There was a gap of five years before the playoffs reared their ugly head again in 2002, and once more it was heartache for the Bees. I still find it hard to believe that a team that boasted the talent of players such as Ivar Ingimarsson, Darren Powell, Gavin Mahon, Martin Rowlands, Paul Evans, Steve Hunt, Steve Sidwell, Lloyd Owusu and Ben Burgess could not grab one of the top two places in the league table but Brighton and Reading proved to be just that little bit better, although we demonstrated our ability by doing the double over the eventual champions, Brighton, including that unforgettable four-nil thumping we handed out to them at Griffin Park on a magical night when Ben Burgess was utterly unplayable.
Unfortunately Owner Ron Noades had lost interest in us by then which resulted in the squad being weakened, and valuable assets in Mahon and Paul Gibbs were sold off at vital stages of the season without a hint of a replacement and the inspirational Jason Price was also allowed to leave at the end of his short term contract. Worse still, Ben Burgess damaged his hamstring whilst on international duty and with no new loanee arriving on transfer deadline day, our most potent striker was forced to see the season through despite being unable to summon up a gallop and his goal threat unsurprisingly disappeared.
As always we seemed to be our own worst enemy and no wonder manager Steve Coppell called it a day at the end of his only season in charge. Mark McCammon frittered away a glaring late opportunity to earn us a vital win at Queens Park Rangers, so, shades of Doncaster in 2013, we went into the final showdown needing to beat Reading to go up whilst our visitors simply needed to draw.
The tension was unbearable as we could barely dare to watch what was happening on the pitch. After a first half of shadow boxing with Reading more than happy to slow the proceedings down, the game burst into life when Owusu’s electric run down the left flank saw the ball pulled back to Martin Rowlands, at the time still a Griffin Park hero, who thrashed the ball low into the net. Reading finally decided to make a game of it given their need to score and we funnelled back and gave away the initiative hoping to hold onto what we already had. As is so often the case a one goal lead is a mere chimera and the ineffable Jamie Cureton secured a permanent place in our chamber of horrors by poaching the all-important late equaliser with a clever lob, and time stood still as the ball dropped just inside the post.
So near yet so far. I confess to the ultimate heresy of leaving the game a few minutes early after Paul Evans had wasted a chance from a late free kick, I just could not bear to watch the blue and white hordes cavorting around the Griffin Park pitch and lording it over us whilst we were left jilted at the altar once again.
I contemplated the playoffs with as much enthusiasm as Sisyphus must have done, clutching his boulder looking up at the steep hill in front of him, but we rallied and finally did to Huddersfield what they had done to us back in 1995. It was payback time with a disciplined defensive performance away from home followed by a brave recovery from Paul Smith’s early aberration at Griffin Park. Roared on by a passionate home crowd we scored twice through Darren Powell and then Lloyd Owusu to earn the right to play Stoke City at the Millennium Stadium.
The stakes were high, as this was the last chance saloon with promotion to the second tier on the one hand, the certain loss of Steve Coppell and the breakup of our squad on the other, should we lose. I am afraid that I made the long journey to Cardiff filled with trepidation as I felt that the dice were loaded against us and unfortunately I was proved correct. This was a step too far for a team that had been systematically weakened by niggling injuries and outgoing transfers. Death by a thousand cuts, indeed. We had peaked and could not compete on the day with a strong Stoke City team packed full of expensive imports. We subsided to a comfortable two goal defeat with the ultimate irony of BBB scoring the clincher into his own net when attempting to clear a free kick. The journey home was horrible, as we all knew that this was the end of an era and that the next few years were going to be extremely tough both on and off the pitch.
The following two seasons were simply about survival and avoiding relegation, and thanks to Wally Downes in 2003 and the ultimate Great Escape under new inspiration Martin Allen, we earned ourselves some much needed breathing space. Allen rebuilt and patched up the squad on a shoestring and imbued them with his own passion and confidence. A team led by the experienced Stuart Talbot, Chris Hargreaves, John Salako and Deon Burton, buttressed with the youthful enthusiasm of the likes of Alex Rhodes, Sam Sodje, Jay Tabb and the elegant Michael Turner gelled together and had a remarkable season culminating in a totally unforeseen run to the fifth round of the FA Cup where we almost defeated Premier League Southampton as well as a late charge towards the playoffs. It all looked like it was going to fall apart when we lost three consecutive games in April but we eventually fell over the line when Scott Fitzgerald’s late winner at Wrexham earned us a playoff place.
Could this be fifth time lucky as we sought to overcome a stuttering Sheffield Wednesday? Their recent home record had been appalling but instead of attacking them, Martin Allen for once misread the situation and played an ultra defensive lineup which gave a nervous home team the initiative, and we returned to Griffin Park facing a one goal deficit but with the feeling that we had squandered a real opportunity to take the tie by the scruff of the neck.
The second leg was far more even and the turning point came when Wednesday keeper David Lucas somehow kept out a Deon Burton effort that seemed bound for the back of the net. Our hopes ebbed away and two breakaway goals sealed victory for our visitors before a late consolation by Andy Frampton heralded a nonstop cacophony of noise from the Brentford fans who knew that the tie had slipped away from them but were simply celebrating and acknowledging the achievement of a team that had massively over-performed.
Promotion looked well on the cards the following season as DJ Campbell’s arrival from non league at last gave us a real goal threat and the elegant Darren Pratley roamed around the midfield with menace. Yet once again we let things slip through our fingers and contributed massively to our own failure. Campbell was sold to Birmingham on the back of his two brilliant goals that ensured us a wonderful FA Cup giant killing against Premier League Sunderland, and his replacement Calum Willock proved to be a total misfit who managed to go through almost half a season scoring only one goal. Lloyd Owusu tore his groin playing in a nondescript friendly match against Stuttgart for Ghana and our striking options were restricted to veteran Marcus Gayle and Isaiah Rankin.
Automatic promotion was still totally in our hands but, as always, Brentford found a way to seize defeat from the jaws of victory. Sam Sodje, such an inspiration at the back, self-destructed when his proposed move to Southampton fell through and, losing focus and concentration, became a defensive liability. We failed to win any of our last four home games and became paralysed by fear and apprehension whenever we scored first, funnelling back in a vain and desperate attempt to cling onto our lead. Victory at Bournemouth on the final day of the season allied to a defeat for Colchester at Yeovil would have been enough for promotion but it wasn’t to be and we finished third in the table.
A Leon Knight inspired Swansea were given a helping hand when Referee Keith Stroud controversially sent off Stuart Nelson when Brentord were a Jay Tabb goal up and coasting in the first leg and we were pegged back by a cruel late deflected equaliser. Surely now we were in the catbird seat, but once again disappointment was to strike as a desperately poor performance from a toothless Bees team saw us subside to a two goal defeat. Zero for six and counting! I was pretty numb by now and expected little else than the loss that we suffered. We just did not seem to do playoffs and had developed a complex about them and our inevitable losses became no more than a self-perpetuating prophecy.
Our final playoff failure in 2013 is still too sore and fresh in the memory to need much retelling and I am certainly not going to rake over the coals by forensically deconstructing the Trotta penalty fiasco against Doncaster. We drew at Swindon thanks to Kevin O’Connor’s brilliantly taken injury time penalty and the home tie remains one of the best and most exciting games I have ever seen. We were seemingly coasting with a three-one lead. Marcello Trotta was imperious and Clayton Donaldson a constant danger, and quite frankly, we could have scored at least six times but were pegged back with two late goals that highlighted our constant weakness from corner kicks.
A dreaded penalty shoot out in a playoff match surely represented two opportunities for heartache for Brentford, but we rose to the challenge with all five nominated kickers scoring emphatically and Simon Moore’s plunging save followed by Adam Forshaw’s perfect conversion of our last kick saw us earn a trip to Wembley. Surely this time? But no, a stunning Paddy Madden volley early on was like a dagger to our hearts, and the lumbering Dan Burn’s header gave us a mountain to climb at the break. Talk of climbing, I was ready to leave Wembley by any method available at halftime and had to be persuaded to stay, given how deep I was in the depths of despair.
So near yet so far, as Harlee Dean’s thumping header gave us false hope but we squandered a plethora of chances to allay our playoff bogey and it was to be yet another desperate tramp back to the car interrupted only by an unscheduled stop at a rubbish bin where I deposited my Clayton Donaldson autographed shirt which had more than outlived its potency as a lucky omen.
Given this tale of never-ending failure and despair, why then am I looking forward with relish to tonight’s playoff match against Middlesbrough? Quite simply because this is a totally different and unique situation. All our seven failures in the past were in the Division One playoffs. Now we are in uncharted waters for the first time and are actually on the verge of reaching the Premier League. Something that would have been quite preposterous to even contemplate a mere year or so ago.
I quite appreciate that Matthew Benham and his intrepid team of analysts had us down to finish in sixth or seventh place this season and we have now met his expectations by reaching the playoffs. That being said I see this as being a free hit for us as hardly anybody outside the club really expected us to get there and even fewer now expect us to win the playoffs.
With the pressure off we can play with freedom and without the weight of pressure and expectation. It would really not surprise me if we beat Middlesbrough and then triumph at a packed Wembley against either Norwich or Ipswich. I have already visualised this happening in my dreams and imagination and I live in constant hope of it coming true.
Tonight is therefore a time for celebration and not apprehension. What has happened in the past should not concern or worry us. If we pull it off then it will be an astonishing achievement which will go down in the annals of the club’s history. If not – this time I can live with it without my Summer being ruined.