With barely five minutes left on the clock in Saturday lunchtime’s clash with neighbours, Millwall, it looked as if it would all end in tears. Particularly Chez Waterman where my wife was waiting on tenterhooks for the result of the match, knowing as she did – and I didn’t – that she was planning a surprise birthday dinner for me on Saturday evening and she didn’t want the so-called guest of honour sulking in a corner and reduced to a series of monosyllabic grunts. I was surprised and delighted when my son, Nick, unexpectedly asked to accompany me to the match as normally he is a more than reluctant attendee who needs to be bribed with the promise of a lift back to his old haunts in Leeds, but I didn’t realise that his presence had a more nefarious purpose. He seemed to spend the entire ninety-four minutes with his head buried in his iPhone rather than concentrating on what was happening on the pitch and little did I realise that he was sending my wife a constant series of texts updating her not only on the score, but, more importantly, he was providing her with a barometer on my state of mind and my likely temper later in the day.
There was a time when I would allow a defeat or poor performance to spoil my evening as I would allow myself to fall into a deep funk and replay the horror show on a continuous mental tape loop, and woe betide anyone, friend or family member alike, who had the misfortune to have to spend time with me for the next twenty-four hours or so. Now things have changed, maturity and old age have finally kicked in – not before time I would add, and I no longer allow results on the pitch to interfere too much with the rest of my life and I am delighted to say that despite the events at Griffin Park yesterday we all had a wonderful time last night, with much merriment, eating, drinking and good conversation which lasted well into the early hours of Sunday morning. So please excuse me if today’s article is not as polished as I would like but I am a bit bleary eyed today and not thinking too straight.
On reflection I am extremely pleased that last night I was able to take my mind off matters at Griffin Park as yesterday’s performance was disappointing in the extreme and Brentford were more than fortunate to emerge with a point from a match where despite their customary overwhelming amount of possession they gave further truth to that old adage, “It’s not what you have its what you do with it.” Millwall proved to be tough and resilient opponents who came with a game plan which worked perfectly for them. They packed their defence, pressed us high up the pitch and then funnelled back denying us space and room in the final third where the visitors were more than happy to show us outside onto both flanks where we were impotent and created little danger. We played a constant series of passes, but mainly backwards and sideways. Gray was left isolated in the penalty area and when on the rare occasions he did manage to escape the close attention of the giant Jos Hooiveld his finishing was wild and inaccurate.
We started the game slowly as if finding it hard to adapt to the early lunchtime start and our customary skill on the ball and clever runs into space were rarely evident as we lacked our normal tempo and we were reduced to slinging a series of wasteful balls into the penalty area which were meat and drink to their tall defenders. Apart from an excellent header from Jota that dipped onto the junction of post and crossbar and a long range effort from Odubajo straight down the keeper’s throat, we seldom threatened and were put onto the back foot by Millwall’s other tactic – one which we should be more than used to by now, as they were the latest in a long series of teams who have clocked our Achilles heel. They simply played a series of long balls over and behind our central defenders in an effort to find space and make them turn. Gregory and O’Brien were a pair of eager and pacy runners who caused Dean and Tarkowski no end of problems, if not running them entirely ragged, and the alarm bells had been ringing well in advance of Millwall’s opener when Upson played the ball over the top of our non-existent defence, Button came out, more in hope than expectation, but was easily beaten to the ball by Gregory who had escaped Dean’s attention and slotted home. Yet again we had fallen for a sucker punch, just as we had against Cardiff, twice, and Blackburn.
It could have been worse when Gregory fired over before we finally woke up and came to our senses, managed to string some passes together and forced four excellent saves from Forde who stretched backwards to tip over a beautifully executed Dallas lob, then denied Douglas and Dallas again from close range before tipping a long-range Pritchard free kick round the post. These were crucial saves which denied us the fillip of an equaliser before the interval. As it was we pressed forward early in the second half and Gray had two early sights of goal which he spurned. Millwall were playing deeper and more cagily but received a massive boost when Dean lost possession and we were swiftly punished with Douglas the only Brentford player attempting to prevent Woolford standing up a perfect cross which took Button out of the game and allowed the gangly O’Brien to nod in from almost on the goal line. Another terrible goal to concede and one that was totally preventable, and but for a brave block from Tarkowski it could have been three shortly afterwards. As it was we looked shellshocked and impotent and despite the presence of Judge who gave us fresh legs, imagination and impetus, we did little with the ball which would invariably progress up either wing where Moses and Jota on one flank, or Bidwell and Pritchard on the other would eventually run into a blind alley and the chance would evaporate.
Smith and Toral came on as we went to three at the back but despite another sharp save by Forde from a Jota effort the game seemed to be ebbing away from us until finally the tide turned. Judge ran along the byeline with the ball seemingly tied to his bootlaces and invited Woolford to lunge into him and he suitably obliged. An obvious penalty which Pritchard calmly converted. Now it was panic stations at the back as Millwall tried desperately to hold onto the win that their bravery and organisation fully deserved, but in injury time Pritchard jinked, dropped a shoilder and his low cross was only half cleared by the straining Nelson and Odubajo buried the chance low into the corner. There were three minutes remaining but we lost our shape and discipline as we poured men forward in a Kamikaze attempt to force an unlikely victory and there was almost a sting in the tail when the Sumo-like Gary Taylor-Fletcher showed strength and subtlety in bursting past Bidwell and cleverly used Tarkowski as a screen before curling the ball inches wide.
One point is better than none but we were poor yesterday and fell far below the high standards we have set over the course of the season. We looked tired and flat, lacked our normal pace and invention, ran out of ideas and our defence creaked ominously whenever Millwall attacked. I am not sure if all the blame should be laid at the door of Dean and Tarkowski who were both unimpressive in the extreme. Perhaps they lacked cover and were left far too exposed as we pressed forward, but they were both a mistake waiting to happen and perhaps we now need yet another new defensive partnership. The truth remains evident, we have become a soft touch and have conceded six goals in our last three games, all of which were totally avoidable. We now come into the final international break of the season and we find ourselves outside the playoff places for the first time this year. Perhaps this might take some of the pressure off and be to our advantage, or maybe I am merely clutching at straws? But games are rapidly running out and over the course of the next twelve days we have to rest tired legs, recover our poise and composure, and, most importantly, our defensive solidity before we go into the final countdown. Goals have never been easy for us to come by this season given the formation we employ and we cannot keep having to overcome the burden of needing to score three times to win a match. There is no more time for excuses or learning curves, now is the time when we need to perform or the season will end on a whimper rather than the crescendo that we deserve.