So despite their best efforts Brentford’s season came to its conclusion at the Riverside Stadium on Friday night. The Bees just couldn’t pull back the one goal deficit from the first leg, conceded again halfway through the first half when Tomlin’s long range effort received a helpful deflection off Harlee Dean which took it beyond Button’s reach, and then carelessly lost possession twice after the break and were ruthlessly punished by breakaway goals from Kike and Adomah. A four goal aggregate defeat in the tie was cruel indeed on Brentford who deserved slightly better but it cannot be denied that we were comfortably second best overall.
For us to reach Wembley there were several prerequisites. We needed to be at our absolute best and to be brave and positive on the night. We also had to display the self-belief and confidence to play our own game and take care of the ball. We needed leaders on the pitch who would set a personal example and help encourage their team mates. Most crucially, we had to be clinical in front of goal when chances came our way. Unfortunately none of these boxes were ticked and we subsided to a comprehensive defeat.
We must give credit where it is due. Middlesbrough were everything that we weren’t. Tough, big, strong, compact, organised, street-smart, determined, ruthless, comfortable on the ball, quick to turn defence into attack and deadly in front of goal.
Their game plan worked a treat. Firstly, just as had been the case at Griffin Park, they let us know they were there and knocked us out of our stride and never allowed us to build up a rhythm by commiting a series of cynical and deliberate fouls whenever we threatened to break forward. They gambled correctly that the referee would not intervene early on and by the time Lee Mason belatedly decided to exert his authority and use his yellow card, it was far too late and the damage had already been done. We were nervous and tentative and never managed to break at pace as Middlesbrough funnelled back and denied us any space as soon as we reached the congested midfield area.
Leadbitter and Clayton chased and harried and snapped at our ankles from the first whistle. They were relentless and tireless in their efforts to snuff out danger before it developed and not to allow us the time and space we needed to hurt them. But they were both far more than water carriers and mere defensive spoilers as they demonstrated a real ability to read the game and to pass the ball accurately and with precision.
Both Jonathan Douglas and Toumani Diagouraga have been inspirational for the Bees this season but it was instructive to compare their overall effectiveness and impact upon the game with that of Leadbitter and Clayton who clearly demonstrated the difference between excellent players and the true elite at this level.
With our creativity stifled at birth, Jota, Judge and Pritchard flickered into life only intermittently and were never an influence on the game. Our chances were few and far between and there was no margin for error. We simply had to take our opportunities when they fell our way, but we let them all slip.
Early on, Jota shot weakly from outside the area and his effort was easily saved but our two key moments came either side of halftime. Judge’s angled cross eluded the straining head of Ayala and Gray was left with a clear sight of goal but his weak headed effort was going nowhere when it hit a defender and was deflected straight to the keeper. We came out far more determined and positive after the break and straightaway the overlapping Odubajo’s perfect low centre was somehow missed by Gray as he attempted to turn the ball in from right in front of goal. That could have been a turning point as if he had scored it would have silenced the crowd whose anxiety would doubtless have transmitted itself to the team. That was it until a sweet move opened up the defence near the end but substitute Chris Long was pressurised into slicing his angled effort well wide of the goal. I doubt if we have ever created fewer chances in a match over the course of the entire season but you have to give due credit to the job that Middlesbrough did on us as well as acknowledge that we did not do ourselves justice on the night.
Harlee Dean was by far our best player closely followed by Moses Odubajo, David Button and James Tarkowski. Jake Bidwell appeared to be mesmerised by the pace and twinkling feet of Albert Adomah and was far too preoccupied with his defensive responsibilities to help support his ailing attack.
We did our best but it never really looked as if it would be enough and Middlesbrough finished up beating us four times in a row over the course of the season, scoring ten times with us managing one measly goal in reply, despite our knocking on the door so many times, particularly in our two home matches.
Could and should we have approached the game in a different manner? I would, in passing, refer you to Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Mark Warburton and Plan A anybody? We basically played the same game four times against Middlesbrough with identical results on each and every occasion. It would certainly have been brave and maybe even foolhardy to have tinkered with, or even changed a formula that had worked so well throughout the season and that had indeed been responsible for getting us to the playoffs in the first place. Managers are paid extremely well to problem solve and be flexible and imaginative where necessary but nothing changed and on Friday our limitations and shortcomings were yet again ruthlessly exposed.
It would be churlish indeed to carp and criticise given how wonderfully well we have performed all season and the amount of pleasure that Brentford have provided to all lovers of pure attacking football around the country. Mark Warburton’s loyalty and commitment to his squad was also laudable and their sense of unity and togetherness certainly played a large part in our success, but our failure to strengthen in January when the opportunity apparently presented itself, meant that we were forced to rely on a small squad and there were precious few options available to freshen things up or make significant changes off the bench.
I know that I have mentioned it before, but I still believe that the most illuminating statistic of the season is the fact that thirteen of the eighteen players in our squad on the opening day of the season on the ninth of August last year were still involved when the season finally drew to a close on the fifteenth of May. The five who fell by the wayside were Richard Lee, Marcos Tebar, Nico Yennaris, Montell Moore and Nick Proschwitz. They were replaced by Jack Bonham, Toumani Diagouraga, Jota, Jon Toral and Chris Long. So with the exception of Chris Long, who arrived in January, and Liam Moore who came and went in the new year, the squad remained almost unchanged for the entire season, something that I doubt has ever occurred in modern day football where there is invariably a high turnover of players who come and go and are seen as replaceable assets.
That was the way that Mark Warburton wanted to manage and it will be fascinating to see whether his ultimate successor favours a different approach next season in terms of squad size and rotation and, indeed, our overall formation and pattern of play.
That is for the future and now is the time simply to reflect on all the incredible events of the past nine months and salute the Bees and everyone involved with the club for providing us with such an incredible season that came so close to returning us to the top flight of English football for the first time in sixty-eight years. Friday’s match ended in a cacophony of sound as the travelling Brentford supporters paid a raucous and heartfelt tribute to their team and its supporting cast of Mark Warburton, David Weir and Matthew Benham.The imminent departure of Mark Warburton and David Weir certainly marks the end of this chapter but the story has barely yet begun.