Jay Anthony Tabb was born in Tooting in February 1984, around the time that Frankie Goes to Hollywood were asking the nation to “Relax”.
As a young pup, Tabby forced his way onto the youth books at Crystal Palace but his footballing hopes were dashed when, aged 16, he was judged as being too small to play professional football. Interestingly, at 5ft 5 inches he was the same height as Diego Maradona, who presumably wouldn’t have made it in South London either.
Fortunately, the Bees youth scouts were not quite as height-intolerant and, after a spell back at college, Tabby signed for Brentford in 2000, making his first team debut in a 2-2 draw against Luton Town in May 2001 under Ray Lewington. Ray knew the young midfielder from their time together at Palace, but also had some doubts about his physical attributes.
I remember that debut against Luton and I remember Jay using his low centre of gravity to knock an opponent up a set of stairs in the stands. For me, a little hero had been born.
The following season was a washout due to injury and the form of Brentford’s vastly improved Coppell team. For a while it looked like Tabb simply wouldn’t make it at the club and a loan spell at Crawley Town beckoned – even this was cut short before it began when Jay suffered torn ligaments in training.
But, in 2003, the magic started to happen as Jay was finally given a run in the first team under Wally Downes. He scored eleven goals that season from midfield, regularly jinking his way through opposition defences like a dalek on acid. A small player, with a big heart and a terrific appetite to make things happen for his team-mates, Tabby started to become a cult hero at Griffin Park.
Tabb’s improvement was in stark contrast to the team’s overall output, with The Bees slipping into relegation trouble in cash-strapped times under Wally Downes. In March 2003, Martin Allen took over the managerial hotseat and set his inherited team of rag-tag misfits on the way to “The Great Escape”. Tabby was a key part of this revival, scoring the first goal of Allen’s reign in a memorable 3-2 victory over Rushden and Diamonds. He added a further three goals in eight games as Brentford improved their form and remained in League One.
Tabby remained at Brentford for two seasons under Allen, enjoyable times in their own way as The Bees outperformed their budgets and gate-crashed the playoffs – Jay was virtually ever-present for both seasons.
It was under Allen that my favourite memory of Tabby occurred, away at much fancied Luton Town in the FA Cup in January 2005. The Bees were a Chris Hargreaves goal up, but under the cosh from the physical hosts who were pushing hard for an equaliser. With one minute remaining on the clock, Tabb burst forward from midfield, and with a quick shimmy of the hips that would put a salsa dancer to shame, he deposited his marker onto the turf and slotted the ball home, sending the away fans potty. It felt like a real David vs Goliath moment as our diminutive hero outshone the lumbering giants of Kenilworth Road.
When Martin Allen departed West London in the summer of 2006, so did Tabby. He signed for Coventry City where he was later named player of the season. Steve Coppell then swooped to take him to Reading – where he played in the Premier League – before seemingly seeing out his playing days at Ipswich Town. Along the way he played ten games for Ireland U21s too, scoring once.
A couple of years after Tabby left Griffin Park I heard a story about him in the pub which, fact of fiction, made me smile. The rumour is that whilst on the Bees books he used to sneak off to play as a Rugby League winger for a mate’s amateur team on a Sunday, summing up both his love of sport and his lack of fear of physically bigger opponents. In some ways he is a bit like Scrappy Doo, although far less irritating.
For me, Jay Tabb had the lot – skill, tenacity, belief and desire. He’s the sort of Brentford hero I want my kids to grow up watching too.
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