Visiting a team that has just won promotion for their first home game in their new division is a journey always fraught with peril and the vagaries of the fixture list decreed that that was Brentford’s fate yesterday as the Bees attempted to beard Bristol City in their den.
Not unexpectedly after Tuesday night’s disaster against Oxford United, Marinus Dijkhuizen made eleven changes for the second match running, reverting to the same team that began against Ipswich Town the previous Saturday with the exception of Andre Gray replacing the injured Jota who is yet another addition to Brentford’s long-term injury list. I had previously remarked in my match preview how crucial it would be for the Bees to start well and silence the crowd and they obviously heeded my wise words and for a whole one hundred and fourteen seconds we totally dominated the proceedings and never gave the home team a look-in let alone a sniff at goal.
Job done, surely, but things then took a sudden turn for the worse when Button was pressurised and, shades of Sheffield Wednesday last season, Brentford gave up possession near halfway from his fly kick, Ayling ran with the ball, our entire midfield and defence evaporated and new signing Jonathan Kodjia was left with the time and space to slot the ball into the net for a well-worked goal from their point of view, but one of total disorganisation and incompetence from ours.
Our well laid plans had gone up in smoke and a long, tough afternoon seemed to be in prospect as the invigorated home team with their tails up and a rabid crowd screaming encouragement took total control. We had set up in a 4-3-3 formation with Gray and Gogia on the flanks and whilst they were supporting Hofmann, Gray, in particular was doing nothing to assist the beleaguered Alan McCormack who was constantly faced with his ultimate nightmare – two speedy players in Freeman and the overlapping Bryan running at him in tandem from deep. Our right side was lopsided and overwhelmed and all the danger came from the City left wing.
We were in deep trouble but somehow we regrouped and an incisive attack saw Diagouraga stride forward and slip Gray through on the left but his instant lobbed volley from the edge of the area was weak and poorly executed and even looked as if it was dropping wide before Ben Hamer, making his home debut for his new club made a total hash of his save and pat-a- caked the ball straight into the path of Alan Judge who was left with an open goal and he accepted the gift.
This unexpected equaliser did nothing to change the way the game was going as a rampant Bristol City simply battered us, creating chances at will as they waltzed through a non-existent midfield and defence and only a combination of Button’s saves and appalling finishing kept us level until a left wing corner was headed in comfortably at the near post by Aaron Wilbraham as our zonal marking system broke down and he got in between two straining defenders. Another shocking goal to concede and I would hope that our set-piece coach will also spend some time working on how best to defend corners as well as score from them.
Not content with two, Bristol City went close on several occasions to putting the scoreline well out of our reach as we continued to flounder and chase shadows in the heat. Ashton Gate was a cauldron and the Bees were simply trying to keep in the game when out of the carnage came salvation when, soon after the half-hour Luke Freeman launched himself into a ludicrous and totally unnecessary Kung Fu aerial challenge with Harlee Dean. The ball was at head height, but so was Freeman’s foot which poleaxed the Brentford defender and Keith Stroud for once took his time and consulted his assistant before eventually producing his red card.
The crowd seethed with anger and disbelief and the tide turned. McCormack was no longer pressurised and Bristol City fell back in disarray. Brentford took full advantage and equalised just before the interval when Bidwell and Judge kept possession well near the left corner flag and Judge curled the ball in perfectly and with Gray and Williams stretching for the ball it was deflected through the hapless Hamer’s legs into the net. Whose goal was it? Gray was awarded it initially but it was then debited to the defender however Alan Judge has also claimed it – another mystery to be solved.
The biggest mystery, though, was why Wilbraham did not suffer an identical fate to his team mate Freeman as his assault on Tarkowski left the Brentford defender with a smashed and broken nose, however this time the referee saw no evil.
The equaliser dashed the spirits of the home team and took the wind out of their sails and the second half saw a procession of Brentford possession and chances as the Bees turned the match on its head and totally dominated the proceedings. Button was forced into a decent save from Pack and there were a few flurries and breakaways but most of the action was at the other end.
Bidwell forced a decent save from Hamer with a long-ranger, Gray turned well and found space but skied his effort and McCormack also went close as Brentford used their extra man well and made Bristol City work hard and they soon ran themselves out in the energy sapping conditions. The goal had to come and it eventually arrived on the hour when Gogia and McCormack worked space on the right and the fullback’s low centre was hammered home by Gray – a man on a mission and looking twice the player he was last season.
He and Hofmann are beginning to forge an effective partnership and they combined well ten minutes later when the ball was played into Hofmann’s feet and he was far too strong for Williams as he turned the defender and swept the ball imperiously into the bottom corner for a goal of true international class.
The remainder of the game was played out quietly and efficiently by a Brentford team which had regained its mojo and played the ball around with growing confidence.
It is impossible to assess yesterday with any degree of accuracy or certainty. We won and scored four goals way from home. Gray and Hofmann impressed and were a constant danger. Judge too was a massive influence and is growing into his role as an advanced midfield playmaker and inspiration. Jack O’Connell also opened some eyes with a defensive performance of calmness, strength and composure when he replaced Tarkowski and McCormack recovered well and was a massive influence in the second half.
To counterbalance the positives, we could easily have been dead and buried if City had taken their early chances and if Freeman had not had his rush of blood. The midfield provided flimsy cover at best to a defence that was overrun early on and we lacked balance and organisation. Diagouraga grew into the game but Kerschbaumer is still finding his feet and the wingers need to understand and adhere to their defensive responsibilities as well as just bomb forward.
Given the appalling few days that the club had suffered both on and off the pitch and an ever-growing injury list that now sees the addition of Tarkowski and the loss of Jota for three to four months, the team showed tremendous grit and determination and no small amount of skill to recover from what looked like a desperate position.
The win is more than welcome as it will further build confidence and a sense of togetherness amongst a squad that is still settling down and is very much a work in progress. The Andre Gray situation also hangs over us like a sword of Damocles and in that regard the end of the transfer window cannot come soon enough. At the moment we simply cannot afford to lose him unless our hand is forced.
The new Head Coach heard his name being serenaded by the fans for the first time yesterday and he responded with a wave of acknowledement. That is good news too as a bond is beginning to be forged between him and the supporters. There is much hard work that is required over the coming weeks and I, for one, am delighted that Tuesday’s match has been postponed particularly given the lack of our current resources.
Three Development Squad players in Senior, Udumaga and Clarke found themselves on the bench yesterday – it was either them or pick somebody at random from the crowd. Maxime Colin will join the squad next week and hopefully Sam Saunders will also be fit for selection but fresh faces are needed to replenish our squad given the quite ridiculous number of injuries that we are currently suffering.
With four points from two games we now find ourselves wth an excellent platform to build from and with hard work, good management and some new blood we can soon settle down into a cohesive and effective unit.