It is merely halftime in our playoff semifinal against Middlesbrough and whilst we go into Friday’s second leg at the Riverside Stadium trailing by one goal there is absolutely no reason at all why we still cannot prevail and keep our promotion dream alive. The tie is still wide open, it is not a foregone conclusion that everything is lost and here is why we can win the match on Friday.
We know exactly what we have to do. It is quite straightforward and simple, only a win will do and winning away is something that we do extremely well. In fact given our ability to counterattack and break at pace we often look a better and more dangerous team on the road and we won a massive eleven times away from home this season, more than anybody in the Championship except AFC Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich. We know how to win away from Griffin Park and we never go into an away game looking for anything other than a win, and once having taken the lead we keep going for the jugular and do not sit back and invite pressure onto us. We scored a massive thirty-two goals in our twenty-three away games, the sixth best record in the league, and we know no other way to play other than to attack.
Our defensive record away from home is slightly less impressive as we leaked thirty-one goals, but only six teams conceded less and we managed to keep five clean sheets, including one at Leeds United where we withstood the relentless physical assault of a determined and aggressive home team wound up by over twenty-thousand rabid, vociferous and baying supporters. We were also victorious at the cauldron that is the New Den where we were inspired by the powder-keg atmosphere and put on a sparkling display.
Playoff games are won by teams that display the right temperament and do not buckle under pressure and one thing that we can take for granted is that we won’t be fazed by or give in to the pressure of the big occasion or large and hostile crowds. The bigger the crowd, the stadium or the heritage, tradition and reputation of our opponents the better we seem to rise to and cope with the challenge.
This is leaving aside the very fact that even being in the playoffs is beyond the wildest dream of any of our supporters, as who amongst us would have dared suggest last August that we would have emerged victorious on our travels to teams of the calibre of Nottingham Forest, Millwall, Cardiff City, Norwich City, Leeds United, Blackburn Rovers, Fulham and Reading? You would have been laughed out of court or more likely people would have said that you needed your sanity testing! And yet we won away to all these massive names and in many cases gave them a football lesson too. Oh, and I will also mention our recent visit to Derby County where, although we were denied a victory at the death, we played our illustrious opponents off the pitch and silenced the stadium.
It is also payback time given that we have played Middlesbrough three times already this season and lost on every occasion, and indeed we have only scored once against them in two hundred and seventy minutes of play and that came after an out-of-character goalkeeping howler. But the figures hide the fact that we created chance after chance in the last two matches and were only denied by a combination of poor finishing, desperate defending, great goalkeeping and sheer bad luck. I can still remember Stuart Dallas’s shot clanging off the goalpost and his two second half efforts in January that seared inches over the crossbar. Andre Gray could have had a hat trick last Friday, and what about the two incredible saves by the giant Dimi Konstantopoulos who denied Jonathan Douglas at the death in January and who also stretched out a prehensile hand to turn away his looping header in the first leg? We just need to be more clinical, ensure that there is some tangible end product from all the possession that we will undoubtedly have next week, maybe even have some better luck in front of goal and on the law of averages surely it has to be our turn now?
Professional pride will also have an important bearing on how matters turn out on Friday. As Mark Warburton, all the players, as well as the five hundred and sixty-seven supporters who had the misfortune to travel to our first encounter at the Riverside Stadium in September will testify, we were “Middlesbroughed” on the day and never turned up at all. For once we fell below our high standards, never competed and suffered the consequences. We were cut to pieces by an excellent team, lost by four clear goals and from all reports it could easily have been seven. That non-performance has been used by the management as a motivator all season long and as a grisly reminder of what can happen when you under-perform.
The players will surely not allow that to happen again, particularly in a match of such importance. I fully expect them to show a combination of organisation, determination and commitment as well as no little skill to put on a performance that will make us all proud of them as well as impress the watching millions.
Let’s be honest, the prize is extremely high with the players competing for the opportunity to play in the most heralded match of the season at the national stadium at Wembley with the carrot of a place in the Premier League at stake. What more can you ask for? For the Brentford squad, most of whom were pretty much unknown on the wider stage at the start of the season, they are playing for contracts and their careers and will also be looking to impress whoever it is who comes in to replace the soon-to-be-departed Mark Warburton. If there is not a place for any of them under the new regime at Griffin Park they will be looking to impress potential new employers.
There is a wonderful sense of togetherness amongst this close-knit Brentford squad. We only used twenty-four players all season in the Championship and of those, four – Scott Hogan, Marcos Tebar, Betinho, and Nico Yennaris, made a mere seven appearances between them. Mark Warburton maintained his loyalty to his squad, made minimal changes and whatever we all may think about the lack of strengthening in January, his faith in his players was amply rewarded by the achievement of the coveted playoff spot. All eleven players who started the first match of the season against Charlton way back in early August last year will, if fit, be involved next Friday, with eight expected to start and three on the bench. In addition two of the seven substitutes that day will likely also be in the squad. I have no way of checking, but I would think that this is a rare if not unprecedented feat and bears testimony to the consistency and togetherness of the squad.
Loyalty works both way and the players have all made it abundantly clear how much they owe to their manager and they will be determined to ensure that Mark Warburton leaves on a high and not with a damp squib. Ideally that would mean that the season and his Brentford career ends with him holding the Championship playoff trophy aloft at Wembley with the ultimate objective of promotion to the Premier League finally accomplished. That might still be a pipe dream at this juncture but what I can be certain of is that this Brentford team will not go down easily and without a fight.
As for Middlesbrough, they certainly boast an exceptional home record, losing only three times all season and conceding a miserly twelve goals, far and away the best record in the Championship. All they have to do is keep another clean sheet and Brentford’s goose will be cooked, but maybe their late winner at Griffin Park might even work against them? Perhaps there will be some uncertainty about whether they should stick or twist, maybe they will sit back and invite us onto them hoping to pick us off on the break? If so we will need to take advantage of the chances we create as well as ensuring that we keep the back door locked when the likes of Adomah and Bamford threaten our goal. Certainly it will need us to be at our best and combine skill, ingenuity, creativity and composure with the more plebeian but equally essential attributes of sweat, toil, organisation and commitment.
The Middlesbrough team, bench, management and supporters all rubbed our noises in it at the final whistle last Friday, wildly celebrating their late and fortuitous victory as if the job was done and their Wembley place already confirmed, and it would give us all enormous pleasure to pay them back in kind.
It has to be said that history is not on our side as no Championship team has previously gone into the playoff final after losing the first leg at home. Southampton and Leicester went the closest in 2007 and 2010 respectively, winning away after losing at home but both lost out in the eventual penalty shootout. So the odds are certainly stacked against the Bees but this team has already accomplished so much in this momentous season so why should they not be denied their place in history?
I will give the last words to Graham Westley whose Stevenage team have reached the League Two playoffs this season. Here is his recipe for winning the playoffs:
It IS about adventure. It IS about being brave. You have to score goals to win so you have to play goal scoring players to get through. It IS about playing on the front foot, getting out there and attacking the situation. It isn’t for the faint hearted. It IS for the brave.
Now which team do his words remind you of? We CAN do this!