Watching David Button’s goalkeeping masterclasses this season reminded me of some of the other excellent keepers that have played for us in past years, so I thought it was time to continue my review of Brentford goalkeepers and go back in time to the 90s. The decade began with Graham Benstead who was signed by Steve Perryman to replace Tony Parks for the 1990/91 season. Parks had been decent but he wasn’t the dominating type of keeper that the manager wanted. Benno cost a massive £70,000 from Sheffield United, at the time a record fee paid by the club for a goalkeeper, and most fans were questioning the wisdom of that investment when he conceded six goals to Chelsea in a preseason friendly at Griffin Park – shades of Richard Lee, twenty years later who similarly introduced himself to the Brentford faithful by conceding five goals to neighbours Fulham in Kevin O’Connor’s testimonial match.
Like Richard, Graham recovered and ended the season in a blaze of glory by winning the Supporters’ Player of the Year Award. Graham was tall and agile if a bit gawky in stature and had the ability to inspire his teammates by making the seemingly impossible save look commonplace. He performed miracles by saving three consecutive Wrexham penalty kicks in a shootout, eerily, another feat matched by Richard Lee against Charlton in the same competition, and he was largely responsible for a hardworking team, but one that had major weaknesses at left back and upfront, where Dean Holdsworth struggled all season with injury, overachieving and reaching the Playoffs. Graham more than maintained his standard for the next two seasons but missed several matches each year through niggly injuries which allowed Perry Suckling and the evergreen Gerry Peyton to prove that they were both highly impressive deputies. Peyton was so good at the advanced age of thirty-six that we even forgave him for having been a Fulham favourite for so many years.
Ashley Bayes was the reserve goalkeeper at this time and was also called upon to deputise twelve times, conceding a massive thirty-four goals, and never looking like keeping a clean sheet. He was patently unready, unprepared and undercooked and whilst it is easy to point fingers at him and make him a figure of fun and derision I more blame the manager and coaches who exposed him to the spotlight and allowed him to become an Aunt Sally. In truth he was always a mistake waiting to happen and would intersperse saves of real quality and agility with a series of catastrophic and costly errors that sometimes beggared belief. Benstead withdrew late from the season opener against Leyton Orient in August 1991 with a hamstring strain, and I was horrified to see Ashley warming up in goal. We won a nail biter by four goals to three and he was sensational, making a series of saves from close in efforts by Nugent, Burnett and Sayer that saved our bacon on a sizzling afternoon when rampaging winger Ricky Otto tore poor Simon Ratcliffe to shreds. Ashley was also more than decent in a narrow League Cup defeat at White Hart Lane but reverted to type in the second leg where he proved to be a one man fifth column that reduced a certain commentator to despair! He reached his nadir when with Brentford clinging onto a narrow one goal lead against fellow strugglers Luton Town, he arched backwards like a dying swan and, under no pressure except perhaps from within himself, punched Chris Kamara’s wayward cross into his own net for an equaliser of spellbinding ineptitude. Horrified by his example, his team mates downed tools and we subsided to a late loss which proved crucial at the end of the season. On another day, striker Gary Blissett was forced to replace the injured Bemstead against Southend and I still have a vivid mental picture of Ashley kneeling behind the goal coaching Blissett through the game to assorted cries from the crowd of “Don’t listen to him Bliss!”
Football is all about opinions and new manager David Webb made it clear that Benstead, always awkward with the ball at his feet, was not to his taste, substituting him at halftime at Rotherham and it was evident that he was on borrowed time. Dean Paul Williams, not to be confused with the equally anonymous striker Dean Anton Williams, was his exceptionally average short term replacement before Webb pulled a rabbit out of the hat by signing Kevin Dearden from Spurs. Just like another former Tottenham goalkeeper, David Button, Dearden had trawled around the lower league circuit and he had had loan spells at nine clubs. Rejected, dispirited and broken, he was apparently on his way to sign for Kettering when the fateful call came from Webb. Finally the Ugly Ducking had found a home. Known as the “Flying Pig” just as Liverpool’s Tommy Lawrence had been before him, Kevin looked like Fred Rycraft’s slightly thinner younger brother and was short, stubby and rotund. He looked more like a Sunday morning parks player than a professional footballer, but in his case looks were totally deceiving. Grateful for his opportunity, Dearden rewarded Webb for his trust in him with countless performances of true quality, bravery and agility that belied his shape and size and he was justifiably rewarded with the Player of the Year Trophy at the end of his first season with the club. Kevin played more than two hundred and fifty games for the club and conceded little over a goal per game, testament indeed to his ability, consistency and the level of understanding he developed with his defenders. Yes, he was caught out from time to time by his lack of stature, particularly by Andy Booth in the Playoff semifinal second leg in 1995, but we supporters loved him and forgave him everything because he represented Everyman and gave further proof to our sad misconception that we could all have played professional football given half a chance.
Young Tamer Fernandes, who had changed his surname from Aouf, initially deputised well for Dearden when required but indelibly blotted his copybook when he fumbled a harmless low cross into his own net against rivals Fulham. Nobody could recover from a gruesome error of that magnitude and he retired soon afterwards and became an estate agent. Dearden was then challenged for his place by loanees Nick Colgan and Mike Pollitt who were both highly competent but he fell out of favour when Ron Noades took over. He brought in the experienced Jason Pearcey who was calm and unobtrusive and did little wrong but Noades remained sceptical and splurged £100,000 on Northampton’s Andy Woodman.
At the time I was delighted and excited by his capture as he had been a model of consistency for many years, but for some reason, despite a return to his London roots, Woody never really convinced nor was he widely accepted by the supporters who were unimpressed by his reluctance to leave his line and, on the rare occasions that he did, his flapping at crosses. This was surprising as he had demonstrated that he was a real talent but it never came together for him at Brentford apart from on the one day when it really mattered when he was unbeatable in the winner-take-all clash at Cambridge United on the last day of the 1998/99 season when his saves broke the heart of the home team and striker John Taylor in particular and Lloyd Owusu’s goal brought the title to Griffin Park. The magic soon faded, however and the decade ended with an unexpected hiatus in goal with Woodman out of favour and exiled on loan, Pearcey forced into retirement after a seemingly innocuous injury against Wigan proved to be far more serious and journeyman Jimmy Glass acting as a short term stopgap. Who would answer the call and fill the gap? All will be revealed next time.