While any previous readers of this blog will know I am an Arsenal fan, and one of over a quarter of a century’s standing, I do follow the fortunes of a few clubs around the world, some closer than others.
The Mighty Bees:
My second team has always been Brentford FC, being one the two nearest to the locale of my birth and upbringing. An immensely likable club, having played at Griffin Park since 1904, which famously has a pub on every corner.
They are occasionally immortalised in fiction, and a fortnight ago I saw an excellent one-man show (‘The Ghost Hunter’ at the Old Red Lion in Islington) in which the protagonist harked back to suffering with The Bees through an unlikely televised fixture against Carlisle at the end of the 80s. Celebrity supporters are rumoured to include Jim Carrey, Cameron Diaz and Pete Townshend. It has been a club that has been managed in brief spells by many cult heroes and occasional legends of the game (Tommy Lawton, Frank McLintock, Terry Butcher and a whole host of others), and has been a site for formative loan spells for a number of young players who have gone onto enjoy very successful careers at the highest level.
They are also a club that for as long as I can remember are the epitome of teams playing in the English third tier. Just under 125 years old, and with a long history of comfortably uncertain mediocrity. Surrounded by larger rivals, in the most competitive football city in the world, Brentford have a designated catchment area that seems to consist of 2 roads and a council estate, and as such are always up against it. They aren’t big enough or rich enough to really progress up the leagues, and sufficiently comfortable at their level to invariably bounce back from relegation within a season or two. It is a club that attracts that wonderful type of local fan that you only really tend to see in British football. And the occasional groups from eccentric corners of the globe, like the season ticket holding Scandinavians.
Having been a founder member of the Third Division (south) in 1920 , the club’s relationship with misfortune was quickly established. In the 1929-30 season they became the last English club (and the only one over a 42 game season) to win every single home game in a league season, finishing ten points ahead of local rivals Queen’s Park Rangers in second. Archaic league rules meant that only one team went up that year. After recovery and two promotions in five years, the 1930s saw a brief flirtation with the upper half of the top-flight, but that progress and consolidation was undone by the second world war. Post-war football saw the club short of players and immediately relegated, before a downward spiral saw Brentford yo-yo between the bottom two divisions and flirt with insolvency.
The trend has continued since I started following their fortunes, and going to the odd game. In 1991-92 the club won the old third division (now League One) to win promotion to the second tier in style ahead of a clutch of larger and richer clubs. Typically of the club’s seemingly endless precarious financial position, they immediately had to sell their best player and top scorer, Dean Holdsworth, in order to balance the books, and were relegated the following year, leading to further departures.
Over the last 15 years the club has specialised in narrowly missing out on automatic promotion (invariably on the final day of the season), and then losing against inferior sides in the playoffs, achieving this unenviable feat six times in the 18 seasons preceding this one.
On the way to Wembley – when you’d rather not be:
Typically, this season has followed the archetypal model. Having outstripped all pre-season expectations, The Bees, now managed by ex-Manchester City cult hero, Uwe Rosler (“Uwe’s grandad bombed Old Trafford” was the old Maine Road song), were battling for the second automatic promotion spot all season, only to have it snatched away in the 95th minute of the final game of the season. And snatched away is an understatement. Dominating at home against the team directly above them in the table, Brentford won a clear and well-deserved penalty in the last minute of injury time. In a moment of madness, Marcello Trotta, a striker on loan from traditional rivals Fulham, refused to let normal penalty taker and club captain Kevin O’Connor have the ball, and promptly hammered the spot-kick against the bar. To make matters worse, right from the rebound, Doncaster immediately went up the other end and scored, thus securing the League One title.
To most fans and teams this would be the kind of heartbreak that would send them into one of Andre Vilas-Boas’s ‘negative spirals’, but this seems to be the fundamental experience of being a Brentford fan, a sort of crushing inevitability of disappointment. Besides, there wasn’t time to wallow in self-pity. The Bees were third and another year of play-offs beckoned.
The players picked themselves off the floor to sneak through their play-off semi-final against Swindon Town. Despite conceding two very late goals (including, you guessed it, one in the last minute of injury time), Brentford showed the intestinal fortitude to make it to Wembley via the spectacular irony of the penalty shoot-out. I watched nervously on Sky Sports, and celebrated with gusto, before plastering my congratulations at their courage all over social media sites.
And so it came to pass that my enthusiasm was spotted by a Brentford supporting friend from my school days, who I had relatively recently re-connected with after several years of being largely absent from each other’s lives. The next thing I know, I was heading the play-off final at the twin towers in the company of a group of people I went to school with, one of whom I hadn’t seen in 15 years. How football brings people together!
It had been almost two decades since I had been to a Brentford fixture, and I was comforted by how little had changed, even with the game being at Wembley. The songs were much the same (though not many renditions of ‘Hey Jude’), and so was the attitude. Real fans of Brentford, rather than occasional fly by nighters like myself, on the whole don’t really carry the anger and tension of those of ‘bigger’ clubs, presumably due to the lack of a misguided sense of entitlement. Hope outweighs expectation, but even that is largely tempered by realism and painful experience. A huge part of being a football fan is living with a combination of blind optimism and utter pessimism, and the latter is in much more plentiful supply, particularly when you follow a club where defeat is so often snatched from the jaws of victory.
So Close, So Faraway:
Perhaps inevitably, it all went rather wrong. Yeovil Town, unencumbered by recent decades of disappointment, had already enjoyed their most successful season ever, and were playing the biggest game in the club’s history. Despite an average gate of only 4000, Yeovil are Somerset’s only club, and thus enjoy a vast catchment area and no local opposition. Their travelling contingent was comfortably 15,000 at least, and they embrace the occasion with a celebratory vigour throughout.
Their players responded and for the first hour played somewhere near their absolute potential until late uncertainty followed intense Brentford pressure. Their star man, and probably League One’s player of the season, Paddy Madden settled any nerves they may have had after only six minutes, with a wonderful goal from 25 yards into the top corner with the outside of his right foot. We had a perfect view of it, and it was as good a goal as I have ever seen in a play-off game.
Conversely, Brentford were largely crippled by apprehension in the first half, with the back-of-the-mind pessimism in the stands seemingly reflected on the pitch. Mindful of two fairly comprehensive defeats in during the League campaign, Rosler packed his midfield and hoped to remain solid, using possession as a basis for progression. It didn’t work. With top scorer Clayton Donaldson marginalised in a wider role, the Brentford midfield three demonstrated work-rate but little invention and seemed to be confused by their roles, either getting in each other’s way or leaving responsibility to each other. This unproductive compression was exacerbated by the left sided player, Harry Forrester, whose natural inclination to come inside onto his right foot when in possession kept the Yeovil defence from getting stretched. This wasn’t helped by a tentative display from Brentford’s central defenders, who like many at this level struggled to cope with the quick feet and clever movement of Madden in particular, and normally robust Harlee Dean barely won a header or tackle in the first half.
Of course, this being Brentford, the goal that would ultimately decide the game was a comedy of errors. A high, hopeful and none too threatening corner was swung in from the left, before being met largely unchallenged by one of Yeovil’s jolly green giants in defence, and Brentford skipper Tony Craig managed to not only fail to clear with a fresh air shot, but also make it impossible for his goal-keeper to stop. Shaleum Logan on the line did his best, but had clearly been fooled by his captain’s ‘dummy’. Rosler quite rightly described it as ‘unacceptable’.
As is often the case, the two-nil deficit freed the Londoners from their self imposed shackles, and the Wenger-esque handbrake well and truly came off in the second half. Donaldson moved up front, Forshaw went wide, and suddenly the whole team played with a tempo, desire and positional clarity that had been sadly lacking in the first 45 minutes. They had already come close before Harlee Dean (excellent in the second half) powered in a clean header from a corner, towering above his man. The second half was largely one-way traffic, with a plausible but unconvincing penalty shout from Yeovil being the only excitement in front of the supporters from Somerset. The game finished 2-1, with Brentford playing three strikers, two wingers and with a centre-half up front, and with Marek Stech in the Yeovil goal given the man of the match award.
So the day went, the way of all of Brentford’s prior play-off experiences. Disappointment through a mixture of ill-fortune, incompetence, fear and over-achieving opposition. The Bees promotional campaigns are starting to rival Dutch penalty shoot-outs in their unremitting agony.
The only way is up, baby?
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. The supporter groups who have helped to run the club in recent seasons, seem to be enjoying a positive and fruitful relationship with the clubs majority shareholder, Matthew Benham. The club has implemented a continental style management structure, with a sporting director working alongside the manager, and with substantial investment in the youth coaching set-up. A number of youth coaches from bigger London clubs have joined the Brentford revolution, and speak highly of it.
Also in the bigger picture is the sad but overdue relocation to a bigger and modern stadium. The site has been bought (next to Kew Bridge station – about stops further along the same bus route), and if all goes to plan, the Brentford Community Stadium, will open in 2016.
This side by side investment in physical and management infrastructure, suggests the club is now finally working to a plan beyond hand to mouth survival, with real long term objectives and a road-map towards growth. Of course we all know that building a club without building a team can lead you into the empty edifice territory of Coventry City or Huddersfield Town, but happily the manager seems to have received assurances from the owner in the aftermath of the game about investment in the playing staff, and Rosler himself seems keen to stay, despite pessimism about his status among the fans.
Looking forwards, the improvements in coaching standards and club stability seems to be helping to attract better players from higher division clubs, either released youngsters from the top-two divisions, or players on loan, looking to benefit from the better quality football that the club play. Wojciech Szczęsny, Arsenal and Poland’s number one, is a fine example of player whose career springboarded after a spell in West London, as is Jordan Rhodes. Such a reputation can only help the club. Equally it is worth drawing attention to the fact that the average age of the Brentford squad yesterday was only 22, with many of them experiencing their first full seasons of first-team football. There is no doubt that a lack of experience caused them to freeze, but having gone through it once should help for the next time, as long the club can retain its core players for once. The return of experienced striker Farid El Alagui after his injury wrecked season should add some much needed firepower next season, and there are indications that two or three of the loan players are keen to join the club on a permanent basis.
At this level, much like any other, the clubs need either inspiration or stability to progress, and preferably both. With the approaching possible deadline for the build of the new stadium, there seems to be a recognition within the club that it needs to invest now in order to have a team that is worthy of filling it, and to be able attract the support to fill it. This in itself is something of a sea change from recent seasons, and in Rosler they seem to have found a man at the helm who both provides the calm assurance and commands the respect necessary to help this young team grow into a strong one.