So it’s to be the playoffs for Brentford, news that was greeted by every Brentford supporter with utter relief and jubilation which given our appalling playoff record over the past twenty-four years might appear on the face of it to be a strange and perverse reaction. The only positive thing that can be said about Brentford and the playoffs is that at least we are consistent – consistently awful in fact, as we have so far failed to win promotion through this route on every occasion that we have reached the dreaded playoffs – seven in all. Amazingly enough there is one club, Preston North End, whose ineptitude makes our record look almost acceptable as having blown automatic promotion on Sunday they are about to embark, doubtless with fear and trepidation, upon their tenth playoff campaign with a one hundred percent failure rate.
If our past record wasn’t bad enough we really have nobody else to blame apart from ourselves given that the playoffs were the bastard child invention of our former chairman Martin Lange back in 1987 when he saw them as a way of maintaining and extending interest on the part of clubs who would otherwise have seen their season fizzle out once their hopes of automatic promotion had disappeared. The playoffs have rightly been considered a complete success by armchair supporters as well as by everybody not specifically involved in them as they undoubtedly add a sense of theatre, occasion and excitement even though they represent pure torture to the nervous followers of the teams actually competing in them.
Our first experience of the playoffs arrived in 1991 when we crept into sixth place in Division Three on the back of a well timed and frankly unexpected run of five victories in the last six games of the season. We had never really mounted a challenge for automatic promotion and were more than happy and gratified to have obtained a playoff spot particularly as a patently unfit Dean Holdsworth had fired blanks all season and we were totally beholden to Player of the Year Graham Benstead who had performed a series of miracles in goal.
The playoffs were a novelty, an unexpected gift and we were naive ingenues with absolutely no expectations and totally unaware of the devastation and horrors that a playoff failure could wreak on us. Tranmere awaited us, a team that had already defeated us twice that season, but we felt no fear as we were just pleased to be there. The first leg was at home and we totally dominated, scoring first through Terry Evans after a well-worked Wilf Rostron free kick and missing several other chances to put the tie well beyond our listless opponents. The match turned on its head after the break when Tranmere’s previously anonymous striker Steve Cooper performed his party piece by rising as if on springs to head home two identikit goals from corners. Little did we know at the time that Steve had excelled as a gymnast as a youngster which probably helped him in his athleticism and ability to leap in the air to score his trademark headers. We were stunned and wondered if Cooper bore a grudge as he had also scored four times against us for Newport County six years previously. We fought back from these body-blows and eventually salvaged a draw when Kevin Godfrey lobbed a late equaliser past the static Eric Nixon. We travelled to Prenton Park more in hope than expectation and lost narrowly by a single scrambled goal in a game of few chances where we dominated possession but lacked incisiveness in front of goal. Given the novelty value of our situation I don’t remember any real sense of sadness or loss at the time, that would come in good time after some of our future playoff disappointments.
1995 was a case in point and I am still traumatised by how cruelly we were treated and what fate laughingly had in store for us. We had a vibrant exciting team inspired by the goals of the FT Index, Nicky Forster and Robert Taylor who managed forty-seven goals between them. We were tough and organised in defence and had a potent threat from set-pieces in marauding full back Martin Grainger. This was the one and only season when, owing to the reorganisation of the Premier League, there was a trickle-down effect which resulted in only one team receiving automatic promotion from Division Two. There are no prizes for guessing who finished second! Promotion was in our own hands and we let it slip. Without mincing words we choked in the last month of the season, scrambling a last minute equaliser at home to an abject Chester team, then losing meekly in a crucial midweek promotion clincher at our closest rivals Birmingham City who did the double over us before allowing a Bournemouth team seemingly doomed to relegation to beat us in our last home game.
This time we felt totally different as the cup had been dashed from our lips and faceless bureaucracy had denied us the promotion that was indubitably our just reward for finishing second. Surely we would right the wrong done to us by winning the playoffs, and cementing promotion at Wembley would be a wonderful way of doing it. I felt that our victory was assured as it was so obviously right and proper that we did so, but unfortunately nobody had informed Neil Warnock and his tough and driven Huddersfield team. We drew a hard-fought first leg away from home with Nicky Forster scoring a well-worked team goal and his strike partner Taylor improbably and almost unbelievably skying over an empty net with the goalkeeper already lying helpless on the floor for an iconic miss.
We scored early on at home through a cool, calm and collected Grainger penalty kick but we took our foot off the gas and were punished by Andy Booth after Dearden was surely impeded. Both teams became increasingly cautious and cancelled each other out, afraid to risk defeat by opening up and going for the winning goal. The dreaded penalty shootout arrived and Huddersfield blinked first when Dearden saved brilliantly, but Denny Mundee, who had scored twice from the spot against Steve Francis at Huddersfield the previous season blew the chance to put us two goals ahead when he was outguessed this time by the keeper. Jamie Bates too criminally failed to put his foot through the ball and one kick later our season was over. We left the stadium in utter silence, disbelieving and devastated at the turn of events. Had we really witnessed what we thought we had seen? How could we have lost that tie? Was life really that cruel? Twenty years on and I still ask myself the same questions and, yes, it hurts even today to remind myself of that torrid evening when it all unravelled for us. Of all our playoff failures 1995 perhaps rankles the most given the circumstances although as we will see, 2013 comes close behind!
We needed a year to recover from the trauma of 1995 but we came again in 1996/97 when we again tanked promotion through our own inadequacies and mis-management and were forced to rely yet again on the playoffs. Surely we should by now have known better? The new four-pronged spearhead of Forster, Asaba, Taylor and Bent inspired us to an eleven match unbeaten run at the start of the season and we were coasting at the top of the league when the quite staggering decision was taken in January to sell Nicky Forster to arch-nemesis Birmingham City for a mere £700,000. He was never replaced, the prolific Carl Asaba was mysteriously shifted out wide to the left wing and the remaining seventeen league matches produced a mere eighteen points. We failed to score in ten of our last fourteen games and won only once at home after Christmas. We can all speculate as to why the management stood idly by and allowed our promotion challenge to disintegrate as we limped into the playoffs holed below the waterline. Miraculously we recovered our Mojo for the tough-looking playoff Semi Final against Bristol City and surprised everyone, including perhaps ourselves by winning both legs and qualifying for our first ever playoff final against a Crewe team bursting with young talent and ideally suited for the massive Wembley pitch. Having been taken to the heights by the renewed confidence and organisation we displayed against Bristol City, we plummeted to the depths of despair and embarrassment by playing like a disorganised rabble at Wembley. We had Statham sent off, were totally outclassed and could easily have lost by six goals rather than the one that the opposition actually managed. Our Neanderthal long ball style could not cope with the short passing and clever movement of our opponents. Crewe outplayed and out-thought us, hit the woodwork three times and the heroic Carl Hutchings cleared the ball off our goal line on two further occasions.
I was left fairly unmoved by our defeat in 1991, and was distraught in 1995, but this time I felt humiliated and angry and was just glad to leave Wembley as fast as the crowds would allow. We lost a lot of fans that day when we capitulated and completely failed to compete. It is time to stop now as I need to take a deep breath and have a break before I resume this tale of disaster and disappointment.