What Should We Do To Address The Slump?

I really don’t think anyone either at the club or supporters alike needs any reminding that Brentford FC is currently on the crest of a slump after a truly horrid run of six defeats in seven games since Thomas Frank took over the reigns as Head Coach in October. What is more important is coming up with a strategy to help arrest the slide before it becomes terminal. So here is my action plan which would hopefully help do the trick.

  1. Accept that there are issues that need addressing urgently but keep calm and don’t panic – we have all been here before. Remember that ghastly run of only two wins and a solitary draw in thirteen games in early 2016, yet we recovered and finished the season in sparkling form with seven wins in the last nine matches. We CAN and WILL recover from this as good players do not become bad overnight and our squad is jam-packed full of excellent players.
  2. There were murmurings from within the club after the Sheffield United game about the negative reaction by the crowd to Tuesday’s game. I know it is hard when we lose after a truly dire and insipid performance but we all have to stay together and, to use a cliche, “Keep the Faith” however hard it is to do so. Thomas Frank and the squad are obviously well aware of how badly things are going and really do not need any reminding from us fans. Frank has also been working with one hand tied behind his back given the length of the injury list and the fact that, Sod’s Law, it is many of the most valuable players that have been affected. The tragic death of Robert Rowan should also help put matters into context and perspective and his loss has understandably had a deep effect on everyone involved with the club, both on and off the field. In other words cut them all a bit of slack!
  3. Get Thomas Frank the extra coaching help he desperately needs. There is a gaping hole alongside Frank and Brian Riemer both on the bench and at the training ground. We need another experienced Assistant Coach who understands and has good knowledge of the Championship, someone who can ideally organise a defence and can speak to the players in their own language. Thomas Frank is an excellent coach but I wonder if a native English speaker might help him get his ideas and instructions across more succinctly and pithily particularly in the crucial moments immediately before a game and at halftime.
  4. Keith Millen has been a constant presence at recent Brentford matches. He has vast experience and an excellent reputation, knows the club and the division well, is a clear communicator and would fit the bill, as of course would another former club employee in Lee Carsley, if he were also available.
  5. We have conceded by my reckoning six goals from set pieces in our last seven games – a truly shocking and frightening figure which clearly demonstrates our lack of organisation and concentration. I know that there is a lot of hard work going on at the training ground to address this problem, including a double session yesterday, but I would strongly advocate that we drop our zonal marking policy and go man-to-man. We lack height and strength throughout the team and allowing taller opponents a free run at the ball is costing us dear.
  6. For a variety of reasons we have recently lost leaders and talent throughout the club. Dean Smith understandably left for so-called better things, Robert Rowan is no longer with us and Chief Executive Mark Devlin is also on the verge of leaving the club after seven years of exemplary service. You can’t lose people of this calibre without there being  a hopefully temporary negative impact. Dean was a popular figure at the training ground whose very presence commanded respect. He knew his job inside out and was an exceptional man-manager who apparently made a point of making the time to speak individually to every player each day. He was a leader and an inspiration and his are tough boots to fill. Thomas Frank has to rise to the challenge, move out of the background and prove that he too is a leader and motivator rather than just a talented coach. Can he adapt to becoming THE man rather than a number two. He did it at Brondby so hopefully he will succeed given time, encouragement and support. It is far too soon to even begin to guess how Robert Rowan can and will be replaced as his personality, influence, knowledge and contacts will be greatly missed. A new Chief Executive will also take time to be recruited and start in post. Perhaps in the meantime it would be helpful and supportive for Phil Giles to base himself at the training ground for the next couple of months where he can be seen and consulted on a regular basis.
  7. The appointment of one or more Club Ambassadors might also be helpful not just in terms of PR and fan engagement but also in providing the benefit of their broad knowledge and experience of the game. Mark Bright performs a similar role at Crystal Palace. There are several potential candidates such as Dean Holdsworth, Marcus Gayle and Nicky Forster.
  8. The goalkeeping situation has to be addressed as Daniel Bentley had gone from being one of the best goalkeepers in the division to amongst the worst. Why? He appears to lack confidence and he is constantly making poor decisions and he is even struggling with shot-stopping which is the most straightforward part of a goalkeeper’s game. Thomas Frank has made it clear that Bentley is his first choice when Dean Smith had given an opportunity to his deputy, Luke Daniels, who seemingly did little wrong. Bentley should be responding to the faith shown in him and performing better than he is and his body language is also not encouraging. All that has changed from last season where he recovered from a dodgy early season spell is the appointment of a new goalkeeping coach replacing the long-serving Simon Royce. Perhaps his current inconsistency is simply as a result of getting used to the different methods employed by a new coach but it is crucial that a goalkeeper goes out onto the pitch boosted and full of confidence and feeling that he is both supported and rated. Is there something in the current set-up that needs examining?
  9. Romaine Sawyers has been appointed as team captain replacing the captaincy by committee policy introduced by Dean Smith which in itself recognised the lack of a true leader in the squad. We have a young team that would not respond well to a constant bawling out and finger pointing but is Romaine still the best choice? Has Chris Mepham got enough on his plate at the moment without the added burden of the captaincy?
  10. Brentford’s medical team is rightly recognised as being dedicated and totally professional. Would it be fair to suggest that after Scott Hogan broke down with a re-occurence of his cruciate injury soon after returning to training that every possible care is taken to ensure that players do not return to action until they are absolutely certain that they are ready? Could the likes of Rico Henry and Josh Dasilva be given an opportunity sooner rather than later?
  11. There is work that needs to be done with the midfield which is currently not firing on all cylinders and lacks balance. Lewis Macleod has surely underperformed and sleepwalked his way out of the team and Josh McEachran totally divides opinion. Many feel that Ryan Woods has not been adequately replaced and that we miss his ability to anticipate and snuff out danger and set the attacking tempo. Kamo Mokotjo is badly missed as he could in my opinion provide experience, a much-needed shield for the beleaguered back four as well as use the ball well. He could replace McEachran who is perhaps a luxury we cannot afford at present. Romaine Sawyers looked reinvigorated on his return to the team on Tuesday and brought us vision and movement. He will also be relishing the opportunity to play against his former team West Bromwich Albion on Monday. Josh Dasilva would certainly be a gamble as he has yet to start an EFL match but from what we have seen in his brief appearances he would provide a strong and positive box-to-box presence that is sorely needed. Perhaps Frank needs to be brave and take a chance on him lasting a full match.
  12. Until Ollie Watkins, Said Benrahma and to a lesser degree Marcus Forss return from injury our choices up front are sorely limited. Sergio Canos lacked both energy and discipline on Tuesday and his non-performance raised many questions about his fitness and attitude. Alan Judge is surely a short term solution. We desperately need a fit Ollie Watkins to provide  strength and support to the ever-willing and dangerous Neil Maupay and on his return Benrahma need to prove that he is more than a peripheral influence flitting in and out of matches and also demonstrate better self-discipline. Without them I would play Moses Odubajo or even the seemingly forgotten Josh Clarke on the wing although it is possible that Watkins and Benrahma will return to the squad on Monday. Emiliano Marcondes has already proved to be an influential impact substitute who has shown increased determination although is hard to see where he fits in as a starter at the moment unless he replaces or partners Sawyers as a Number Ten.
  13. Rico Henry has been back in training for quite a while now and would provide balance and attacking brio at left back and must surely replace poor Yoann Barbet who suffered a ghastly game against Sheffield United. Until Julian Jeanvier recovers from a troublesome and unspecified hip problem we have little option but to stick with Chris Mepham and Ezri Konsa who are two brilliant individuals, both eventually bound for the Premier League, whose partnership is currently far less than the sum of their parts.
  14. Hard though it is we need to try and start playing the Brentford way again, something that we have seen less and less of recently. We thrive on slick, quick short passing and potent wing play to create space and pull teams apart, but this is something that has largely disappeared lately as we have been hamstrung by lack of confidence and that injury list. We have become slow and predictable and allowed grateful opponents time to form two solid banks of four to thwart us. The sooner we are able to get key players back onto the field the better our results will be.
  15. The elephant in the room is the January Transfer Window in which there are a frightening number of permutations. Do we stick or do we twist? Will clubs meet our high valuations for our most attractive players in Mepham, Konsa, Maupay and Watkins. How many can we afford to sell? How easily can we replace them first? How do we maximise value from the large rump of players who will be out of contract in either 2019 or 2020? Can we keep them motivated? Brentford traditionally do not like spending in January at a time when prices are inflated. Will we keep to the model or maybe break the mould and bring in some much needed experience? Can we afford to buy home grown players or only rely on foreign gambles who do not demand the wages we cannot afford to pay? Will we change our policy and loan in players to provide a short term boost and fill gaps? It is likely that there will have to be a major squad rebuild at the end of the season but what happens when largely depends on our results in the short term and how we address our current poor run. Watch this space for a more detailed analysis in the next month!

The situation is worrying in the extreme but not yet drastic. We need to keep believing in what we are doing, but also change what is patently not working – and that is probably more than the mere tweaks initially promised by Thomas Frank. I have made a few suggestions which would hopefully improve rather than aggravate matters. What does everyone else think?

 

NARROW MARGINS

I am trying to distract myself and take my mind off Saturday’s local derby against Millwall that is now looming on the horizon. It is barely November and far, far too soon to start talking about “must win games” and “six pointers,” but after a worrying and depressing winless run of eight Championship matches stretching back to 15th September a Brentford victory is long overdue and much needed if only to restore some flagging confidence, put smiles back on grim faces and provide new Head Coach Thomas Frank with his first win since replacing Dean Smith.

The Lions are also coming back to form after consecutive home wins and will be relishing the opportunity to extend our woes. There is an obvious clash of styles between the two teams. Millwall are strong and relentless, excellent at set pieces, employ a set pattern of play, are not an easy team to play against and will do their utmost to harry us, put us under pressure and force us to go long rather than play our normal short passing game.

Most games in the Championship are close run things and settled by either a piece of genius, an error of judgement, outrageous good or bad fortune or the lottery of a referee’s decision. Mark Warburton and Dean Smith would both correctly talk about the narrow margins between success and failure and last season’s games between Brentford and Millwall perfectly illustrate this point. Both ended in narrow and closely fought 1-0 home victories but the away fans left both matches bemused and bemoaning their fate and ill fortune. Brentford were clinging onto the lead given to them by Romaine Sawyers when the referee awarded Millwall an extremely soft penalty late on. Bees players and fans felt that it was neither a foul by Dalsgaard nor was the tackle made inside the penalty area, but an instant after Lee Probert put whistle to his lips, Lee Gregory put the loose ball into the net. Now both sides were upset at the referee, but it was the Lions who went home muttering when Daniel Bentley saved the resulting spot kick from Gregory. Millwall scored in the first minute of the return game but from then on Brentford dominated proceedings and did everything but score. A Barbet effort was contentiously disallowed for offside and Canos and Egan both hit the frame of the goal before Meredith made a last ditch clearance off the goal line to preserve the home victory.

Given how tight the Championship table is at the moment, with a mere nine points separating Nottingham Forest in seventh place from Rotherham currently languishing in twenty-first position, I thought that I would look at Brentford’s opening fifteen games openly and objectively and highlight the specific incidents that turned or decided each game and from there highlight how many more or less points we could reasonably have won at this point of the season.

ROTHERHAM (H) 5-1

A comfortable win with Brentford’s victory never in any real doubt – it was more a question of how many they scored – however with Brentford in total control, Daniel Bentley made a stupendous save just before halftime to stop Joe Newell from equalising. Who knows what might have happened had he scored.

STOKE (A) 1-1

Another match dominated by Brentford who gave up a terrible goal after a mix up between Bentley and Chris Mepham and were then chasing the game. Watkins equalised but Brentford were unable to force the winner. Two points thrown away.

SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY (H) 2-0

Brentford dominated from start to finish and should have more than doubled their goal tally but they needed a penalty kick awarded after a stupid off the ball challenge by Sam Hutchinson to take the lead.

ASTON VILLA (A) 2-2

An end to end tussle that either team could have won. Villa dominated the first half but Brentford defended desperately and went into the break level. The second half was more even and Brentford eventually got on top, scored a second goal late on and then carelessly missed two massive chances to score a match clinching third. Villa huffed and puffed before referee Moss awarded a terribly harsh free kick against Mepham that was poorly defended and led to a 95th minute equaliser. Brentford also benefited from the officials missing an obvious off the ball stamp by two-goal Neil Maupay that should have seen him dismissed and indeed led to a three match retrospective ban.

BLACKBURN ROVERS (A) 0-1

Brentford’s lack of incision on a poor pitch led to their first defeat. Despite having 61% possession and 11 shots, the Bees could only hit the woodwork twice and lost to a well organised team that scored with its only shot on target which came after the referee missed a blatant foul in the build up.

NOTTINGHAM FOREST (H) 2-1

Forest niggled and wasted time from the outset and were the main culprits in a game that saw Brentford also lose control, resulting in 12 yellow cards. Bentley’s appalling fumble  gifted Matty Cash an equaliser but Brentford responded well with a late Ollie Watkins winner.

WIGAN (H) 2-0

The Bees missed chance after chance to at least double their goal tally. Wigan were hampered by the red card to Sam Morsy for an aerial challenge on Yoann Barbet which was later rescinded on appeal.

IPSWICH (A) 1-1

Brentford could not score the second goal they needed despite creating excellent chances and failed to adapt to Ipswich’s change of tactics after halftime. Barbet’s free kick clanged off the cross bar just before the equaliser which was carelessly conceded.

DERBY COUNTY (A) 1-3

The Bees were given the boost of a Dalsgaard opener after 44 seconds but Benrahma’s pathetically under hit corner kick when he was on a different wavelength to his team mates soon set Derby up for a breakaway equaliser and the Bees were second best and never in the game after that gift.

READING (H) 2-2

Brentford were cruising when Bentley totally misjudged a long range effort from Swift to gift Reading an undeserved equaliser. Referee Eltringham then allowed Reading to stop the game and waste time with impunity, with the nadir a six minute delay before Reading finally allowed the Bees to take a free kick on the edge of the box. Bentley fumbled a 25 yard free kick and Reading were ahead out of nowhere. Brentford lost their heads, incurred six bookings and Benrahma was sent off for two stupid yellow cards before Barbet equalised in injury time. Frustrating is not a strong enough word to describe the goings-on that afternoon.

BIRMINGHAM (H) 1-1

A muted performance from the Bees aided by another rescinded red card for Birmingham’s Kieftenbeld after a clash with the feisty Neil Maupay. Brentford never opened Birmingham up or created enough chances to deserve a win.

LEEDS (A) 1-1

Brentford put on their best and most determined and organised display of the season at promotion favourites Leeds and deserved more than one point. Benrahma lost the ball, tracked back and conceded a late free kick that allowed Leeds to equalise after Mepham was pushed. Leeds felt that Watkins dived before the referee gave Brentford a penalty and Moses Odubajo escaped a blatant second yellow card after tripping an opponent. For their part, Brentford missed too many opportunities and were annoyed at not being given a second penalty after Watkins was dragged back.

BRISTOL CITY (H) 0-1

Thomas Frank lost his first game in charge to a last-gasp goal from the visitors who benefited from the harsh sending off of Chris Mepham for two soft and questionable yellow cards. Brentford were more than decent and Maupay missed a glaring chance early on that would surely have settled nerves. Watkins came within a whisker of giving ten-man Brentford the lead when his rasping shot hit the inside of the post and bounced out rather than in.

PRESTON (A) 3-4

Brentford lacked the suspended Mepham and were forced to play Barbet at centre half as Julian Jeanvier was injured. Poor defending, turning the ball over in dangerous positions, unlucky bounces and deflections and Bentley’s aberration in picking up an obvious back pass gifted Preston a three goal lead within twenty-three minutes and for all their efforts and commitment Brentford were always chasing the game and narrowly fell short.

NORWICH CITY (A) 0-1

Another game of narrow margins with Brentford defending a long straight ball badly to allow Norwich to take the lead. Watkins was penalised harshly for a penalty which Bentley saved right before halftime to keep Brentford in the game. The Bees dominated possession after the break but created little apart from an easy opportunity for Maupay which he blazed onto the crossbar from less than six yards.

Apologies for going into such narrative detail and I suspect I might have lost quite a few of you earlier in this piece but what is crystal clear is how close pretty much every Brentford  game has been so far this season, and how many of them might just as easily have gone the other way. Derby are the only team to have outplayed the Bees but even then had Brentford held onto their early lead for longer, rather than take perhaps the most bizarre corner kick that I have ever seen, then who knows what might have happened. Preston too deserved their win because of the unforced errors we made but the defeats against Blackburn Rovers, Bristol City and Norwich City could just have easily brought a return of seven points rather than none. It would also not be unreasonable to suggest that Brentford could and even should have won five of their six drawn games with perhaps Birmingham City the only opposing team who might feel slightly shortchanged by going away with only one point.

By my reckoning then (and I have tried to be as fair and objective as I can) the Bees could and should have gained an additional twelve points over their opening fifteen matches which would now see them sitting proudly at the top of the Championship table rather than languishing in sixteenth place as they currently find themselves. Whilst I am sure most of the other teams in the division might well have similar tales of misfortune to tell, this is hopefully an encouraging thought to keep in mind as we look forward to Saturday’s match.

 

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Well it was all looking so good at halftime on the 18th September. The Bees were firmly ensconced in second place in the Championship with the plaudits of all the pundits ringing in their ears. A well-taken Neil Maupay goal was the least they deserved as they had totally outplayed a toothless Ipswich Town team marooned at the bottom of the table and the long-overdue first away win of the season should already have been homed and hosed, so dominant had the Bees been in a totally one-sided first half.

That was the zenith and high spot of the season so far and it seems hard to believe that here we are at the end of October – at a time when given the peerless free-flowing performances displayed in most of the first seven league games a majority of Bees fans would have expected the team to have further demonstrated its promotion credentials – now on an appalling run of eight games without a win (nine if you include the Arsenal Carabao Cup tie) and seemingly in free-fall, having dropped like a stone to sixteenth place, with the seven points separating them from the playoff spots beginning to represent a seemingly insuperable chasm.

So what has gone wrong in the last six weeks? Were we really as good as we seemed in the first few games or merely flattering to deceive? Is our decline terminal or can we recover and still fulfil some of the extravagant expectations for the season? These are the key questions that every Brentford supporter wants answering and over the course of this article I will do my best to provide my own viewpoint on each of them.

Let’s firstly look at the positives. Reviewing the footage of the opening seven games of which we won four and only lost one, ridiculously, at a Blackburn Rovers team that scored with its only shot on target, it is clear that Brentford did at times play some exceptional and exhilarating football with the midfield and wingers breaking forward with pace and directness to create a myriad of chances for the voracious and suddenly deadly Neil Maupay who scored 7 times in his opening 5 games and probably missed twice as many opportunities as well. Ollie Watkins too seemed to have come of age and was direct and deadly scoring 4 times and he was too much for many teams to handle, a Premier League player in embryo. Sergi Canos, who resembled a little boy lost for much of last season was showing welcome signs of recovering form and confidence and he was rotated with new signing Said Benrahma who was already settling down into English football and demonstrating his trickery and ability on the ball with four assists.

The Bees scored 14 times in those 7 games with the aforementioned players accounting for 12 of them. Only 2 came from midfield with Lewis Macleod, finally restored to fitness arriving late in and around the box to score well-taken goals against Rotherham and Nottingham Forest. Josh McEachran was imperious, seeing openings that were beyond most mere mortals and opening up defences with the accuracy of his passing. He was averaging nearly 50 passes per game with an impressive 84% accuracy rate. The influential Ryan Woods seemed not to be missed after his departure to Stoke City.

The defence had seemed fairly watertight with only 6 goals conceded and it was clear that the Directors of Football had picked Charlton’s pocket when they emerged with the fabulous Ezri Konsa for a bargain fee of around three million pounds. His confidence, defensive solidity, ability on the ball and reading of the game were astounding for a 20 year old and he formed an impressive central defensive partnership with the equally young and gifted Chris Mepham and it was clear that they would both shortly be on the radar of predatory Premier League teams.

The Head Coach, Dean Smith alongside his trusty assistants Richard O’Kelly and Thomas Frank kept their hands on the tiller and there was a sense of calmness, consideration, control and confidence in most things that they did in terms of team selection, tactics and substitutions.

There was therefore much that was positive in the early games but even then despite the excellent performances and results there were a few clouds on the horizon and warning bells that were sounding. The Bees had the most attempts on goal and the least against them in the division but remained wasteful and careless at both ends of the field. Blackburn should have been put to the sword as Brentford wasted 61% possession and 11 shots to somehow lose a game they had dominated to a poorly conceded goal. Aston Villa had also out-pressed Brentford and cancelled out their midfield but Brentford weathered the storm, brought on runners and tacklers in Nico Yennaris and Kamo Mokotjo and turned the game around, taking the lead near the end and then wasting two gilt-edged chances to score a certain match-clinching third goal before conceding a soft free kick in the 96th minute which was poorly defended for a last gasp Villa equaliser. Stoke too were totally out-footballed with Watkins scoring a brilliantly worked and taken goal after a move involving almost the entire team but a defensive aberration and misunderstanding between Mepham and Dan Bentley again meant that two valuable points were thrown away.

Goalkeeper Bentley, who had a spell of the yips last season before recovering his form and consistency made another error when he fumbled a totally innocuous shot (although it was hit so softly that it barely even merited that description) from Forest’s Matty Cash into his own net in a game where the Bees recovered from that shock to score a late and fully deserved winner. Brentford also persisted in playing without a recognised left back since the loss of Rico Henry a year ago and Yoann Barbet, for all his height and danger at set pieces, always looked like an accident waiting to happen. Brentford are all about risk and reward and the decision was also taken not to bring in any experienced cover in the Transfer Window for Neil Maupay and to rely upon the untried 19 year old Marcus Forss as well as moving Watkins centrally when required. What might not have been taken into account when this decision was made was the unpredictable temperament of the volatile Frenchman. Maupay earned a fully merited 3 match ban for a daft off the ball stamping incident at Aston Villa and remains a yellow card (or worse) waiting to happen in every game and is currently on the verge of another ban. Forss struggled to make an impact on his debut at Blackburn and is now long-term injured and Watkins remains the only other option unless Romaine Sawyers reprises his occasional false nine role.

Dean Smith turned a negative into a positive by deciding that a captain would be nominated for each game, a unique solution to the long-term problem of a lack of leadership and experience within Brentford’s squad which is the youngest across all 92 Premier League and EFL teams averaging a mere 24.3 years. The Brentford model demands the introduction of a constant influx of young, talented and emerging players who can be developed and improved and then sold on (after being replaced) as soon as another club offers more than their valuation. This means that fans can enjoy watching players of immense promise strut their stuff in a welcoming and encouraging environment but also suffer the naive mistakes and inconsistency of the young and inexperienced. What also became apparent early on is that the players had either been instructed or taken it upon themselves to stand up for themselves and each other which led to some over-reactions and mass confrontations one of which resulted in a horribly niggly and cynical Forest team receiving 7 cautions and yet Brentford, so often the innocent party, allowed themselves to lose their discipline and earn 5 yellow cards of their own.

The good therefore massively outweighed the bad in the opening 7 games but things have changed dramatically over the course of the current winless run. The goals have largely dried up with only nine being scored in eight games and three of them came in one fruitless match at Preston last week. Why is that as Maupay continues to look dangerous and has scored 4 times recently, as well as perpetrating the worst miss since Cardiff last season at Norwich on Saturday when he managed to hit the bar of an empty goal from 4 yards out? You need to look at what is – or more importantly – isn’t happening around him to explain our goal drought and current lack of success. Maupay now represents pretty much our entire goal threat given that Ollie Watkins has suddenly become a peripheral figure, flitting in and out of matches without taking them by the scruff of his neck as is his wont. His poor form might well be explained by a lingering toe injury that is partially incapacitating him but we are only rarely seeing that trademark dropping of his shoulder and venomous shooting. His only recent goal dribbled in at Preston after a helpful deflection and when we really needed him to produce when down to 10 men against Bristol City his Exocet crashed against the inside of the post and came out rather than going in – so narrow are the margins between success and failure in the Championship.

We need him fit and back on form so badly given the paucity of our attacking options but he probably needs to be rested, something that we cannot afford to do. So much of Sergi Canos’s hard work has come to nothing with little end results as his shots and centres have been blocked or found a defender, but he has continued to keep his head up and his exceptional goal at Preston will help improve his confidence. Said Benrahma has threatened only to deceive and exhibited a shocking lack of discipline when two stupid and needless fouls saw him dismissed against Reading and a naive and needless attempt at a tackle gifted Leeds a late free kick in dangerous territory from which they scored an undeserved equaliser. It would appear that he is now seen as an impact substitute rather than the influential match winner that we all think we possess. We need to see much more from him but he firstly has to regain the management’s trust.

Given the stuttering up front the midfield need to have taken up the slack but the real problems are currently in the engine room where it is difficult to pick the best blend at present and nothing seems to be working. McEachran had the boost of scoring his first ever goal recently with an angled free kick against Birmingham but he has lost form and is understandably distracted by the birth of his new child. We need him and the likes of Sawyers to start zipping the ball around with pace and incision. Hopefully Josh will shortly come again as he is the fulcrum who now, with the departure of Woods has to win the ball or take it off the goalkeeper or back four and set the tempo and get us playing. Lewis Macleod was expected to make late runs into the box which he certainly did at the beginning of the season but he seems to have lost his Mojo and impact and has become a peripheral figure. He rotates between a box-to-box and a more advanced role but is providing little goal threat, the occasional tackle and he now averages a minuscule 25 passes per game with a 73% success rate – unacceptable figures. His rival for the box-to-box position in Nico Yennaris is suffering from a lack of match practice and currently averages under 19 passes per game.

All this means that greater responsibility has to fall upon Romaine Sawyers, but he too appears slightly confused by his role. Is he supposed to be the most attacking of the midfield trio or should he hang back more given Macleod’s ability to get forward? He has been neither fish nor fowl and remarkably he has yet to obtain either a goal or an assist and his shooting has also lacked its customary venom and accuracy. Kamo Mokotjo has filled in effectively both in holding and box-to-box roles but suffered a serious looking injury at Norwich. When you look at the statistics and see that the entire Brentford midfield has 3 goals and 1 assist between them after 15 games you can see where the problems lie. Our greatest strength has become our main weakness.

With so few options the Head Coach can only keep juggling what he has in the hope that something will come good and it would appear that the McEachran/Yennaris/Sawyers axis will prevail although there is hope on the horizon with Josh Desilva rapidly gaining match fitness in the B Team after joining from Arsenal where he was highly rated. At first glance it seems that he is a powerful and skilful left footed box-to-box player with a excellent shot on him and it might be that he is brought into the squad on Saturday. It is a tough ask of a youngster with no EFL experience but we need him to contribute and come good very quickly. Emiliano Marcondes, the gifted Danish attacking midfielder was inked in for an attacking midfield role alongside Sawyers but has yet to kick a ball this season after taking a pummelling from a Watford team that did not seem to understand the meaning of the expression “friendly match”. He had looked so promising in the preseason and will undoubtedly offer a goal threat if the club can get him fit and healthy – something that is by no means certain at the moment. Midfield has for so long been the strength of the Brentford team and it is disconcerting to see how quickly it seems to have unravelled and the right blend needs to be rediscovered quickly if results are to improve. This in my opinion is the key to Brentford achieving anything for the remainder of the season.

As one part of the team ceases to function effectively so another also misfires. Daniel Bentley is a mistake waiting to happen and has so far contributed directly or indirectly to 7 opposition goals that could well have been prevented. He cost us the win against Reading when 2 abysmal handling errors gifted goals to the visitors and turned what looked like being a comfortable home win into a desperate slog for a point. He was rested for two games in which Luke Daniels did little wrong although his hesitation was partially responsible for the Leeds equaliser. Recently restored to the team,Bentley saved a penalty kick on Saturday and hopefully will recover his lost form and become an asset rather than the liability he currently is.

Apart from a penchant for conceding stupid free kicks and late crucial goals from set pieces the defence has overall not performed badly. Mepham was badly missed at Preston where the team caved in and conceded 4 eminently avoidable goals and – Sod’s Law – just when he was needed the most our spare centre half, Julian Jeanvier was injured which allowed Yoann Barbet to prove categorically that he is not a Championship calibre centre half. Mepham received a second yellow card from another myopic referee after a non-existent holding back offence which followed a stupid yellow card obtained by pushing an opponent away in a melee. Yes, he was defending a team mate who was being kicked on the floor but it was still a naive booking which cost us dear given that Bristol City who were second best for large parts of the match went on to win with another last second goal.

In reality there is little wrong with the Brentford back four which will be strengthened immeasurably when Rico Henry recovers match fitness and is restored to the team having missed the last 13 months of action. Yes we will miss Barbet’s strength and height defending the far post but Henry offers so much more going forward and is a potent attacking threat. Moses Odubajo, recovering his fitness still, is also available to cover in either full back position or even as an auxiliary winger when required.

When I listened to all the preseason preview shows I was both exhilarated and horrified by so many respected pundits tipping the Bees for promotion. Brentford have remained snugly and safely under the radar for so long and been underestimated by so many and in my view, long may that state of affairs continue. Now things are totally different as teams have finally taken notice, sussed us out and have worked out how best to stop and frustrate us. Teams now try to press us very high up the pitch knowing that Bentley will invariably throw the ball out short. This has resulted in some hair-raising near misses where disasters have narrowly been averted and ensured that we find it harder and harder to beat the press.

We have also seen a lot of time wasting and tactical fouling in an effort to slow us down and stop us playing. Apparently the ball was only in play for 30 minutes in the recent game against Reading who achieved new lows in gamesmanship when they prevented the taking of a free kick on the edge of their box for almost 6 minutes, aided and abetted by a totally ineffectual referee. This has resulted in poor discipline and frustration and a couple of totally unnecessary red cards. Sawyers in particular has been fortunate not to see red when HE saw red.

The key to this problem is keeping a calmer head and getting the pace and zip back into our game. If Brentford keep moving the ball quickly as they customarily do when on song then they will tire out the opposition and create chances. This needs the midfield to start functioning again and it is in the laps of the Gods as to when and if this will occur.

The elephant in the room is the loss of Dean Smith to Aston Villa. My last article dealt at length with the potential ramifications of his departure and the likely appointment of Thomas Frank to replace him as Head Coach. This has now taken place and the new man is an unfortunate 0 for 3 from his first three games. Not much has changed yet in terms of team selection, bar the reinstatement of Bentley, and tactics although there was a change late on at Norwich when Brentford moved Watkins alongside Maupay up front in the hope of snatching a late point. He has appointed a fellow Dane in Brian Riemer as the first of two Assistant Coaches and there is speculation that Bees legend and current B Team Head Coach Kevin O’Connor might be promoted to first team duties, but that is something for the near future.

Brentford find themselves at a crossroads. The season is a third of the way through and the team is currently in the middle of a slump. This is mainly because the negatives now massively outweigh the positives – a total reversal of the trend in the opening 7 games. Luck too has turned its back on the Bees in several games and it is not long since they put on a deeply impressive performance at Elland Road that fully merited a victory. The attempted recovery from a three goal deficit at Preston also clearly demonstrates that the spirit is still there but confidence is slowly draining away.

Something has to change quickly. It might be a piece of good fortune but I firmly believe that you make your own luck and someone needs to grasp the nettle and make something happen. You win as a team and you lose as a team and we need a Sawyers, a McEachran, a Canos or a Watkins to start delivering. The blend is not working at the moment and there needs to be a revamping of the midfield to make the best use of the resources that we possess. Thomas Frank needs to start making his influence felt through making some subtle changes and ensuring an improvement in discipline.

I firmly believe that Brentford will quickly recover form and start to climb back up the league table. How far I am not quite sure, but if the midfield starts to contribute again, Watkins regains his Mojo, Maupay stays on the pitch and keep scoring, Bentley recovers his form and confidence and Dasilva and Henry can be successfully integrated into the squad then I feel that the season can be turned around. That is quite a lot to ask for but just as quickly as things turned bad, I believe they can turn good again. You do not become a bad team overnight and Brentford at their best are a very good team.

Time to take stock

I had roused myself from my torpor and lethargy and almost finished writing a long and analytical review of the first couple of months of the new season when news broke of Dean Smith’s departure to Aston Villa.

So I have scrapped all of my previous observations, gone back to square one and tried to assess his impact upon the club and then I consulted my crystal ball to see how we might do without him.

It would be entirely wrong not to start by thanking and paying tribute to Dean and his long term assistant, Richard O’Kelly who is also accompanying him to Villa, for all their efforts, skill and hard work over a near three year period – a lifetime in Championship terms where the average lifespan of a manager is around ten months.

Smith was not the club’s first choice to succeed Marinus Dijkhuizen and caretaker Lee Carsley but terms could not be agreed with Pep Clotet, and judging by his subsequent failure at Oxford United perhaps we had a lucky escape.

Carsley had done an excellent job of restoring confidence, fitness and morale amongst a group of players who had been dismayed and confused by the chaotic disorganisation of the short and ill fated Dijkhuizen era.

Smith proved to be an exceptional choice. Calm, measured and intelligent he soon got the squad onside by showing that he would treat them as individuals and grown ups and always be available to speak to them on a one to one basis.

He ensured that standards would be maintained both on and off the pitch and ensured that the squad joined in the club’s outstanding work in the local community.

From his previous spell at Walsall under the parsimonious Jim Bonser, he was used to making bricks without straw and he totally bought into the Brentford philosophy.

He understood that he was there to motivate, teach, improve and develop a group of outstandingly talented young players, knowing full well that the best of them would at the right time be sold from under his feet once a club further up the food chain met or even surpassed their value.

This has to be the Brentford way of doing business for the time being, allowing them to compete with, outthink and outperform clubs with far greater resources but more stereotyped and outmoded ways of thinking and doing business.

Smith never – publically at least – bitched and moaned about losing star players such as Scott Hogan, Jota and Ryan Woods as he realised that the club could not match the bloated salaries on offer elsewhere and he knew that they would be replaced with another influx of untried but talented youngsters.

Teacher that he is, he simply got on with the job of improving the players under his control and Neal Maupay might well be the most striking example of how a young striker who was struggling to find his feet last season, missing open goals, not anticipating chances, with the ball clanging away from his imperfect first touch has under Smith’s guidance now developed into a predatory marksman, currently the top scorer in the country, but – unlike Hogan – someone who also plays a full part in holding the ball up and setting up play.

Maupay is not alone and the improvement of others such as Chris Mepham – a Premier League star of the near future – Ollie Watkins and Josh McEachran has been startling, testament indeed to the quality of Smith’s coaching and development ability.

This to me has been his greatest strength and is not surprising given that he made his bones as a youth team coach at Orient and Walsall.

He would not be human if he did not bemoan the lack of more experienced recruits either up front or in a defensive midfield role but that is not the Brentford way of doing things and he fully understood why massive sums could not be invested in such players or even in bringing in loanees who could potentially provide a short term impetus. Why should we pay to improve someone else’s players?

January was a case in point as Maupay was stuttering and Lasse Vibe had finally recovered his potency in front of goal, scoring six times against the likes of QPR, Norwich and Aston Villa as well as a predatory and crucial late winner in a tight game at Reading.

Given that he was out of contract at the end of the season and likely to leave on a Bosman free transfer the Brentford business model dictated his sale, admittedly for an eye watering sum to China.

All fine so far but the view from the top of the club was perhaps that our chances of reaching the Playoffs – themselves a one in four lottery – were too low to merit an investment in a new striker. Perhaps in retrospect a mistake?

Even with this handicap the Bees came within a whisker of gatecrashing the top six and one can only conjecture whether Dean Smith felt that he was managing with one hand tied behind his back?

To lead his team to three consecutive top ten finishes was undoubtedly a magnificent achievement given Brentford’s miniscule budget compared to so many of their rivals, buttressed as they are with ineffable parachute payments, ostensibly rewarding them for their failure in relegation from the Premier League.

The football too was often sublime with every player confident on the ball and their game was based on initially playing the ball out patiently from the back, switching it from side to side probing for weaknesses and then fast flowing attacking football featuring an alluring combination of pace, short passing, dribbling and astute switching of play.

At their best the Bees were almost unstoppable and the likes of Fulham, Derby and Aston Villa were sent packing with their tail between their legs.

And yet…. and yet….. despite the quality on offer and our delight and gratitude at having such wonderful fare to feast upon, the feeling lingered that possibly, just possibly we should have done even better and got over the line certainly to reaching the Playoffs.

Perhaps such thoughts are patently unfair and Smith was indeed overperforming, but given the quality that we possessed I feel that even more could have been accomplished.

We travelled away to the so-called bigger teams without fear and apart from at Newcastle and recently at Derby we invariably put on a performance, stifled the opposition and dominated chances and possession. But we could never quite get over the line and win such games and with the exception of Brighton we have never won at the ground of a promoted team although often going close.

Credit has to be given to the opposition of course but last season we drew at Middlesbrough and Fulham, both games we dominated and should have won, and this season the pattern has already been repeated at Stoke, Aston Villa, Ipswich and Leeds. Four drawn matches when the performances fully merited twelve points and eight points have been thrown away – perhaps the difference between promotion and being an also-ran.

Smith’s team was the youngest in the Championship and perhaps understandably they made the naive mistakes of the inexperienced. They had a soft underbelly and rarely seemed able to close out a tight away game. All too often an individual mistake, a lack of clinical finishing, a set piece, careless and catastrophic defending and it has to be said refereeing errors would ensure a late goal against (or two at Loftus Road last season) that would cost us dear.

Smith would correctly protect his players in public and perhaps he castigated them when necessary behind closed doors, but little seemed to change and the same errors and shortcomings were repeated.

Tactically he could be very astute as he was in his final game in charge at Elland Road when he learned from what happened at Villa Park when his ball playing midfielders were totally overrun. He left out McEachran and Macleod and their more energetic replacements Mokotjo and Yennaris wrested control of the congested midfield.

For the last couple of years he has also been assisted by Thomas Frank, a former manager of Brondby and he has appeared to have played an important part on the touch line. The team’s pressing has also improved immeasurably. Frank made his name coaching young players in his native Denmark and he was originally brought in to help players make the step up from the B team to the first team squad.

Frank is understandably seen as the new head coach in waiting and as we are waiting impatiently for the white puff of smoke that announces the appointment of Smith’s replacement the question remains, how much of the team’s success was down to him?

More importantly, would the players, used to the demeanour and approach of Dean Smith, respond well to the ministrations of Frank?

Given his two years of service it would be strange indeed if Frank was not given the opportunity of becoming head coach, but this is Brentford we are talking about and the club has never been averse to producing a rabbit from the hat and making a left field appointment.

Director of Football Phil Giles did intimate that no decision had yet been made and that some potential candidates would be approached and spoken to.

Nathan Jones and Danny Cowley are two highly promising managers whose names have been mentioned and who knows, perhaps they and others will come under consideration.

Brentford’s motto has never been “if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it.” It’s been more “let’s try and improve it,” so maybe someone new will arrive.

Whoever takes charge will inherit a fantastic squad bursting with ability and potential. Players are also returning from injury and it is likely that Matthew Benham will authorise squad strengthening in January and just as importantly refrain from selling any star players if the Bees remain in the running for promotion.

Dean Smith did an incredible job. He steadied the ship, improved individual players, totally bought into the Brentford approach and has more than laid the foundations for success.

The system at the club is far more important than any one individual and the new man need do no more than tinker with what has already been done (although perhaps a return to man to man marking rather than zonal defence would be welcomed).

Normally a new manager or head coach has to sort out the mess of his predecessor but this is a totally different situation. Very little has to change for Brentford to make the slight improvement needed to gain promotion. Hopefully Frank or whoever else is chosen can organise and motivate them to eradicate the slight errors that are costing them so dear at both ends of the pitch.

As for Dean Smith, he leaves with our thanks and gratitude for a job exceptionally well done. Just as our players harbour ambitions why shouldn’t our management staff? The Aston Villa job is a dream come true for him and given time and support he could well bring them the success they crave. I’m not well enough informed to have a educated view as to whether he’s inherited a poison chalice. For his sake I hope not as he deserves far better.

GOING TO THE MATCH BY DUNCAN HAMILTON

Every once in awhile – and it is a extremely rare occurrence and treat – you pick up a book and it takes you over completely and transports you to a different world or tugs at your heartstrings and emotions reminding you of what once was and is forever lost. There are not many authors who possess the skill and imagination to do so and even fewer who predominantly write about football.

I have just finished such a book that I so enjoyed that I thought I would share a few thoughts about it. Duncan Hamilton spent his early years as local journalist chronicling the achievements of the European Cup winning Nottingham Forest team and becoming a trusted observer and confidant of the immortal Brian Clough. This provided him with the material for his wonderful memoir of those heady days entitled “Provided you Don’t Kiss Me: 20 Years with Brian Clough.” In 2012 he bettered that with “The Footballer Who Could Fly,” a marvellously evocative, nostalgic and sentimental tribute to his father and an account of his difficult relationship with him and how football alone gave them a touchpoint and something to share and talk about. Now with “Going To The Match” Hamilton has yet again proved to be a marvellously gifted observer quick to pick up the nuances of football and what it means to supporters, and he is able to describe his thoughts in beautiful and luscious prose.

Hamilton kicks of by revisiting LS Lowry’s famous painting of “Going To The Match” and illustrating how the painter’s passion for the sport is so beautifully and accurately expressed and depicted in this glorious and ageless piece of artwork. This viewing re-energised and inspired him to take a journey throughout the entire 2017/18 season to watch football at all levels of the game, from Sunday kick abouts to International matches and describe not only what happened on the pitch but how the on-field action made him and ideally the other spectators feel. His Odyssey took him to such diverse venues as Newcastle, Fleetwood, Nottingham, Glasgow, Manchester, Wolverhampton and Berlin and like all the best authors he makes fascinating detours into the worlds of art, cinema, literature and politics in order to highlight the crucial part that football plays in everyday life.

His attention wanders from describing the games that he is watching to bringing up half forgotten memories and he brings into sharp focus some of his footballing heroes from the past such as Stanley Matthews, Billy Wright, Bobby Robson and Brian Clough. Hamilton spent much of his childhood in Newcastle and is particularly scathing about the Mike Ashley regime and how he has failed to grasp what Newcastle United means to the Geordie Nation: “He doesn’t get it. he owns the flesh and the body of Newcastle – but not the soul; and he never will because he seems unable to recognise what it is, or what it is worth to those who do.” I have never read such an accurate and cutting description of a misfit owner.

Hamilton is no mere nostalgic, endlessly harking back to the old days and claiming how much better they were, as he rejoices in the talent, brio and sheet athleticism of modern day heroes such as Harry Kane, Mo Salah, Dele Alli and Kevin De Bruyne but with his broad perspective of watching the game at all levels for so many decades, Hamilton can place them all into historical perspective and compare and contrast them to similar icons from the past.

Hamilton is excellent on what it means to be a fan and the dichotomy of how their inherent bias allows them to excuse gamesmanship and foul play executed by their heroes yet decry the same behaviour by the opposition. We rail at the excessive spending of other teams and of massive ticket prices yet still implore our own chairman to bet the ranch on success.

I found myself nodding in agreement at so much that Hamilton wrote and particularly in how we return to football every week because it helps some of us to enjoy life more and others to endure it.

Football is a common language that breaks down barriers and something that often seems to take over our lives. This book did that to me for several days and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

GOING TO THE MATCH BY DUNCAN HAMILTON IS PUBLISHED BY HODDER & STOUGHTON AND COSTS £25.

 

State of Play by Michael Calvin

To the cursory observer all seems well with the game of football at present with the nation still celebrating England’s unexpected achievements at the recent World Cup, and the pomp and circumstance surrounding the start of another over-hyped Premier League season. Some of the top players and managers in the world are indeed competing and exhibiting their skills in this country and the game – certainly at the top end – is awash with television cash, but are things quite as healthy as they seem?

Sometimes you need someone to act as your conscience, poke around beneath the surface and pose the questions that most observers are afraid to ask – the ones that the administrators would prefer to be swept into the long grass. It is sometimes hard to bite the hand that feeds you and it is understandable, if not forgivable why some commentators and pundits perhaps pull their punches at times and gloss over some issues, but such an accusation can never be levelled at Michael Calvin.

There is so much written about football nowadays and Amazon now stocks over 20,000 books on the subject, but I would be staggered if more than a tiny minority are more than dross and have much literary merit or originality. Amongst the ghost written pap there are a frustratingly small number of authors who stand out from the sea of mediocrity and one of them is Michael Calvin. I make no apology for lauding him, but with the forthcoming release of “State of Play” he has now written five exceptional football books each providing a detailed, hard-hitting and informed study of a different aspect of the sport.

He has previously spent a season as a fly on the wall in promotion winning Millwall’s dressing room, given a voice to scouts – one of football’s most ignored groups, demonstrated just how stressful and perilous is the role of a football manager and, most memorably provided a forensic, lacerating and yet sympathetic study of what it takes to become a professional footballer and the toll the game takes on young players. Now he shines a light into the darkest corners and recesses of the game and much of what he uncovers is unpleasant and unsavoury in the extreme.

He has divided his new book into four sections covering players, managers, clubs and other football people and he leaves no stones unturned in revealing some of the key issues that affect and blight the sport today.

I well remember the impact the opening chapter of one of his previous books made on me as he described the electroconvulsive therapy treatment undergone by Martin Ling, a well-respected lower league manager who laid bare his struggles against depression. That stayed with me for many months as will, in his new book, Calvin’s heartbreaking, moving and poignant description of the terrible last minutes of former England striker and West Brom icon Jeff Astle as he choked to death on his own vomit in front of his helpless family. He had been in deep and inexorable decline from the effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) caused by his constant heading of a hard leather ball, and he died at a tragically young age. Calvin shines a spotlight onto the growing scandal of far too many footballers from recent decades suffering dementia or worse as a result of “industrial injury” from playing professional football.

Dawn Astle, Jeff’s heroic daughter has campaigned tirelessly to force a reluctant hierarchy to fund research into the effects of heading a ball (which is now banned for under 14’s in America) and Calvin justifiably made scornful mention of PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor’s appallingly arrogant, ignorant and unforgivable comment to Dawn that “my mother’s got dementia and she’s never headed a ball”. Finally after years of obfuscation, denying responsibility and putting their head in the sand, the FA and PFA have commissioned an independent study into the long-term effects of heading a ball on 15,000 former players. CTE is a ticking time bomb. I was researching a book on my own team, Brentford recently and discovered with horror how few players from even the mid to late 1960’s were still with us as dementia has taken such a heavy toll. I am sure that many former players from even more recent times lie awake at night worrying about what might happen to them in years to come.

Calvin does not stop there as he examines many other burning issues that tarnish and shame the game such as homophobia, racism, sexism, drugs, gang culture, concussion, depression, suicide and mental health issues, the social media revolution and keyboard warriors, uncaring and ignorant foreign ownership, venal agents and how the sport has generally tried to sweep them all beneath the surface and not accept and deal with them at source.

The book is not always easy or comfortable reading as Calvin gets under the skin of the modern game and tells a series of hard-hitting stories that often show the game in an appalling and uncaring light and yet there is still hope, there are many heroes who are swimming against the tide and doing their utmost to help footballers who are struggling to cope with the physical and mental demands of a relentless and unforgiving game where the rewards for success are enormous and the cost of failure just as massive.

Their positive stories are also told and we hear about former journeyman footballer Drewe Broughton who has reinvented himself as an empathetic and highly effective performance coach acting as a father confessor figure providing holistic support to a group of players who are struggling to keep their heads above water. Holocaust survivors such as Zigi Shipper and Harry Spiro tell their awe-inspiring tales of survival from Nazi tyranny and genocide to spellbound groups of international footballers. Pragmatic Accrington chairman Andy Holt who has triumphed against all the odds also cocks a snoot at the patronising “have’s” from the upper echelons of the game who have no conception or interest in what it is like to scrabble around simply to pay the electricity bill. The wonderful work of the Fans Supporting Foodbanks movement which does so much inspiring work in the North West is also highlighted amongst many other such organisations.

Calvin also writes lyrically and from the heart about how Watford, the team he supported as a boy, wildly celebrating Barry Endean’s winning goal against Liverpool in a long-forgotten FA Cup tie as a ballboy, has been transformed, not all for the better perhaps by the ownership of the Pozzo family. There is sufficient rich material here, I believe, for another standalone book.

“The Secret Barrister” – an excoriating polemic that lays bare the myriad shortcomings of the criminal justice system has proved to be a recent publishing sensation and massive success story over the past few months, and I fully expect Calvin’s “State of Play” to fulfil a similar role for the football industry. There is much that is wrong but also so much that, not before time, is beginning to be done to help make things better for our current and future generations.

Michael Calvin has done the game a massive service with this broad ranging, hard-hitting and exceptionally well researched book and he has also written it in a beautiful, lucid prose style. In his introduction Calvin paid tribute to the great Arthur Hopcraft and his seminal study of football in “The Football Man” which helped inspire him to take up writing as a career. The biggest compliment that I can pay Michael Calvin is that this book is as well crafted as anything Hopcraft wrote and in years to come football fans will be reading “State of Play” as they still do “The Football Man”.

STATE OF PLAY BY MICHAEL CALVIN IS PUBLISHED ON 23RD AUGUST BY CENTURY AT £16.99

 

 

First Thoughts

So how do we all feel a mere two games into a new season? It is still quite a bit too soon to get carried away, start screaming from the rooftops and jumping for joy, and I am all too well aware of the dangers of hubris and counting chickens, but it cannot be denied that the early signs for Brentford are very favourable.

Unlike previous years when the Bees went into a new season seemingly holed below the waterline after a series of high profile departures, Brentford’s squad has now never been stronger with quality, cover and depth in almost every position. Interestingly enough despite the variety of options available to him, Head Coach Dean Smith opted for an unchanged team and substitutes for the first two Championship matches.

Rotherham were swept aside by a combination of quick passing, movement and pace allied to a quality of finishing far more clinical than we fans have been used to seeing. Brentford scored five on a sweltering afternoon and quite frankly it could have been far more. “It was only Rotherham though,” sneered the sceptics, but surely a lot of the doubters have been silenced after Brentford’s performance at promotion favourites Stoke City last Saturday.

Facing a Premier League squad in all but name, the Bees took the game to their much vaunted opponents and made them look plodding and toothless.They even recovered from the blow of a defensive aberration that gifted the lead to the home team, totally dominated proceedings, silenced a vociferous crowd, and but for a few attacking shortcomings and a series of fine saves from Jack Butland would have come away with a victory rather than a draw which was far less than they deserved.

The defence has so far been largely untroubled with Bentley barely having a save to make. Dalsgaard, Barbet, Konsa and Mepham have gelled into a cohesive unit, all comfortable on the ball and keen to surge forward at every opportunity. It is noticeable that all are over six feet tall and it is a long time since the Diddy Men of Brentford boasted four veritable giants in the back four and I believe we are better for it given the barrage of high crosses that we are likely to face in most matches. New signing, Julian Jeanvier has yet to be blooded and will likely make his debut at Southend in the Carabao Cup and Moses Odubajo is now a fully-fledged Brentford player and will hopefully soon be as fit as possible and in contention for a place.

Brentford are justifiably renowned for discovering and extracting gems from the lower leagues and it is already patently obvious that Ezri Konsa will shortly be joining that number. Smooth and silky on the ball, as is required from a Brentford centre half, he also knows how to defend and his partnership with Chris Mepham, two inexperienced twenty year olds will be something to savour.

Given the uncertainty over Ryan Woods’s future, Josh McEachran has been given the opportunity to cement his place sitting in front of the back four and despite his early exit on Saturday with a tight hamstring he has so far looked the wonderful footballer he is, seeing and delivering passes of a quality and precision rarely seen at this level of the game, and just as encouragingly, anticipating and winning challenges and generally looking far stronger and more robust. Could this finally be his year to deliver on his immense potential?

Romaine Sawyers has quite simply regularly demonstrated his God-given ability to thread passes through the eye of a needle and he certainly caught the eye of the envious Stoke City supporters who were distinctly unamused to discover that he was a Bosman free signing. Lewis Macleod is also now fully fit and provides a cutting edge from midfield that has been lacking in recent years.

Brentford rely on breaking the opposition press and breaking forward speedily and in numbers and wingers Sergi Canos and Ollie Watkins have a vital role to play. Canos seems to have recovered his Mojo after an injury-ravaged season, knowing full well that he has the immensely talented Said Benrahma breathing down his neck and waiting for his opportunity off the bench. As for Watkins – what a player and talent he is. Southampton apparently offered around £11 million for him in the close season and were swiftly rebuffed. Totally the right move as his value will surely double this season given the electrifying start he has made. He is so strong, quick and direct and is totally two-footed as thunderous goals with both right and left feet in his last two games prove. He is now being compared in his impact and ability with Dele Alli in his MK Dons days and his future could well be as bright as Alli’s. Watkins is so dangerous cutting in from the wing that it seems likely that the previous plan to play him down the middle is likely to be put on hold for the time being which means that Neil Maupay will need to stay both fit and sharp as we posses very few alternatives apart from the untried Marcus Forss.

The rump of the squad is likely to be given a runout at Southend to give them much needed minutes and it will be interesting to see if Ryan Woods will be included. It seemed a foregone conclusion that he would finalise a move to Swansea on Transfer Deadline day but for whatever reason, Swansea were not prepared to pay the asking price and Ryan is left in limbo. Will another club or even Swansea come back with a loan to purchase move before the end of the month or will he be reintegrated into the squad where he will surely be welcomed with open arms? I suspect that the club was reconciled to his departure as he had given us almost three seasons of dedicated service, we had improved and developed him and it seemed that his valuation was going to be met and that the time had come for him to move on maybe to better things but certainly for more money. Most importantly, in McEachran and Kamo Mokotjo his replacements were already in the building.

It is still early days but the auspices are favourable. Their ability has never been in question but the players also appear to be mentally stronger and more confident and resilient and it is telling how well they recovered from the blow of going a goal down in such ridiculous circumstances at Stoke having dominated the early proceedings.

For me the most disconcerting development to date has been that pundits and rival supporters alike have finally discovered Brentford and recognised how well the club is run, the quality of our football and the talent we possess, and Brentford have been widely tipped to make a serious promotion challenge. Worrying indeed, as I far prefer us to exist and flourish well under the radar and I positively relish the “teams like Brentford” and “pub team” insults and other such disparaging comments that we have been widely subjected to since promotion to the Championship in 2014.

Can Brentford thrive under the additional pressure of being in the spotlight? All will be revealed in the coming weeks. Exciting times indeed!

A New Season is Upon Us!

Time was when I wrote an almost daily blog on the fortunes of our favourite football team. I kept this up with metronomic regularity for a couple of seasons and even succeeded in publishing a couple of books on the back of it (both are still available on the remainder pile in the Brentford FC Superstore if anyone is still interested!)

Eventually I came to the conclusion that over around 400 articles I had written pretty much everything there was to say about the club, the way it operated, its style and ethos both on and off the pitch, its unique and innovative way of doing business and how it was regarded with a combination of suspicion, ridicule and ignorance by the media and the rest of the football world. I stopped at the end of the 2015/16 season because I did not want to repeat myself and run the risk of outstaying my welcome and boring myself and what few readers I had left.

Bees United have now asked me to resurrect my blog and provide a regular series of updates on the coming season and after some misgiving I have agreed and only hope that I find enough of interest to write about.

So what lies in store for the Bees in the months ahead? Will they manage a fifth consecutive top ten finish in a Championship that becomes ever more competitive and is packed full of big battalions swelled with the riches of Premier League parachute payments? Could we even cherish hopes and dreams of marking our last full season at our beloved Griffin Park home with promotion to the giddy heights of the Premier League, or could the fairytale end and reality kick in and we find ourselves overwhelmed and outmatched by clubs with the wherewithal to outspend us? Before we consider this question in detail let’s have a look at some of their rivals and how they might perform.

As I write these words a mere three days before the big kick off, it is still totally impossible to assess how strong each club will be given that the transfer window still has a week to run and many teams will surely take part in a last minute lemming-like trolley dash which might make all the difference between success and failure.

Given that caveat who are the likely contenders? Two of the teams relegated from the Premier League are likely to challenge for an immediate return. Stoke City are managed by the Championship savvy Gary Rowett and are unlikely to inspire but they have already signed a series of battle-hardened experienced pro’s such as Benik Afobe, James McClean and Tom Ince and most importantly, kept hold of their best player, Joe Allen. The jury is out on newly appointed manager Darren Moore but West Bromwich Albion might also find that their functional style of football is well-suited to the demands of the Championship and Sam Johnstone, Kyle Bartley and exciting winger Harvey Barnes are excellent signings.

Despite their apparent financial concerns Derby County have certainly loosened the pursestrings and supported another unknown managerial quantity in Frank Lampard. Despite lots of speculation top scorer Matej Vydra, scorer of a wonderful goal against us for Watford a few years ago is still at the club. Jack Marriott should manage the jump from Division One, Chelsea youngster Mason Mount excelled in Holland last season and we all know just how good (and indeed, bad) Florian Jozefzoon can be.

Middlesbrough will be expected to challenge but will sorely miss the pace, power and dribbling ability of the injured Adama Traore who was easily the best visiting player I saw at Griffin Park last season. Aston Villa could be absolutely anything after the disappointment of missing out in the Playoff Final and staring at the financial abyss but so far have managed to keep hold of their talisman Jack Grealish. Leeds fans still find it hard to accept that they are firmly ensconced in the Championship with their glory years decades behind them and have a well developed sense of entitlement. Who knows how they will perform under the management of the legendary but explosive Marcelo Bielsa and it could all end in tears. Barry Douglas is a fantastic signing from Wolves but there are doubts whether the enigmatic Patrick Bamford will score regularly enough for them. What is certain is that their supporters are certain to experience a rollercoaster ride.

Nottingham Forest have conducted some eye-catching transfer business bringing in a plethora of highly priced Portuguese imports – and Lewis Grabban. However good they prove to be they now possess a bloated squad and a manager in Aitor Karanka who does not inspire too much confidence. Preston North End also over performed last season and will likely challenge again. They are fit, organised and never give you an easy game but might struggle to score enough goals despite the midfield prompting of Alan Browne and Ryan Ledson.

So where does this leave Brentford? How do I feel they will do over the coming season?

As we speak we have, as is customary, lost a few players having already replaced them with relative unknowns and potential bargains. Andreas Bjelland allowed his contract to run down having performed exceptionally well last season as a calm, left-sided defender who was largely responsible for mentoring Chris Mepham and talking him through games. Bjelland suffered the disappointment of missing the World Cup through injury and has returned home to play for FC Copenhagen after three injury wrecked seasons at Griffin Park. Fate was not kind to him and he never really regained the impetus lost by his long term absence through a terrible knee ligament injury sustained on his debut for the club. Club skipper John Egan has also left the club joining Sheffield United for a reported near £4 million club record fee – a massive profit on the initial £400,000 fee we paid to Gillingham. He too proved himself to be a solid, consistent and effective defender who was also dangerous at set pieces but somehow, for all his efforts and endeavour he never totally inspired confidence with the ball at his feet and as we all know our central defenders are expected to split whenever the goalkeeper gathers the ball, come short to take possession and then act as the first line of attack. This was never Egan’s game and hard though he worked and as much as he improved, which was all to his credit I suspect the powers that be felt that we needed to improve in this area.

Konstantin Kerschbaumer enjoyed a successful season on loan at Arminia Bielefeld scoring eight times from midfield. He had flourished towards the end of the 2015/16 season when he enjoyed a good run in the Brentford team and combined well with the predatory Scott Hogan who thrived upon the Austrian’s incisive through balls but perhaps he has found his level in the German Second Division and has joined FC Ingolstadt 04 for a reputed near one million pound fee. He leaves with our best wishes as well as thoughts about what might have been had he not been thrown into the team far too quickly in the Autumn of 2015.

Florian Jozefzoon established himself in the Brentford team last season and ended up with the impressive tally of seven goals and was a constant danger with his pace and set piece ability. Like all wingers he was inconsistent but he will be missed after being sold to Derby County for £2.75 million given that he was coming into the last year of his contact and it is extremely rare for a Brentford first team player to be allowed to run down his contract without being sold. Promising left back Ilias Chatzitheodoridis who impressed in his loan spell at Cheltenham last season but was not in the reckoning for a first team place has left for Panathinaikos where he will hopefully flourish and earn the Bees a healthy sell-on percentage a la Alfie Mawson should he eventually move on.

So far there have been three new arrivals at Griffin Park with two central defenders and a right winger arriving as direct replacements for the departing players. Brentford took advantage of Charlton’s requirement for cash up front by striking where others hesitated and signing their prime asset, England Under 21 International defender Ezri Konsa for a fee reputed to be around £2.5 million and a second centre half arrived earlier this week in the form of Julian Jeanvier from French Ligue 2 champions Reims for around £1.8 million. Jozefzoon’s replacement is exciting Algerian international Said Benrahma signed from Nice for another multimillion pound fee.

What all our signings share in common is that they all arrived under the radar with little speculation and they are all young emerging footballers with immense talent and development potential – as is the Brentford way.

Other long serving Brentford fans like myself still find it hard to read about the club paying (and indeed receiving) such high figure for their players and without checking, and apologies for any errors and omissions, I estimate that we have now paid over seven figures for fourteen players in Moses Odubajo, Jota, Lewis Macleod, Andreas Bjelland, Lasse Vibe, Ryan Woods, Dan Bentley, Sergi Canos, Rico Henry, Ollie Watkins, Neal Maupay, Konsa, Benrahma and Jeanvier and received multi-million pound fees for sixteen players in Hermann Hreiðarsson, Adam Forshaw, Will Grigg, Moses Odubajo, Stuart Dallas, Andre Gray, James Tarkowski, David Button, Jake Bidwell, Scott Hogan, Harlee Dean, Maxime Colin, Jota, Lasse Vibe, Egan and Jozefzoon.

Most Brentford fans are hoping that the number does not increase shortly to sixteen as the elephant in the room is midfield talisman Ryan Woods who is reportedly coveted by Swansea with a potential fee of somewhere in the region of £6-8 million being reported as our asking price. As most Brentford fans realise we remain a stepping stone club which signs young emerging talent, develops and improves them and then sells them to clubs richer than us and ideally further up the food chain at the top of the market, before repeating the process.

Given the size of our current stadium, our attendance levels and limited revenue streams this is the only way we can remain competitive and continue to punch way above our weight. We rely on our analytics and scouting ability to find and secure a constant flow of young footballers who recognise that they will be joining a club with a solid and ever-growing reputation for improving players, putting them into the spotlight and eventually allowing them to leave for greater riches and maybe opportunity when the time is right. And that is the key. We ONLY sell when we believe it is opportune and we have already replaced the outgoing player and only then if we receive top dollar. We are no longer naive and babes in the wood. Clubs have to deal with us on our terms, and generally they do.

It would be wonderful to hold onto Ryan Woods for another year – and maybe we will – but the model would say that it is now approaching the time to sell him when he has two years left on his contract and is approaching peak value. He has also served us well for nearly three seasons and in my view it is now his time to move on up and reap the rewards he has worked so hard for and fully deserves. One day once we have moved into Lionel Road and our revenues have increased exponentially, I hope that we can hold onto all our star players but for the time being we have to be realistic. That being so we have made it clear to predators that the likes of Chris Mepham and Ollie Watkins are not for sale at the moment. The time will of course come, but at the moment they both have long contracts and they are still developing, improving and increasing in value.

There is also social media talk of Nico Yennaris leaving initially on loan to a European club, with the name of Dukla Prague, being mentioned before eventually joining a Chinese club. There is talk that Dukla Prague share ownership with a Chinese club and given Nico’s Chinese mother I assume he would count as a homegrown player which would make him a valuable asset. I have not bothered to check this information out given that this is an unsubstantiated rumour at present. If both players were to leave then surely a replacement would be needed although I am sure both Josh McEachran and Kamo Mokotjo would expect to be given the chance to prove they could fill the gap.

The squad has been fairly bloated in size by Brentford standards although injuries to Maupay and now apparently Emiliano Marcondes have left us short of striking options with only the relatively untried Watkins and the rookie Marcus Forss currently available to play down the middle. I expect us to go with what we have got up front and not reinforce our currently limited resources as great things are expected from both Watkins and Maupay this season and young Forss impressed during the preseason period.

Said Benrahma has already made quite an impression on his teammates in training and he, Sergi Canos, Watkins and the highly impressive young Chiedozie Ogbene will compete for first team places on the wing with Josh Clarke and Alan Judge also available. Much is expected of Canos after an injury ruined 2017/18 season and hopefully he will rise to the challenge and show us just how talented and dangerous he can be. Alan Judge continues to make progress after his awful long term injury which would have finished a lesser man. His fitness has returned but he is still yet to regain his touch but hopefully more game time will enable him to do so.

The immensely gifted Romaine Sawyers will compete with Marcondes for the attacking midfield berth with the latter finally beginning to find his feet after a long settling in period. Lewis Macleod also will challenge for a box-to-box role and has the advantage of having a decent goalscoring record.

We are now strong in central defence with Chris Mepham, surely destined to become our first £20 million transfer, Konsa and Jeanvier backed up by the ebullient Yoann Barbet and the massive young Mads Bech Sorensen whose time will surely come.

World Cup hero Henrik Dalsgaard will put his comic cuts own goal last Saturday behind him and continue to impress at right back, backed up by the versatile Josh Clarke, but we have concerns at left back where Rico Henry is not expected back for a while from his awful knee injury. Yennaris, Barbet or Tom Field could fill in and it remains to be seen if the oft-injured Moses Odubajo will sign a contract and also compete for the shirt. Moses is more than good enough but there are serious concerns about whether he can stay fit enough to make a contribution.

Dan Bentley had an exceptional season last year and should continue to improve under the guidance of his new goalkeeping coach Iñaki Caña Pavón, He will be supported by the reliable Luke Daniels and another B Team alumnus Ellery Balcombe fresh from his exploits with the England Under 19 squad. A slight problem on the horizon is that both Bentley and Sawyers have only two more seasons left on their contracts and hopefully they can be persuaded to extend their stay at the club.

Brentford’s performance in last Saturday’s friendly against Watford was Brentford to a T. We overplayed at the back and conceded two suicidal and easily avoidable goals. We were at times overpowered by a stronger and more ruthless team which took no prisoners but our sublime attacking one touch football tore gaps in the Watford defence. As per normal we were guilty of playing one pass too many and refusing to shoot when the chance beckoned. We missed far too many flagrant chances in front of goal.

I am hoping and to a degree expecting that the team both as individuals and a group will grow up this season, continue to play some fabulous football but also fight and scrap where necessary and improve their game management. If that is the case and we pick our moments to shoot and become more clinical in front of goal – big “ifs” it has to be said – then I predict a strong challenge for the playoffs.

I am really looking forward to the season and I hope you are too.

OOH-AAH: THE BOB BOOKER STORY BY GREVILLE WATERMAN – WHY I WROTE IT

I had written and co-authored a few books about Brentford FC – predominantly season reviews and histories, which were well received but frankly of minority interest beyond Bees supporters. If you are going to spend up to a year researching and writing a book then you might as well do something with potentially broader appeal that hopefully people will want to read.

I therefore looked for a footballer ideally with Brentford roots but who had also extended his career elsewhere, and Bob Booker was an obvious candidate.

His playing career lasted from the late 70s until 1993 and he then worked as a youth coach and assistant manager between 1994 until late 2009 so there were over thirty years’ worth of activity at three clubs to cover.

His background was also highly unusual. He had never won representative honours as a youngster and was more of an athlete than a footballer, finishing second in the 800 metres to Steve Ovett in the AAA Championships. He had no ambitions to become a footballer and was playing for Bedmond a local team, for whom he paid to play, when his manager, a landscape gardener bent the ear of one of his clients, Willis Hall, a Brentford director and talked him into giving Bob a trial.

The rest is history. Bob impressed as a tall and determined centre forward, trained for two days a week unpaid for several months while he finished his apprenticeship as an upholsterer and was then given a one-year contract by Bees manager Bill Dodgin.

Bob went from earning up to £200 per week on piecework – twice the national average wage – with a lifetime’s guaranteed employment to an uncertain salary of £60 per week at Brentford. It took him eight years as a first team regular before he caught up to where he was before in financial terms before he became a professional footballer.

Incredibly, Bob came from nowhere to make his debut away at Watford – where he lived – in front of his bemused friends a mere couple of days after he turned professional and scored an incedible hat trick against Hull City on his full home debut the following season.

Through a combination of talent, hard work, determination and dedication he made himself into a professional footballer despite starting years behind his teammates and never serving an apprenticeship. He became a valued and versatile jack-of-all-trades who wore every shirt for Brentford apart from the goalkeeper’s.

The hat trick brought about unwanted and unreasonable expectations and Bob was booed unmercifully for several years but he fought back and eventually earned the grudging support and appreciation of Brentford fans.

He overcame a serious ACL injury and a year out to force his way back into the reckoning but he was lacking in fitness and confidence and contemplating retirement when, despite his dodgy knee, Dave Bassett signed him out of the blue to bolster Sheffield United’s promotion challenge in 1988 and replace another injured player in Simon Webster.

Bob went from a smallish, homely club in Brentford where mid table mediocrity was the norm to the relentless pressure of playing for a big name club in Sheffield United.

It took time to settle down and again, Bob was the victim of vituperative abuse when his early performances clearly demonstrated his lack of fitness and sharpness – but he fought back, worked hard, engaged with the supporters and community and became a massive local hero as he played a major role in Sheffield United’s rise from Division Three to the First Division in successive seasons and Bob captained them to promotion.

The fairytale continued with Bob playing a prominent role in the top division, where he made his debut aged 32, and he scored the winning goal at QPR that ensured the Blades’s survival. I was with Bob in Sheffield last weekend and the welcome he received over 25 years on warmed the heart.

Bob saw out his career at Brentford where he had left in 1988 as one of their lowest paid players and returned, three years later as one of their top earners.

He was crippled by injury but played his part in helping the Bees win promotion in his first season back.

Once his knee finally gave up on him Bob suffered the depression and trauma of how to cope without football before the chance came for him to enter the second phase of his career as a youth coach at Brentford before he was taken to Brighton by Micky Adams and, highly unusually, worked as the assistant to six different managers including Adams, Peter Taylor, Steve Coppell, Mark McGhee and Russell Slade, becoming a well loved and highly respected member of the coaching staff who managed to adapt to the varying needs of each manager.

I hope readers find Bob’s amazing story as fascinating, original and unlikely as I did.

It deals with both the triumphs and tribulations of being a footballer. The euphoria of winning promotion and making a First Division debut against Champions Liverpool at the age of 32 – and there is an iconic image on the front cover of an unbelieving Bob smiling at his dad in the crowd that proud day. Booker had to cope with loneliness and depression as he faced career-threatening injury, struggling to make ends meet on a miniscule salary, desperately striving to earn a new contract and being cruelly disposed of by David Webb.

It could never happen today. He would probably have been scouted at the age of eight and joined an academy. If so he would have run the risk of losing the boundless enthusiasm that was such a crucial part of his makeup. Working in a factory – again something that is almost unknown for a footballer today, gave him the discipline and hunger that he needed to help him succeed as a footballer.

Bob is unique and a one-off who is still revered at the three clubs he served and his career deserves recognition and celebration. I just hope that I have done him justice.

“OOH-AAH – THE BOB BOOKER STORY” IS AVAILABE IN THE BRENTFORD AND SHEFFIELD UNITED STADIUM STORES, CITY BOOKS IN HOVE AND ON AMAZON AT http://tinyurl.com/y8ea8ovx

BOB WILL ALSO BE SIGNING BOOKS IN THE BRENTFORD STADIUM STORE BEFORE THE WOLVES GAME ON 26TH AUGUST AT 2PM AND IS ALSO APPEARING WITH MARK MCGHEE AT THE KOMEDIA THEATRE IN BRIGHTON ON 6TH SEPTEMBER. TICKETS ARE AVAILABLE FROM THE BOX OFFICE ON 01273 647100 OR AT http://www.komedia.com/brighton