injury list diminishes.
Brentford: Flekken; Collins (substitute Ajer 78m), Pinnock, Mee; Roerslev (sub Dasilva 78), Jensen (sub Yarmoliuk 57), Nørgaard, Janelt (sub Baptiste 88), Lewis-Potter (sub Damsgaard 88), Maupay, Toney.
Bill Hagerty is a contributing editor to the Chiswick Calendar website.