Brentford suffered another cruel bout of Wembley failure, losing the Championship play-off final 2-1 to bitter rivals Fulham and missing out on promotion to the Premier League. Beesotted contributor Paul Harrison reflects on a painful night for all Brentford fans, and looks ahead to a summer of promise.
We’ve all seen the match reports. We all know what happened. We might not want to re-examine those wounds – but we probably should.
Brentford lost to Fulham in the Championship play-off final, missing out on promotion to the Premier League for the first time in the club’s history. Promotion would have capped off a historic year for the club – securing a highest league position since 1947, brushing many teams aside in style, all whilst saying goodbye to the beloved Griffin Park.
In some ways it would’ve been the perfect year to finally reach the promised land. The stars were so close to aligning for Brentford.
But you can’t rely on the stars.
On Tuesday night Fulham showed up. Brentford? Eh, not quite. The Bees had done the double over their neighbours – making defeat even more difficult to comprehend.
The Cottagers had a gameplan at Wembley. Control possession, keep the ball, patience. There were signs of big-game experience too: tactical fouls, steady positioning, collective pressing. Crucially it looked like the nerves didn’t get to them.
For a few spells Brentford looked like the better team. But those spells were too few and far between. The Bees looked a tad overwhelmed by the occasion. Passing was at times erratic and lacking direction. Players drifted in and out of position. Even the collective defensive effort wasn’t up to the usual standards.
The tension that we all felt at home, in the pubs, at the Wembley Boxpark – although far removed from the pressure felt by the players – kept us on tenterhooks. But from a neutral perspective, the 90 minutes must go down as one of the most boring in play-off final history.
The first half was cagey. Both teams trying to figure each other out. There were barely any good chances for either side. Fulham always carried a threat though. Brentford only really got into the game moments before half-time.
The first 45 minutes had flown by. Thomas Frank needed to energise the Bees at half-time.
But as the Sky commentators pointed out, it looked more like a game that neither side wanted to lose, rather than a game that either side was trying to win. The fear of missing out on the alleged £170m jackpot for reaching the Premier League was rooted in everyone’s minds.
An example – it took until the 70th minute for Ollie Watkins to have a sniff of the goal.
Brentford in truth looked the most likely to score throughout the second half. But “likely” is a bit of a stretch – the defences were winning the day. The lack of second half substitutions hinted that both managers knew extra time was guaranteed too – Scott Parker waited until the 90th minute to bring on Fulham’s injury-maligned hitman Aleksandar Mitrovic.
The intensity from both teams picked up a little in extra time. A few more chances for each. Still the game was missing a moment of magic to spur it into life.
And that moment was provided, unfortunately, by Fulham’s Joe Bryan. An innocuous 40-yard free-kick, Bryan looked certain to cross the ball into the area. All the Brentford players were fooled, but notably David Raya in goal who wandered away from his near post. Then with one swift swing of his left boot Bryan launched the ball towards goal – it nestled just inside the post, beating Raya’s delayed dive.
A real error from Raya had put Fulham in the lead. But this wasn’t a fluke goal – Parker and Bryan had been working on this on the training pitch all week long.
The Bees needed to muster something in the final 15 minutes – sadly, Fulham were wise to it and snuffed out every last chance.
So when Joe Bryan surged forward on the counter-attack and got an unlikely second goal – having scored just one all season before the final – it was game over. The Bees had been put to the sword.
Henrik Dalsgaard pulled a very late goal back for Brentford in injury time, but it didn’t even provide a glimmer of hope as the full-time whistle was due any second after.
And when the ref did blow, that was it. Our 366-day season of promise, shattered in an instant.
Soul-crushing for the players, who had put their all into the season’s run-in but just lacked the ideas and composure to finish the job. Some fans will question their effort, given the vigour and intensity that the Bees displayed in overcoming Swansea in the semi-final second leg seemed to be missing against Fulham.
More reasonable explanations: nerves, a lack of a Plan B, bad luck, naivety, reluctance to shoot, too little urgency, not playing with that Brentford swagger, a critical goalkeeping mistake.
But a lack of effort? No way.
Quite surprisingly Brentford actually fared better in terms of xG, and on the balance of chances could have won on another day. Joe Bryan almost single-handedly secured promotion for Fulham thanks to two moments of inspiration, and deservedly won Man of the Match. But had the free-kick been saved by Raya the whole outcome might well have changed.
Yes, Fulham were the more organised team. But Brentford were far from out of it, and if the right chance presented itself the Bees could have won.
The match stats also indicated a much more even game than many of us felt. The waves of disappointment that many of us felt in the aftermath probably clouded our judgement.
The match ratings above don’t do a great job at indicating who played well or who played poorly. Notably Ollie Watkins – he wasn’t the weakest outfield player for Brentford, but he came up against a tough opponent in Michael Hector.
David Raya will undoubtedly be agonising over his costly mistake for Bryan’s first goal. There is a strong argument that the Bees wouldn’t have reached the play-off final without his heroics over two legs against Swansea. Still, he should not be making that kind of mistake in a final. And he will almost certainly never make it again. It just came at the wrong time.
On another day Fulham could have had at least one red card.
Harrison Reed’s studs-up challenge on Christian Norgaard – probably harsh to send Reed off there, but reds have been given for similar incidents.
Tom Cairney’s studs-up challenge on Said Benrahma – would have been even harsher to send Cairney off here, but it was still a bit reckless.
Aleksandar Mitrovic’s off-the-ball choke-slam on Emiliano Marcondes just before Bryan’s notorious free-kick – grievous bodily harm, should have been a red. Mitrovic has time and time again demonstrated thuggery, yet is rarely punished in the moment. Referee Martin Atkinson chose to show a yellow for this incident, so he clearly saw it.
Sure these moments were flare ups. VAR would be welcomed in the play-offs, particularly with so much at stake. There’s an argument that Atkinson didn’t have the guts to send someone off in a final.
Regardless of these gripes, Brentford didn’t do enough to put defeat down to bad luck alone. On the balance of the 90 minutes, Fulham were the more deserving of promotion – and congratulations to them on their success.
Having taken a few days to reflect, Brentford were much closer to achieving the dream than many of us felt on Tuesday night. That’s why it hurts.
Brentford head coach Thomas Frank said:
“First I would like to say congratulations to Fulham, Scott Parker, his coaching staff and everyone involved.”
“Of course it’s tough when you lose a final like this in a very tight game but I’m extremely proud of my players.”
“We have gone from a mid-table club to a team who, in the league table, was the third-best team.”
“We are very fine margins away from the Premier League, which is an incredible achievement from us.”
Fulham manager Scott Parker said:
“We’ve done what we’ve done tonight, but there’s still improvement, and that’s what makes me so proud and happy.”
“For all of the good players and everything you see, what makes me so happy I see a group of players who only a year ago were struggling psychologically, didn’t have a mindset or mentality.”
“I’ve driven this team every single day and what makes me proud is I stood on the touchline tonight and seen a team that represents what I’ve been saying over the last 12 months.”
Brentford have set an unwanted record – zero promotions from nine attempts at the play-offs. It feels like the play-off lottery just isn’t our thing. Cast your mind back to 2013 – going so close in the regular season against Doncaster, just missing out, then losing to Yeovil in the League One play-off final. Eerie similarities to 2020.
The year after that Yeovil defeat, the Bees pushed on and were promoted automatically to the Championship at the first opportunity. Brentford have improved year on year since. Meanwhile Doncaster find themselves back in League One, and Yeovil are now non-league.
“Improving year on year” does come with a caveat. It depends on two things: holding on to the gaffer, and adequately replacing the exodus of players.
Having Thomas Frank in charge for a full season worked wonders for the Bees this time around. The disruption caused by Dean Smith’s mid-season departure to Aston Villa derailed any hopes of success in 2018-19. Frank has captured the hearts of Bees fans, and when he gets Brentford ticking we can look unstoppable.
Frank’s homework for the summer, at least from my point of view, would be to work on developing a Plan B. Brentford have developed a defensive resilience and toughness this past year, but going forwards some teams appear to have figured the Bees’ gameplan out. All of the games following the Stoke loss could have ended in defeat – the one that didn’t (Swansea at Griffin Park) only ended in victory because Swansea were adamant to play their style of open, expansive footy.
Replacing players will be difficult. Ollie Watkins looks set to go to a Premier League club, albeit for more than the £18m “no-promotion” fee being touted. Said Benrahma is in the same boat, with his dazzling displays making him hot property. If they go they will go for good money, and the club will use that money to reinvest in replacements and improve squad depth – you can be sure of that.
A Watkins replacement is surely essential – there doesn’t appear to be a winger at the club who could morph into a 26-goal striker like Ollie managed last season. Marcus Forss could surprise a few following a successful loan spell at Wimbledon, but he has spent a while on the treatment table and will probably play a bench role.
A Benrahma replacement is still essential, although arguably less so. The money will surely be there to buy the right player, even if he can’t keep up with Benrahma’s output straight away. But with Sergi Canos (still only 23!) returning to full fitness, and Mbeumo likely to stick around, the balance of those wide positions could even improve.
It’s hard to come so close to reaching the top. It’s a golden opportunity missed – no doubt about that. But we are in a good position to get over the line next season. It could be a proper promotion too – in front of fans, avoiding the play-offs, in a new stadium. At this stage, the 2020-21 Championship looks weaker than the season just gone.
Things are looking up. Keep the faith Bees fans.