Jeepers Keepers – Part Five – 29/4/15

wsToday we will conclude our review of all the Brentford goalkeepers from the past forty-five years, and we pick up the story in 2008/09 with loanee Ben Hamer firmly in possession of the position. His backup was Seb Brown, a self-admitted AFC Wimbledon fan who played once for us in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and saved a penalty in a shootout victory over Yeovil before signing for his favourite team where his two penalty shootout saves against Luton helped them gain entry into the Football League. Young Lloyd Anderson also had his moment in the sun when he came on to replace Hamer when he was stupidly sent off at Barrow and he conceded two goals for his trouble before finally ending up as perhaps the only other Brentford player since Keith Hooker to play for both Brentford and Brentwood Town. Mikkel Andersen was another one-game-wonder, as one Reading loan goalkeeper replaced another when Hamer was suspended. Mikkel could not have chosen a more exciting game to play in and he really looked the part too in our last gasp victory over Bradford City in which he was named Man of the Match. Not a bad way to mark your only appearance for the club. Mikkel is still only twenty-six and was stuck on Reading’s bench when we played them last Saturday, but I fully expect that he will eventually make his breakthrough and become an established top level goalkeeper.

With Hamer returning to his parent club, newly promoted Brentford were on the lookout for a new goalkeeper and they ended up playing four of them throughout the 2009/10 season. Andy Scott was apparently offered Everton’s John Ruddy on a season-long loan but changed his mind at the last moment and signed Derby County’s Welsh International keeper, Lewis Price instead. This was not one of the best decisions that he ever made given how well Ruddy has subsequently progressed and Price’s inconsistency. Lewis did made a phenomenal last minute save from Morgan Schneiderlin to earn us a meritorious point at Southampton, but, looking far smaller and frailer than his claimed height of six foot three inches, he never really convinced and conceded a bizarre last minute equaliser at home to Millwall from a forty-yard free kick from way out on the left wing which precipitated his replacement, but more of that anon.

The Bees also made the surprise signing of Aldershot’s Nicky Bull who, after being their undisputed first choice for many years, had decided to retire but quickly changed his mind and joined Brentford as back-up keeper instead. He spent a frustrating year largely kicking his heels after suffering a back injury but his rare appearances saw him go from the ridiculous to the sublime when firstly he dozily stepped over his own goal line whilst still holding onto Simon Francis’s seemingly innocuous long-range free kick against Southend before saving a penalty kick at Leyton Orient. Bull was soon forgotten when Scott then totally redeemed himself by making perhaps the most inspired signing of his managerial career in young Arsenal starlet Wojciech Szczęsny.

Not yet twenty years of age but already a full international for Poland, he saved a penalty kick in his second match and it was immediately obvious that we had a star on our hands. He remained on loan until the end of the season, conceded just over a goal per game and his incredible all-round ability and sheer force of personality shone through. He put on goalkeeping masterclasses game after game and some of the saves he made against Norwich, Leeds, Carlisle and Bristol Rovers in particular beggared belief. Have a look on Youtube if you doubt me and I guarantee that you will be as astounded as I was. His ability was merely confirmed by the general bemusement amongst Bees supporters when he had a rare off day and played appallingly against MK Dons and was totally responsible for two soft goals, but as the old saying goes – “the defects of great men are the consolation of the dunces.” He received the ultimate accolade of receiving a fully deserved standing ovation from the home supporters when he was withdrawn for Simon Moore to make a brief debut just prior to the final whistle of the last game of the season so that he could milk their applause. We will not see his like again as he was precociously brilliant and light years ahead of anyone else we had watched at Griffin Park, in my memory at least.

leeHow do you replace such an icon? Well Andy Scott seemed to have hit the jackpot when he brought in experienced Watford keeper Richard Lee, but he made a disastrous start and was rusty and unimpressive in his first two preseason appearances. Scott handled the situation poorly and instead of giving Lee, a keeper of proven ability and pedigree, the opportunity to settle in to the role, he immediately banished him to the bench and gave young Simon Moore a brief chance before bafflingly auditioning two more loan keepers who further muddied the water. Alex McCarthy was yet another Reading goalkeeper who followed the well-trodden path to Griffin Park but he was soon on his way back after a tentative and stuttering loan spell which saw six goals fly past him in only three games. McCarthy has subsequently proved himself at Premier League level but he was distinctly below average for us.

Like a bad penny, Ben Hamer was soon back for his third loan spell at Brentford replacing his own teammate Alex McCarthy. Again he did nothing wrong but by this time the Bees had embarked upon successful runs in both the Carling Cup and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and Richard Lee seized his chance to establish himself as our “Cup Keeper” with some phenomenal performances. He impressed in a narrow win over Hull City before earning his spurs with a superlative match-winning performance against Premier League giants Everton. Lee made save after save to help keep us afloat before becoming an instant hero when saving Jermaine Beckford’s effort in the penalty shootout. Our Carling Cup run came to a cruel halt with a shootout defeat at Birmingham in the next round but it was in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy where Lee came into his own as the Bees won three penalty shootouts in a row against Orient, Swindon and Charlton on their way to a Wembley final appearance. I have written previously about Richard’s Three Card Trick against Charlton when he emulated Graham Benstead’s feat against Wrexham and made three consecutive, and indeed, outrageous penalty saves. Not surprisingly Lee soon took over in league matches too from the blameless Hamer who had become surplus to requirements. As if fate had not intervened enough, Lee’s roller coaster season ended with him being named as Player of the Year but also missing out on a place at Wembley when he dislocated his shoulder making a brave save against Orient.

Poor Richard never had much luck with injuries and eventually his recurring shoulder problems forced him out of the reckoning far too early and for good, and this enabled firstly Simon Moore and then David Button to establish themselves in the first team. He has remained in the background in a supporting role and as an overall good influence and will retire at the end of the season after a long and distinguished career that never quite rose to the heights that his undoubted ability suggested. Given his popularity and affability we will gloss over his recent short-term and career-ending loan at Fulham! His business nous and intelligence will surely provide him with a fulfilling and successful post-football career.

Goalkeeping Coach Simon Royce, a man who had already enjoyed an excellent career, deputised for Lee when he was sent off and subsequently suspended and clearly demonstrated in his brief appearances that it was time for him to pack up for good and concentrate on teaching rather than doing. Trevor Carson, a loanee from Sunderland, also made a brief cameo appearance at Sheffield Wednesday and was never seen again.

Simon Moore fought his way up from being an unheralded trialist from the Isle of Wight and, aided by Lee’s injury battles, he became first choice and quickly demonstrated his exceptional ability. Unspectacular, calm and competent he made few mistakes and picked crosses out of the air with consummate ease. Having secured his reputation as one of the brightest talents outside the top flight, he joined Premier League Cardiff City on the eve of the 2013/14 campaign for a substantial fee but his career has unfortunately stymied as he has so far been unable to displace David Marshall.

Unknown Frenchman Antoine Gounet emulated Gus Hurdle by walking unannounced into the training ground and earning himself a contract. He was small, agile and unorthodox and finally earned his opportunity when helping the Bees to an FA Cup replay victory over Bradford City before fading out of contention.

That leads us to the present day, and our excellent current pairing of David Button and Jack Bonham about both of whom I have already written extensively. We have been blessed with some exceptional goalkeepers over the past four decades or so and whilst comparisons are invidious, if pushed, my top ten in terms of a combination of talent and overall popularity would be as follows:

  • Chic Brodie
  • Steve Sherwood
  • Len Bond
  • Dave McKellar
  • Graham Benstead
  • Paul Smith
  • Wojciech Szczęsny
  • Richard Lee
  • Simon Moore
  • David Button

Please let me know if your verdict differs from mine, as I am sure that it will.

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The Journeyman Footballer – 28/4/15

smith 2Surely you remember Ben Smith? You don’t? Well I still have a clear memory of a sunny late April afternoon back in 2008 when all-conquering Hereford United stomped all over a weak Brentford team and thrashed them three-nil to secure a promotion slot to Division One. Their raucous supporters took over an otherwise morgue-like and desperate Griffin Park and in midfield Watford loanee Toumani Diagouaraga and the aforementioned Smith dovetailed perfectly and ran rings around us, creating chance after chance for the predatory Gary Hooper. Whilst Hooper has gone onto fame and no doubt fortune in his subsequent career at Celtic and Norwich City Ben Smith never succeeded in touching those heights.

He had high hopes when, as a callow, cocky young Essex boy he started off as an apprentice in the hallowed marble halls of Highbury, marvelling at the skills of the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, and dreaming of the day he would play alongside his hero, but it wasn’t to be and he was soon shipped out to begin his long odyssey around the lesser reaches of the football world.

He became the epitome of the journeyman footballer, surviving, if not always thriving, for no less than seventeen years in a sport that mercilessly weeds out the weak and unfortunate and established himself in such outposts of the game as Yeovil, Hereford, Crawley and Swindon.

His marvellous autobiography is published today. No tales of the Champions League or Baby Bentleys here – instead, what you get is a gritty, fascinating and indeed salutary tale as Smith is searingly honest, opens himself up to criticism and scrutiny and spares nobody, least of all himself, as he looks back with the perspective of a now mature adult at some of the naive, immature and frankly daft decisions and mistakes he made that condemned him to the life of a lower league journeyman rather than a Premier League superstar.

Ben certainly had the raw talent to play at the top level as he was skilful on the ball, read the game excellently and had the ability to open up a defence with one incisive through ball but he was never given the opportunity to prove it and when glimmers of hope appeared he was either cursed with bad luck, ill-timed injuries, the vagaries of unsympathetic management or indeed his own myriad shortcomings.

He now realises and admits that early on in his career, before the penny dropped, he squandered his ability through ill-discipline, abusing his body, which was hardly a temple, and a failure to knuckle down to self-sacrifice and the monastic lifestyle required to be a successful professional footballer.

He was left to scrabble around each year for one more contract, a club car, an extra fifty quid a week or an appearance bonus to help secure his future and delay the inevitable. This is what life is really about in the lower divisions where there is no job security and a footballer is simply a depreciating asset with the clock ticking, who is instantly replaceable by another identical clone and can be disposed of at the will and whim of despotic chairmen or managers who have their own agendas, play favourites, pay lip service to the truth and are always looking to find a way to cut the wage bill or slither out of their obligations.

Smith often falls foul of their machinations as he is despatched from pillar to post and learns the hard way about the perils of finding a new club and contract negotiation both with and without an agent. He leaves himself exposed to danger by agreeing to a potential new contract that only kicks in if he plays a set number of games the previous season, and is left to wither on the vine as his manager did everything within his power to avoid him reaching that milestone and get rid of him.

Not that he bemoans his fate as throughout the book it becomes quite clear that he was massively proud and grateful for the chance to play professional football for so long and to make over three hundred appearances at levels ranging from Division One to the Conference South. He was a craftsman, a survivor and he made some money, got the girl, won the odd promotion and title here and there, became a local hero and established a decent reputation in some of the aforementioned outposts of the game, enjoyed himself and most importantly, did not have to succumb to the drudgery of a normal nine-to-five routine.

As we have heard elsewhere this season, football is “a village” and in the course of his travels Smith meets up with so many incredible characters within the game both on and off the pitch and he is an excellent fly on the wall and has taken careful note of their strengths and weaknesses. He is a keen observer and paints vivid word portraits. He is sympathetic to the likes of Graham Turner, juggling the horrendous joint roles of Chairman and Manager at Hereford United but he has little time for and eviscerates Gary Peters and Steve Evans for whom he played at Shrewsbury Town and Crawley respectively. Peters comes over as a totally miserable and negative influence, playing a horrible brand of percentage long-ball football and a man far keener to carp, criticise and diminish rather than empower, encourage and support his players.

As for Steve Evans, the chapters on Smith’s roller coaster ride at Crawley under the aegis of Evans are pure comedy gold and are worth the cover price of the book on their own. The man is obviously as crazy as a fox and he is a total loose cannon with the players never knowing which side of his Jekyll and Hyde character he will display from day to day – or even minute to minute. Players are screamed at, abused and sacked on a seemingly random and daily basis only to be reinstated quickly and quietly. But there is a method to his madness and, fawningly supported by his equally foul-mouthed yes-man number two Paul Rayner, Evans keeps the players on their toes, never allowing them to relax or feel secure and ever ready to indulge in a mad trolley dash to bring in replacements, but his unorthodox approach gets results. Smith found success at Crawley as they rose into the Football League and he played an important part in their incredible FA Cup run that saw them beat the likes of Derby County and Torquay United before the high-spot of his career, running Manchester United extremely close in a narrow one-nil defeat at a packed Old Trafford.

Brentford fans will be fascinated by the sympathetic descriptions of the likes of Toumani Diagouraga, one of the best midfield partners Smith ever played alongside, perennial good pro and nice guy David Hunt, and of course the immortal Martin Allen who plays a cameo role in Smith’s story and orchestrates a hilarious meeting worthy of a Brian Rix farce with the Cheltenham chairman intended to earn Smith a contract at the club.

This well-written book should be required reading for every supporter of a lower league team whether it be Accrington or York as it tells it exactly how it is. Budding young footballers and their parents would also do well to peruse it in order to become aware of the traps and pitfalls that may well await them.

Ben Smith has clearly demonstrated that there is no shame in being described as a “journeyman.” Quite the opposite as he is to be applauded for writing what is surely the best book of this ilk since Garry Nelson’s classic “Left Foot Forward.”

Journeyman: One man’s odyssey through the lower leagues of English football” by Ben Smith is published today by Biteback Publishing and is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.

Staying Alive! – 26/4/15

Brentford’s promotion dream is still alive and kicking after a fairly comfortable two-nil victory at hapless Reading, which in conjunction with the Ipswich and Derby results, ensured that the battle for the final two elusive playoff places goes into what is certain to be a heart-stopping last day of the season next Saturday. Given that Ipswich eventually managed a late cruelly deflected winner against a determined Nottingham Forest team and Derby also got out of jail close to the final whistle at Millwall, who were fighting for their Championship life, matters are now out of Brentford’s hands.

Once thing though is for certain, Brentford need to do their bit and defeat Wigan at Griffin Park next Saturday, in itself no formality, and hope results involving Ipswich or Derby go in our favour. We will go into the match in seventh place in the table with a meaty seventy-five points, two behind sixth-placed Derby and three less than fifth-placed Ipswich who have a superior goal difference of three over us.

Assuming we do the business over what is likely by then to be a relegated Wigan team, then we will have to rely upon Blackburn Rovers doing us a favour and beating Mick McCarthy’s team. Hopefully the predatory Jordan Rhodes will want to turn it on against the team that disposed of his services so carelessly – we can but hope. There is one other potential route into the playoffs should Derby fail to pick up a point against a demoralised and uninterested Reading team that clearly demonstrated yesterday afternoon that they are already on the beach. If all that is not enough we will also have to keep a weather eye on Wolves who are tucked in right on our coattails with the same number of points but they would have to make up four goals on us and they will be facing Millwall who might still have something to play for.

Enough of all that for now as otherwise I shall have absolutely nothing to write about throughout the next week as we nervously prepare for Wigan and the final showdown. That being said, when the fixtures were announced way back in June last year, I am sure that when we saw that we would be facing Wigan at Griffin Park on the last day of the season the majority of our supporters expected that we would probably be looking to spoil Uwe Rosler’s promotion party rather than seeing the boot firmly on the other foot – such is the joy and unpredictability of being a football supporter.

Back to yesterday’s game, Brentford were always a little bit sharper and more committed and dare I say, better organised defensively than the home team who almost equalled us in terms of possession but were toothless upfront and squandered the chances that they either created, or, on a couple of occasions, we gifted them.

Brentford were unchanged and Mark Warburton’s policy of keeping faith with his regulars was emphasised by the fact that no fewer than eight of the team that began the match yesterday also started the season’s opener against Charlton and the others, Craig, Dallas and McCormack were on the bench at Reading. Given the likelihood that subject to injuries the team that Warburton names for next week’s final league match will also be either identical or extremely similar to yesterday’s, I was going to wait a week before making this point but I thought that I would mention it in passing now in case it slips my mind given all the anticipated excitement of the next few days.

Given the turnover of footballers, and indeed managers, I suspect that this is an extremely rare feat that can be looked at in two ways, firstly that the eleven regulars have shown great consistency and have also largely stayed injury-free, but on the other side, perhaps in some key positions there has been a lack of competition for places and an opportunity to freshen things up might not have gone amiss. We can look at this again when we come to review the season next month.

Any nerves were settled by a well-worked early goal. Dean sent a measured long pass to the feet of Gray wide on the right, who slipped his man, initially looked in vain for a colleague in the penalty area and then timed his curling near-post cross perfectly to coincide with the arrival of Judge who had made a late lung-bursting run to meet the ball at the near post and sweep it into the roof of the net. Reading were caught ball-watching and defended poorly but were undone by our movement and accurate use of the ball. The home team responded well, but were powder-puff in attack and barely threatened. Pritchard was wasted in the first half, playing out wide on the left wing but eventually moved inside and became a massive influence on the game. Near halftime his instant left footer from Jota’s pass was seemingly bound for the bottom corner until a late deflection took it wide. Gray played his customary party trick of creating a massive opportunity for himself by turning his defender and racing clear early in the second half but it was Groundhog Day as he allowed the advancing Federici, who was cruelly taunted by the Bees fans following his Wembley faux pas, to close him down and throw out his right foot to deflect the ball wide of the post.

That would have given us some breathing space and Reading threatened down the flanks and forced Button into a couple of decent saves and had an apparent equaliser correctly ruled out for offside. The game was drifting in the sunshine until something remarkable and almost unprecedented happened – a Brentford defender headed a goal from a free kick when Tarkowski made a clever late run before scoring with a stooping header from Judge’s well-placed delivery after a defender performed a cynical throat-high assault on Jota, more akin to GBH, after he had been skinned by his trickery on the ball. This was the first time we had achieved this feat since Harlee Dean’s late face-saving equaliser from a Bidwell free kick at Dagenham eight months ago and highlights another area where drastic improvement is necessary.

The game appeared over, but it was at this point when our bad old habits revealed themselves either through complacency or an understandable desire to keep pushing forward for more goals. As it was we left the back door wide open. Button had been far more circumspect with his distribution from goal kicks with the Bolton horror show still fresh in his mind and Dean played his best game of the season, being tough, strong, composed and sensible with his use of the ball. Tarky too had been excellent until he suddenly lost his head and concentration, made bad decisions and twice lost possession deep in his own half but thankfully Button saved his bacon and we did not suffer from his aberrations.

He quite simply has to learn to differentiate between the times when he can and should play football and situations when the ball just has to be cleared upfield or played into touch. I have written exactly the same thing on so many occasions throughout the season and he really has not yet learned his lesson. He is a marvellously gifted player and his passing and dribbling ability are crucial to the team but it is a question of balance and judgement as his first job is to defend and not set up chances for the opposition on a plate. We were extremely fortunate that a poor home team did not take advantage of the gifts we lavished on them but other teams have been far more clinical. Reading gave up near the end and we had late chances to boost our goal difference but Toral hit the post and Judge missed horribly when clean through.

The win was crucial and we did our job competently and professionally and it was encouraging to see us beat a team so comprehensively despite our not firing on all cylinders. One further bonus was the appearance of Stuart Dallas as a late substitute for Gray and he performed excellently as a makeshift central striker. Another string to his bow for this impressive young player and another option for us even though it is expected that Chris Long might be fit for selection next week. A word of praise too for referee Andy Madley who was excellent and unobtrusive yesterday and proved that there is at least one decent referee bearing the Madley name!

A long week awaits us as the anticipation grows for next Saturday’s day of destiny. Oh, and in passing many congratulations to Alex Pritchard, named today by his fellow professionals in the PFA Championship team of the season, the only Bees player so honoured, and he thoroughly deserves this accolade.

 

Jeepers Keepers – Part Four – 23/4/15

oliThe New Millennium began with Brentford desperately looking for a new goalkeeper. Andy Woodman had not been the success that we had expected and was on his way out of the club and Jimmy Glass was no more than a short term stopgap. Ron Noades certainly pulled a rabbit out of the hat and bemused us all when the identity of the new goalkeeper was announced. Noades apparently followed the recommendation of Hermann Hreidarsson and signed his Icelandic International colleague Olafur Gottskalksson from Hibernian. Tall, slender and athletic, he had an exceptional first season before suffering a chronic shoulder injury which affected his confidence and mobility and he rapidly lost form, went walkabout on several occasions, conceding costly late goals which threatened to becalm our promotion drive and he was unceremoniously dropped and replaced by young Paul Smith. He retired late in 2002 but reappeared a couple of years later at Torquay and made a surprise return to Griffin Park in the notorious Leon Constantine hat-trick game on Boxing Day 2004 before fading away and later receiving a couple of prison sentences for violence back in his native Iceland.

Paul Smith first came to our attention playing as a young unknown trialist for Crawley against the Bees and soon after he signed for us. He made a massive impact replacing the injured Gottskalksson against Southend in the LDV Vans Area Final when he made a series of brave and brilliant saves against Southend. Ironically he conceded six goals at Swansea on his full debut but he soon proved that he was an exceptional young goalkeeper in the making once he took over as first choice in January 2002. He was calm and unflustered and scouts were soon sniffing smitharound him. Given the club’s financial woes his departure was a foregone conclusion and it was simply a question of getting the highest possible fee for him. Eventually Southampton offered £250,000 plus a series of lucrative add-ons that barely came to fruition as he failed to seize his opportunity on the South Coast, moved onto Nottingham Forest and ended up at Southend United, and what looked at one time likely to be a glittering career ended in anticlimax. Smith made a glorious return to Brentford when he played us seemingly single-handedly in a FA Cup Third Round replay early in 2013 and more than earned the standing ovation that he received.

Alan Julian was the obvious replacement for Smith as the former Junior had impressed in his few opportunities, including one incredible match-winning performance at Rushden & Diamonds but he was far too erratic and inconsistent to make the position his own and eventually embarked on a long career in the lower divisions and upper echelons of non-league football that has just seen him winning the Conference South title with Bromley.

Wally Downes settled on another untried youngster in Stuart Nelson and this time the gamble paid off. Nelson made an unwanted impact on his debut, seeing red for a foul outside his penalty area at Brighton but he soon made the jersey his own and went on to concede an excellent 1.32 goals per game throughout his stay at the club. At first glance Nelson really did not look the part with his shirt perpetually out of his shorts and eagerness to engage with opposition supporters when he was barracked.  He had his weaknesses and often came flying out of his goal to little neleffect. He was not the best in dealing with crosses and his kicking often defied belief with a constant series of shanks and slices into touch. But for all his shortcoming and eccentricities he was reliable and more than got the job done. He was agile and brave and it was rare that he let in a soft goal. His temperament was sound and he scored a crucial penalty kick in a shootout at Swindon and also had a goal controversially ruled out when his long clearance found the net at his former club, Doncaster Rovers. Nelson was a favourite of Martin Allen for whom he also played at Notts County and Gillingham, where he remains to this day.

Josh Lennie made his one and only Bees appearance as a halftime substitute in a long-forgotten LDV Trophy game against MK Dons before drifting into non-league. He memorably describes himself thus on Twitter: “London born & raised washed up ex-pro footballer for Brentford, Wimbledon and Chester, now full-time coach and scout in Connecticut.”

Ademola Bankole, a giant Nigerian international keeper who had previously played at Crewe Alexandra, was brought in as Goalkeeping Coach and also played a few games as a back-up for Nelson. He was tall, spider-like and gangly and, for a coach, worryingly seemed to have no appreciation or understanding of where his penalty area started and ended. He memorably punched away a cross when jumping way outside his area and somehow escaped a red card against Nottingham Forest and was thankfully not seen too often again in the first team.

Clark Masters was given the opportunity to replace the suspended and then injured Stuart Nelson at the start of the 2006/07 season and it was a case of too much too soon as he was patently unready for his premature promotion and leaked goals like a sieve. He played well on his debut against Blackpool but luck was never on his side as he suffered a harsh sending off against Gillingham and conceded seven goals despite impressing when replacing the sent-off Simon Brown at Peterborough. He proved to be out of his depth and his once-promising career never recovered and he soon dropped into non-league football where he remains today. Had he been given more time to develop then who knows how his career might have panned out. We might even have had another star on our hands.

2006/07 was an appalling season which culminated in a fully deserved relegation. By Christmas 2006 it was plainly obvious in which direction the team was irrevocably headed and Scott Fitzgerald tried to plug the gap in goal by signing Nathan Abbey from Torquay. He was exactly what we needed – calm and reliable, uninspired but competent and someone who rarely made an unforced error. He performed excellently and conceded a mere 1.25 goals per game despite having an awful defence in front of him. Despite his efforts he was released at the end of the season and his replacement did little to inspire confidence.

hamerSimon Brown had started out at Spurs and had several years as first choice at Colchester United before moving to Scotland where he played for Hibernian. He was the second goalkeeper to join the Bees from the Edinburgh club but he was never the keeper that Oli Gottskalksson had been and his stay was undistinguished. He rarely looked the part, losing his place to loanee Ben Hamer before being offloaded on loan to Darlington. Hamer arrived on the eve of the season from Reading when Brown suffered a late injury and he was to have three loan spells at Griffin Park making seventy-five league appearances in total. Confident to the point of cockiness he played a massive part in the Championship winning team of 2008/09, missing only one game. He dominated his area, had a vast prehensile reach and kicked the ball huge distances. It came as a surprise when his own poor judgement and recklessness cost him a red card, and the Bees a defeat in a televised FA Cup tie at Barrow. He was also the only Brentford player to successfully hit the crossbar in Soccer AM’s Crossbar Challenge. Ben returned for a third loan spell in 2010 as part of the beauty parade of goalkeepers auditioned by Andy Scott but his late arrival for a midweek match against AFC Bournemouth provided Scott with the excuse he needed to play his Cup goalkeeper Richard Lee in the league and Hamer drifted out of contention. He subsequently had a good spell at Charlton and is now at Premier League Leicester sporting a quite ridiculous bushy beard!

We are nearly at the end of our journey which will be concluded in a day or so.

Warburton’s Words – 21/4/15

I do so enjoy reading Manager Mark Warburton’s regular article in the Bees Review match day programme. They are invariably measured, thoughtful, pithy and to the point, just like the man himself and are quite evidently self-penned and not the work of some anonymous hack or ghost in the media department. He takes the time and trouble to open the dressing room door ajar and allow supporters to sneak inside the secretive, arcane and cloistered world of professional football, and he generally provides a deep and personal insight into some fascinating aspect of the club, playing squad or, indeed, the team behind the team.

I particularly like the courteous way he welcomes the opposition manager by name and remarks how much he is looking forward to sharing a drink with him after the game. For me, at least, his words conjure up vivid images of a convivial gathering with the two of them sitting down at a table covered with a spotless white starched tablecloth, napkins around their neck, with David Weir serving a selection of carefully sliced triangular cucumber sandwiches and cutting up the Battenberg, and Kevin O’Connor pouring cups of tea all around. I am sure that the reality is somewhat different and far more akin to the Liverpool Boot Room with the two managers drinking a can of beer together and quietly reflecting on their respective fortunes in the hard fought game recently finished. Just in passing I must try and unearth my dog-eared copy of the Rotherham programme from January 10th and see if Warburton extended the same hospitality to Steve Evans as not only would he undoubtedly hog all the food on offer but also Evans in his customary full-on post-match hectoring and hyperbolic rant mode would surely turn out to be a most unwelcome, loudmouthed and unsavoury guest!

I read Mark’s article in Saturday’s programme with particular interest as he took the belated opportunity to look back three months in time and comment in great detail about his perspective on what happened, or perhaps more specifically what didn’t, in the January transfer window. Firstly let’s review the facts. We managed to bring in four players and, perhaps just as crucially, we lost nobody from our squad. We signed a promising young midfielder, Josh Laurent, from QPR, spent heavily on one of Scotland’s top prospects in Rangers starlet Lewis Macleod, bought highly rated left-sided defender Jack O’Connell from Blackburn Rovers for a reported quarter of a million pounds and signed England Under-20 international striker Chris Long on loan from Everton.

Our three permanent signings share similar characteristics in being young, inexperienced and highly talented and they all appear to have the potential to develop into exceptionally valuable long-term assets for the club. Unfortunately what is far more pertinent at the present time is that between them none of them have contributed in the slightest for us yet at first team level or have even played one minute’s football in the Championship. We did have high hopes and expectations for Macleod but he arrived as damaged goods and has been a permanent sick note ever since, managing a grand total of forty-five eminently forgettable minutes for the Development Squad a few weeks back. He has now been put back into cold storage for next season when we can but hope that he manages to get himself fully fit and earns a place in our revamped midfield.

O’Connnell was sent straight back on loan to Rochdale where he really impressed in a team challenging for the Division One playoffs and justifiably earned a recall to his parent club. Despite our continued problems and adventures in central defence he has yet to be given his opportunity, although he has looked the part sitting on the bench! Next season perhaps? Laurent has no Football League pedigree but is an educated gamble for the future. Long is also short on experience but has impressed with his enthusiasm and eye for goal when given an opportunity, however he has been plagued with injuries and illness and has only made ten appearances including a mere two starts. Four goals is a more than decent return, but the overall feeling about our January signings is one of frustration and disappointment at their overall lack of contribution. Frankly they looked more like signings for January 2016 rather than this year and have done little or nothing to either strengthen or assist us in our promotion push.

One possible inference from the lack of immediate impact of our new arrivals in January is that they really were intended for the future rather than the present and that the management were more than content with what they already had in terms of the strength, make-up and chemistry of the squad and were simply looking to tinker rather than make radical improvements.

Warburton’s explanation is totally different in that he claims that key players were targeted both at home and abroad who would have added quality and depth to the squad, but for a variety of reasons every deal fell through. He mentioned player or agent financial demands that did not represent good value for Brentford or the requirement that potential loanees had to be automatic starters. Warburton categorically denied turning down any high quality players who were within our grasp and who would also have improved us.

Certainly it was rumoured at the time that funds were available and that strenuous efforts were being made to sign players of the calibre of giant Colombian central defender Bernardo from Sporting Gijon and top Austrian striker Marco Djuricin from Sturm Graz. Despite our apparent efforts, Bernardo remained at his present club and Djuricin allegedly snubbed us in favour of a move to Red Bull Saltzburg where he gone on to win a full international cap for Austria. Whilst it is impossible to be categoric, given their quality, they or their ilk, would probably have made a massive difference to our fortunes had they arrived at Griffin Park and settled down to life in London.

“Hindsight is always twenty-twenty” as Billy Wilder so memorably stated and it is very easy to look back from our position today, outside the Playoff positions and anticipating the increasing possibility of a massive missed opportunity, and assert that we made a massive error in not strengthening in January, but if we are to take Warburton’s words at face value, which of course I do, then it wasn’t for the want of trying.

What really surprised me was the timing of his remarks and that Warburton chose to raise this subject now, months after the event, when the season is approaching its climax, rather than wait until the postmortem after the season ends next month. Conspiracy theorists have been hard at work with their convoluted explanations for why we failed to bring home the bacon in January so perhaps Warburton simply wished to rebut them, but it is difficult to reconcile oneself to the sight of Harlee Dean acting as our sole emergency striker in a “must-win” game on Saturday after the withdrawal of Andre Gray. A promotion chasing team should not have allowed itself to be reduced to such straits at this crucial stage of the season.

I have invariably found Mark Warburton to be open and honest in words and deeds alike, and this article is no exception, but the fact remains that our promotion rivals succeeded in January where we failed and the cost is likely to be high.

How Goals Win And Lose Matches – 19/4/15

Well if it is goals that you want to see then Brentford are certainly the team for you in the Championship as their forty-four league games to date have seen the ball hit the back of the net an incredible one hundred and thirty-two times, a record bettered by only three other teams, oh and let’s also not forget that ridiculous and remarkable Capital One Cup tie at Dagenham way back in August which would add another twelve to the total. The Bees are the fifth top scorer in the league with seventy-three goals but it is illuminating to break down from whence these goals have come.

Only twenty goals have been scored by strikers, fifteen by Andre Gray, reputed to have been signed as our number three striker but by default our number one all season-long, four by the amazing disappearing man Chris Long who might still be back at Everton but could also conceivably be returning to Griffin Park next week, and the other by the misfit Nick Proschwitz, who has recently worked his way back into the Coventry City team and has been featured on the last two Football League Shows doing what he appears to do best – missing clearcut chances.

Our undoubted strength is in midfield where we invariably field five players and it is not surprising that the bulk of our goals, forty-seven in all, have come from that area. Alex Pritchard with eleven and Jota are in double figures with Jonathan Douglas notching a eye-catching eight goals followed by Stuart Dallas and Jon Toral each with six. Sam Saunders and Alan Judge have scored twice, far less than one would have expected from the Irishman, with Moses Odubajo and Tommy Smith netting just the once. Our back four have hardly contributed to the scoresheet with Moses scoring twice from right back and Harlee Dean and Alan McCormack getting one each. Millwall and Wolves also scored an own goal and I am still surprised that Jake Bidwell made no effort to claim the goal at Wolves, as he might well have got away with it.

Alan Judge easily leads the way with assists, two more on Saturday against Bolton taking him onto twelve. Pritchard is next in line with seven followed by Gray with five and Douglas, Odubajo and Bidwell have four. I have previously remarked upon the dearth of goals from within the six yard box and we have only scored six times from headers all season, four by Douglas and one each by Toral and, remarkably enough, Jota who is actually a lot better in the air than he would like us all to realise. None of our strikers have scored with their head, Gray came closest when he hit the post against Derby and also missed horribly and crucially late on at Wolves back in December. Our set piece record is also pretty abysmal with two goals scored direct from free kicks by Pritchard and Judge, Gray poaching a rebound against Cardiff and only four goals resulting from corners. Sam Saunders has barely featured this season and our delivery has not been the best but there has been a lack of devil, numbers and strength in the box and our pulse rarely starts to race when we are awarded a free kick or corner. In case you all think I am carping at our offensive record, that is really far from the case as I am well aware of our myriad strengths, in particular our speed at launching counter attacks, as was evidenced by Alex Pritchard’s beautifully worked goal yesterday when Tarkowski, Gray and Judge turned defence into attack in an instant, as well as the way in which we create chances through the individual skill of so many of our players.

There is so much to admire and appreciate in the way that we play and perhaps we simply have to realise and accept that our cavalier, attacking style leaves us exposed and vulnerable to counter attacks. I am reliably informed that within the game we are considered to be one of the most open teams in the League and also one of the worst at coping with quick opposition breaks, as Millwall, Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday have demonstrated in the last few games. Our two centre halves split as soon as Button takes possession of the ball, always looking for the quick throw or side-footed pass to them and both fullbacks appear to spend far more time in the opposition half than their own. This is all well and good when we keep possession of the ball and has obviously contributed to so many goals at the right end, but it leaves us wide open and often fatally exposed and shorthanded when we turn the ball over to the opposition. Given our overall success, it is hard to quibble when it all goes pear-shaped as it is totally unreasonable to ask footballers to play in a certain way then bitch and moan when it goes wrong, as long as the mistakes do not get out of hand. Unfortunately though it has been going wrong far too often lately.

As Mark Warburton has made a point of emphasising on countless occasions, we have no Plan B apart from doing Plan A even better. In principle that is all well and good and is a wonderfully brave and confident policy but I really feel that it is naive and even pig-headed in the extreme and has come back to haunt us. Yes, keep playing your football but also take note of the match situation and respond to what is going on around you. We conceded a late, late equaliser at Derby County last weekend that was like a stab to the heart given how cruel it was after we had totally dominated the game. The goal came deep into stoppage time from a cheaply conceded throw-in well in our half. Apparently there were words spoken in the dressing room after the game, possibly about being more clinical and professional and getting the job done, and perhaps it was even suggested that instead of trying to retain possession and run down the clock in a dangerous position the ball should have been launched forward into Row Z deep in the Derby half of the pitch. If that was indeed the case I wonder what the reaction of the manager would have been? I know what I would have liked to have seen happen in the ninety-third minute with us clinging onto a narrow lead at one of our closest rivals! There is a time when pragmatism has to rule the day.

We have only kept nine clean sheets all season and have conceded sixteen goals in the eleven matches since we last kept the opposition at bay, not a disastrous record, it has to be said, but still far too generous when we are chasing promotion, and the excellent total of twenty goals we have scored in the same period has only gleaned us three wins and a meagre fourteen points. If anything we are looking leakier and less organised at the back and even easier to score against as the season progresses, rather than tighter and it has got to a point where we now need to score three times at home in order to win a game given the eight goals we have conceded in our last four games at Griffin Park, all against also-rans and none of which have seen us emerge victorious.

Just looking at those goals in more detail sees a destructive pattern emerge that is really a microcosm of our entire season. The two Cardiff goals, which came out of the blue at a time when we appeared to be in complete control and cruising to a comfortable victory, were both self-inflicted disasters. Dean bumped in Button and the ball squirmed free and fell right at the feet of Macheda in front of the empty goal and then we were cut open by one quick pass and Button came and stopped, was left high and dry in no-man’s land and Revell lobbed him for a gift wrapped winning goal. Frankly I do not think that we have recovered from those two body blows as our defending ever since has become ever more sloppy, careless and dare I day, kamikaze? Millwall scored from a quick ball over the top which caught out Dean and Tarkowski and a breakaway with us short of numbers in defence. Forest punished us with a long hoof from the keeper which drifted over our defence and led to a slip by Tarkowski and then we were exposed by a quick break down our right hand side with our fullbacks caught upfield.

We now come to yesterday’s defensive shambles which has almost left me speechless. Diagouraga played a careless pass aimed at Jota which was quickly returned by the Bolton leftback. Dean and Tarkowski had gone wide in anticipation of a short pass and the centre of our defence was left wide open. Heskey played in Le Fondre who just about kept himself onside and the finish was perfection. The second goal encapsulated everything frustrating and infuriating about the team and we way we play and must have left Warburton metaphorically tearing his hair out. Button played a short goal kick to Toumani who was pressurised and he passed it sideways to Tarkowski  (who should have received it in the first place). He returned it to Button, but no he didn’t, as he left the back-pass suicidally short and Davies nipped in to score the most demoralising, stupid and, quite frankly, totally unforgivable goal of the season. The fiasco looked just as ridiculous on television last night. It would have been harder to choreograph it if we had tried, and how Wolves and Ipswich fans must have laughed when they saw the damage, perhaps terminal, that we had inflicted upon ourselves. It was a pathetic shambles of a goal and one that could well cost us our Playoff position. It was also the fifty-ninth goal we have conceded in forty-four matches, the thirteenth best record of the season. I subjected myself to a horror show last night and watched all of them back again and nearly a third of them could reasonably be attributed to our own shortcomings.

We had more than enough time to regain the lead and recover the crucial two points we had thrown away but with a not fully fit Pritchard already replaced by Dallas, the substitution of two attacking and creative sparks in Gray and Judge by Toral and Smith begged many questions. We had little to bring on from the bench and apart from a couple of flurries never really looked like scoring the third goal that we so desperately needed. I am not going to get sidetracked today onto our overall striker situation, and what did or didn’t happen in January, as I shall doubtless return to this subject at the end of the season, but all I will say in passing is that for the last fifteen minutes or so yesterday we appeared to revert to the infamous 4-6-0 formation last seen in August at Blackpool and to finish a must-win match with Harlee Dean and Tommy Smith as our makeshift strike force surely speaks volumes and quite frankly, is totally unacceptable given the prize that we are still seeking. As I said, more on that another time soon!

At least we have taken the season into the penultimate match and we have to remain hopeful, but the Playoffs are a tall order now particularly given how profligate we are in defence. We have failed to eradicate costly errors all season and they are now coming back to haunt us.

Out Of Our Hands Now – 16/4/15

I have always made it a rule never to write a match report immediately after the final whistle. With good reason too. It is all too easy to go off on a poorly considered and ill judged rant and tear everybody and everything to shreds without allowing for tempers and emotions to calm down and for a more measured analysis to be made in the cold light of day.

I have therefore taken a day or so to reflect on where Tuesday night’s disappointing one-nil defeat at Sheffield Wednesday has left us and why we find ourselves in our current position.

Let me start off by saying that even after mulling things around my head and analysing Brentford’s performance in forensic detail, I’m still frustrated, furious and fuming at what happened at Hillsborough and I am not going to pull my punches.

As ever we totally dominated proceedings, but I am sounding like a broken record as that is invariably the case nowadays both home and away. We had 59% possession and were accurate with 71% of 491 passes, which, it has to be said are all fairly low figures for the Bees. The telling statistic, and the one which highlighted where the match was lost is the fact that we managed fourteen shots of which a miserable three were on target.

The pitch resembled a cabbage patch, being bumpy and bobbly and almost denuded of grass and it has to be said that Brentford managed to play as much football as was possible on such a terrible and uneven surface.

Wednesday were more than happy to sit back and defend in numbers, draw us in and then hit us on the break, relying on a tall, tough and well-drilled defence to keep us at bay. Their game plan worked perfectly as they kept their record-equalling seventeenth clean sheet of the season and scored from one of the few opportunities that they created, albeit one that we did our utmost to set up for them.

After our customary slow start we finally got a toehold into the game and created four excellent first half opportunities that should have put us out of sight and ensured that the points would be travelling down South. Gray did brilliantly to conjure up two chances out of practically nothing, each time bursting past his marker who was utterly out-powered by his strength and determination, but faced only by the goalkeeper, Westwood, albeit from a tight angle, he failed to finish off the job either time and the ball drifted wide on both occasions. It is hard to criticise a young player who is left isolated game after game, creates most of his chances for himself given that he is left to forage largely on his own but his finishing has quite literally been hit and miss and far less than clinical for half a season now.

Jota was well marshalled but finally escaped the clutches of his marker before running into a blind alley when he could have shot and then just before half time came the key moment of the match. Gray’s clever back-heel put Judge clean through straight down the middle but with the goal gaping, he thrashed the ball onto the top of the bar and over with the referee generously adjudging that the keeper had touched the ball on its way into the massed ranks of relieved home supporters, well aware that they had been let off the hook. Judge’s lack of composure was telling and was perhaps symptomatic of the fact that with the inspirational Alex Prichard out injured, he was trying too hard to put his stamp on proceedings.

Gray was guilty of yet another glaring miss soon after halftime when Diagouraga’s exquisite through ball gave him time and space to pick his spot from fifteen yards – cometh the hour, cometh the man, surely, but Gray once again fluffed his lines and shot unerringly a foot wide of the goal.

Having survived so many chances for us to win the match and yet being let off the hook time after time, Wednesday were reinvigorated and finally roused themselves from their torpor and began to probe us on the break as we pushed players forward in desperate search of the opening goal. Toral replaced Dallas and just as had been the case at Leeds in early February he turned the game and set up the match-winning goal – unfortunately, this time at the wrong end. He took Button’s slightly overhit clearance onto his chest in the centre circle but slipped and carelessly allowed the ball to run away from him. Wednesday seized on the gift and with players caught upfield, were left with a man over and a low cross saw Tarkowski block the first shot but Lee snaffled up the rebound to score a soft and totally unearned goal.

We were stunned by this self-inflicted body blow but fought back well and created two more chances. Jota finally forced Westwood into a save with a bouncing long range effort that was scrambled away, before Judge unforgivably ballooned over from close range after Jota had put him in on goal. The Brentford fans were already beginning to celebrate as the ball dropped to Judge in time and space but their anticipation turned in a split-second to groans of disbelief as he snatched at the ball when he could have brought it down and then shot way over the bar. That was our final chance and the game slipped away from us. Three points gift wrapped and thrown away given the excellent opportunities that were wasted.

The defeat leaves us in a position where we are no longer in control of our destiny and we surely need to win our final three matches, all of which are on paper eminently winnable, as well as rely on a couple of snookers from Ipswich and Wolves if we are to reach the Playoffs. With two draws and a defeat in our last three matches we have nobody else to blame but ourselves. All three should have seen comfortable victories and whilst you can bemoan our misfortune at Derby the statistics tell their own story of our shortcomings. We have averaged over 60% possession in the last three games, had sixty-four shots of which only eighteen were on target and scored a measly three goals. We allowed the opposition thirty-two efforts on goal with ten on target and four finding the net. We scored from one in twenty-one of our efforts, the opposition were far more clinical , scoring with one in eight of their shots.

Mark Warburton has pretty much said the same thing and repeated the identical mantra in every post match press conference:

  • We must be more clinical in front of goal
  • We must take more care of the ball
  • We must stop making unforced defensive errors

Unfortunately the players seem totally unable to take these messages on board and these constant errors at both ends of the pitch are more than likely to cost us very dear come the end of the season. I appreciate the youth and relative inexperience of many of our squad but a genuine promotion chasing team simply gets the job done at the business end of the season, as have several of our rivals who have now sprinted way ahead of us whilst we have struggled to get over the line.

There are also questions that have to be asked about the depth and quality of our squad, despite the manager’s continued refusal to accept that we are anything other than fully equipped for every challenge that awaits us. Tuesday saw us without the services of Long and Pritchard and today we have learned that Chris Long was recalled by his parent club, Everton to play in an Under 21 fixture this afternoon as they felt he had not been starting recently for Brentford. To add insult to injury, or in this case should it perhaps be the other way around, he scored and was then taken off with a gashed thigh that required stitches. This is a strange one as it had previously been reported that we had sent him back to receive treatment as he hasn’t been able to feature in our last three match day squads, yet he was fit enough to play for Everton yesterday.  Where does that leave us? Will we see him again or are we going to end up playing our last six Championship matches with one fit (and I use that term advisedly) striker in the case of the drastically overworked Andre Gray?

I would share the view of Gary Blissett, which he recently expressed on Facebook, that now is the time to get behind and support the team unconditionally as we still have a mathematical chance of reaching the Playoffs. There will be more than enough opportunities for analysis, praise and even recrimination once the season ends. Hopefully that will not be for a few weeks yet. Victory on Saturday against Bolton is essential. There is no margin for error. Let’s hope we can get at least one of our injured players back as we continue to try and get ourselves over that finishing line.