I covered the first half of the Brentford squad last week and am now giving my analysis of the performances of some of the other players to date:
15. Stuart Dallas
Rodney Dangerfield was a famous American comedian and actor best known for his catchphrase “I don’t get no respect!” and I can imagine that Stuart Dallas might well entirely agree with his sentiment. Whilst I am certain that his contribution is valued by his manager and team mates, many supporters seem to give him short shrift and totally underestimate him despite his massive achievements to date this season. Never an automatic first choice, Stuart has scored four vital goals in only seven starts plus eleven appearances from the bench. The winning goal at Blackpool when he chased a lost cause and panicked the defender into an error, an incredible right footed volley into the roof of the Derby net which came out of nowhere and gave us a win that set us off on a long run of victories, a perfectly placed side footed goal which sealed the win against Wolves and another classic volleyed winner against Rotherham. Add to that the assists for Harlee Dean’s equaliser against Fulham and Andre Gray’s winner at Brighton and you can see just how much he has contributed to the team’s efforts this season. He also looked very comfortable when moved to an emergency right back role at Nottingham Forest. Stuart is a right footer playing on the left and is a constant danger when cutting in onto his favourite foot. He is good in the air, powerful and far quicker than he looks. He needs to track back more and support Bidwell better but for a youngster who has started a mere handful of league matches he is a quick learner and has shown that he is more than good enough to contribute at this level of the game. I expect him to become a regular starter.
16. Jack Bonham
Jack Bonham has quietly just got on with learning the game out of the spotlight of public scrutiny and has done enough on the training ground and in Development Squad games to earn a three year contract extension, proof indeed of the faith that the management team has in him and his potential to develop into a Championship calibre goalkeeper. The consistency of David Button has made the position of reserve goalkeeper a thankless one this season but, with the imminent retirement of Richard Lee, it is crucial that Brentford have somebody ready and capable of stepping in when the need arises as well as keeping the pressure on Button. Button’s massive improvement over the past year can partially be put down to the competition he faced from Richard Lee to keep his place and Bonham will need to do a similar job. Bonham was given a rare start against Brighton in the FA Cup and looked like a carbon copy of Button in terms of his desire to release the ball quickly and accurately to his defenders. He made a couple of decent saves, held onto a difficult cross under extreme pressure and also nearly made a hash of an effort from O’Grady that he failed to stop cleanly but the luck was him him as it inched past the upright. He looked exactly what he is, a player of raw potential who still needs a lot of seasoning. It will be interesting to see if he sits on the bench for the remainder of the season or if a more experienced keeper is brought in which would then allow Bonham to go out on loan and get some games under his belt.
17. Jon Toral
I remember thinking when we managed to sign Steve Sidwell on loan from Arsenal back in 2001 that it was a sign that we were a club on the rise and one to whom the big clubs would entrust their emerging talent. I had exactly the same feeling when Jon Toral arrived from the same club, but there is a key difference. Arsenal never really thought that Sidwell would make it at Highbury whereas The Gunners still have high hopes for Toral. As soon as he arrived at the club I spoke to an Arsenal fan about him. This was at the time when the Adam Forshaw transfer saga was being being played out. It was obvious that he would leave Griffin Park, and it was simply been a question of ensuring that we were properly recompensed. “But how is Toral going to replace him” I asked and was immediately told that he was going to be even better than someone who had just been voted Division One Player of the Season. A likely story, I thought until I saw Toral play. At nineteen he has everything going for him as he has height, strength, skill on the ball, finishing ability, the ability to read the game, some pace and a little bit of devil in him too. He is mature beyond his years and it is no coincidence that our results became far more consistent after he had forced his way into the team at the end of October. He has scored two well taken goals, entered Brentford folklore with a howler of a miss at Brighton that will merit disbelieving replays for years to come and, more importantly, he has become an important cog in the wheel. We are good for his development and he is certainly good for us. Maybe, just maybe, we can sign him on a permanent basis, but I suspect that that is simply my wishful thinking rather than a view based on reality.
18. Alan Judge
Football is a game of opinions but I still find it hard to believe that Blackburn Rovers made the judgement call that Alan Judge wasn’t good enough to play regularly for them and allowed him to join us for a fee that has been estimated to be around £250,000. What a bargain, and he has been without a shadow of doubt our best and most influential player this season. Alan had a wonderful loan spell with us last season when he mainly played out wide on the left flank and he contributed greatly to our promotion with his goals, energy and accurate crosses, if not his penalty taking! Everything changed with the departure of Adam Forshaw and Alan was switched to a more central role to fill the gap, and he has taken to his new responsibilities with total aplomb. He is a human dynamo who never stops running and harrying, a terrier in human form, who inspires and chivvies his team mates in equal doses. Alan’s long passing is accurate and incisive as is evidenced by Moses Odubajo’s goal against Brighton and Andre Gray’s against Wolves when he split the opposition defence wide open. Something has to give and Alan’s goal tally has fallen away with only one goal scored to date, but eight assists and his energy and ability to keep the ball moving and to switch the focus of the play is more than compensation. Alan took a knock against Brighton a fortnight ago and we all hope that he is not out of action for too long as despite our last two victories he is already sorely missed.
19. Andre Gray
Let’s review our striking situation in more detail. The three main strikers from last season, Clayton Donaldson, Will Grigg and Marcello Trotta, whose goals helped us win promotion, have all left the club on either a temporary or permanent basis, two of our new signings aimed at filling the gap have barely featured owing to a combination of long-term injury and an inability to fit in to our system and our third new striker had played a grand total of four league games back in 2009 for Shrewsbury, in one of which he replaced Nathan Elder. And yet here we are with a highly respectable forty-two goals under our belt and the unknown striker has now reached double figures for the season. Talk about a gamble paying off! Andre Gray has been nothing less than sensational as he has seized the opportunity provided to him by Scott Hogan’s injury and established himself in the team. Strong, rangy and pacy, he showed his striking ability in preseason with well taken goals against Nice and Crystal Palace. He took time to settle down and learn to play the lone striker role demanded of him and cope with being bullied by giant defenders, but it all clicked into gear in November, and he has scored eight times in his last twelve league games. Of course he misses a lot too, as Brighton can attest, but he is sharp and predatory and a constant menace to defences. His goals against Derby and Millwall bear testimony to his coolness in front of goal and clinical finishing. Our initial investment of around £600,000 now looks as if it is an absolute bargain, and he can be as good as he wants to be, given how much he has improved and progressed since the season began. The predators are already sniffing around him, but Andre is sensible enough to realise that he still has much to learn but that he is in the perfect place to develop and express himself.
20. Toumani Diagouraga
The verdict was in on Toumani, who was perceived at the start of the season to be no more than a decent squad player who often flattered to deceive and had probably found his level in Division One. It looked for a while as if he was even going to be sent to Coventry and I doubt if there were many Brentford supporters who would really have mourned his leaving. He had served us well, but perhaps his time had come and our progress had overtaken his capabilities. Toumani decided to fight for his place, kept his counsel, worked hard in training and when his chance came he took it – and, boy, did he do so. He has been our best player by far over the past three months, playing alongside Jonathan Douglas, winning the ball, covering, harrying, running with the ball and providing an impassable barrier to opposing runners.What has changed, though, is his use of the ball. He has a new found confidence and rather than always making the simple five yard pass to a colleague he now has added longer and ambitious passes to his repertoire and he seems liberated by our policy of moving the ball swiftly and changing the direction of the play. His shooting is still laughable but we can live with that. Indeed, it simply adds to his charm. Toumani is Vieira reborn. He ensured that Douglas was barely missed at Millwall and he might yet replace him should Dougie not be with us next season. His level of improvement has been staggering and his influence shows no sign of waning.
21. Alex Pritchard
I hated Alex Pritchard when he played against us last season. A preening show pony who dived and and moaned his way through Swindon’s narrow victory over us but I also took note of his quick feet, two footedness, vision and rapier like ability to split a defence with one pass. When we followed our customary practice of signing Swindon’s best player I welcomed his arrival, but saw him more as a left winger. Little did I know that he was going to become a central midfielder who is becoming an increasing influence in every game he plays. Of course not everything he tries comes off and he needs to learn that sometimes the simple pass is the best option without having his imagination and sense of invention stifled, but he is becoming more influential and less likely to drift out of games. He also made a lung bursting run to cover for Jake Bidwell, who had been caught upfield and made a perfect tackle on a Blackburn attacker deep in the Brentford half. It was at this point that I realised that he was coming of age as a footballer and was fully integrated into the team. Four goals is a reasonable return so far, but he has the ability to reach double figures. Alan Judge’s absence might mean that he now gets the chance to take free kicks and his goal with a curling effort against Nice shows that he has the ability to capitalise upon them. He also scored from the one penalty he took at Nottingham Forest. It wasn’t the most convincing spot kick I have ever seen but it went in and hopefully he will maintain his successful record when next called upon. We have Alex for the remainder of the season and it is a deal that suits all parties. Let’s simply enjoy him whilst we can and be is only going to improve. We can worry about his longer term future, and whether it might be with us, at a later date.
Scott Hogan’s serious injury incurred on 30th August left the club little time to replace him before the end of the August transfer window and it is to their credit that they managed to do so, however the gamble of signing Betinho has not paid off. He initially came to Mark Warburton’s attention during the Next Gen series where he had impressed as a regular goalscorer, and at twenty-one he had a highly impressive goal scoring record for both his club, Sporting Lisbon, at youth and B Level, as well as for the Portugese international teams at all age levels, up to and including the Under 21 team. At first glance, he appeared to be a classic goal poacher and a reasonable choice to replace Hogan, particularly at such short notice. Betinho made his debut as a late substitute against Norwich City, played for the final thirteen minutes, and then disappeared from the reckoning never to be seen on the pitch again at first team level. He sat on the bench for a month or so but was never called into action. I think the reason why is fairly straightforward. Our initial expectations for him were totally unreasonable and unrealistic for a young, inexperienced player leaving his native land to play in a strange and unfamiliar environment, and in addition be asked to play an entirely different role at an exceptionally high level of football. I seriously doubt if he had ever been played as a lone striker before and the concept of tracking back and pressing, a prerequisite for a Brentford striker, would have been entirely alien to him. No wonder it hasn’t worked out as we all hoped and anticipated and it really hasn’t been his fault. We made a rushed decision that hasn’t paid dividends apart from giving Andre Gray the extra pitch time required to prove that he is a star in the making, so some good has come out of this situation. I hope Betinho returns home shortly and becomes a star and that our coaching and the care lavished upon him will have paid some small part in his development.
I will conclude this report shortly.