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.