New Beesotted contributor, Phil Evans, looks back at the landmark signings that have changed the club’s fortunes and taken us to the promised land.
With our first season in the premier league now just weeks away, I find myself still in awe of that play-off victory, and the man who did so much to finally bring us into the top tier, Ivan Toney.
In the aftermath of the game, I was struck by a report noting how impressed the Bees scouts had been by the influence Toney has on those around him, and how important that had been in the decision to bring him to the club.
Toney’s post-game interviews displayed a bullet-proof confidence. Asked to consider the fact that Brentford had never won in the playoffs in nine previous attempts, he responded that they’d never had Ivan Toney before.
The swagger and glibness of the statement made me laugh. But the truth behind it resonated, and it stuck with me as much as the elation of the victory that day.
We are several years into the most remarkable era for Brentford that many of us have ever known. Of course on the fundamental level he’s dead right, I have never seen a player like Toney play for my club.
In my time, we’ve had plenty of players I’ve loved to watch, good players, cult players. With Hermann Hreidarsson, we even got to enjoy watching a Premier league player exploit the gulf in class between himself and the rest of the Third Division, often to almost comical levels.
But the journey that Matthew Benham has led Brentford on over the last decade has meant that the unprecedented has become commonplace. So while what Toney said was true, it’s every bit as true that we had never seen players like Ollie Watkins, Saïd Benrahma, Neal Maupay, or Jota play for us either.
So why do I think that there is something deeper to Toney’s response than simply the self-belief of a golden boot-winning striker?
The Bees had gone into the final against Swansea with a team that was arguably weaker than the one that faced Fulham in August. Not only had two thirds of the strongest forward line in the division been sold in the summer, but injuries had taken a serious toll on the starting lineup.
But the final against Swansea would turn out to be a different game in every sense. Where Watkins and Benrahma had seemed almost lost in the occasion and unable to play themselves in, Toney rose to it imperiously.
Within ten minutes he’d kept his cool to pave the way for what was a team performance of confidence and control unrecognisable to anyone who had seen Brentford’s previous appearances at Wembley or Cardiff.
It was a world away from the times our appearances on national TV might have been limited to one of poor Kevin Dearden’s gaffes, a club that seemed forever falling over itself to become a punchline. From Trotta’s penalty miss that led to Doncaster’s break, to the eight-match winning streak to put promotion into our hands, only to fluff both of the chances they’d fought so hard for.
If other fans thought of us at all, it was for anguished moments like those. As for the rest of the time, well, I can remember receiving congratulations from friends when Bradford secured promotion to the Premier League back in ’99.
Our rise has bred new and fun forms of scorn. Beesotted keeps a regular eye on the folk moaning about ‘teams like Brentford’ – an affliction that has now spread north of the border. The backlash against perceived ‘moneyball’ tactics has been similarly entertaining.
Proving people wrong is clearly a big part of Ivan Toney’s motivation. It’s interesting to see a player so aware and sure of his own abundant ability have such a strong desire to shut the doubters up.
While his confidence and calmness visibly radiates through his teammates, I could only wish that it would stretch a little further into the stands and out of the TV. Even after 2-0 up after twenty minutes, even with all that time against 10 men, there was still part of me that thought any moment could bring disaster, that we’d do it to ourselves again.
I shouldn’t have worried, I needn’t, so why did I?
The players have changed, the coaches, the owners, even our home has changed. But us fans are still who we are. My memories of those finals against Crewe, Stoke, Yeovil and Fulham, of the only times we even scored being Harlee and Henrik’s consolation goals, still felt all too fresh.
I found myself thinking back, with a strange realisation that our first taste of final defeat had come less than a year after Stuart Pierce had so memorably exorcised his own demons from the penalty spot in the same stadium. He’d only had to wait six years for his shot at redemption, taking it first time. An enviable record.
Much was made of our miserable play-off record in the run up to the final, and perhaps it felt more keen for those of us who weren’t able to be there at Wembley. Reaching for that lucky scarf or sticking to a superstitious routine is ridiculous at the best of times, but it is even more so when the success of your team is so based in analysis and data.
More fool me for willing on the final whistle when I should have been enjoying it. Our team was not the same that had been overawed in so many finals before, and I think a lot of that can be put down to the presence and influence of Ivan Toney.
A player brought into a team that, even with Watkins and Benrahma, had failed to make it over the line. He was able to add something to it that even those brilliant players couldn’t. He wasn’t weighed down by the same baggage as so many fans, he felt no dread in the prospect of taking a Wembley penalty – quite the opposite. His refusal to allow football authorities to dodge their responsibility to tackle racism in the game, holding them to account, demonstrated remarkable courage, thoughtfulness and leadership. I can’t think of another player who has had such an influence on the team, especially not in their first season.
For the last few years, we’ve had the privilege to enjoy the performances of the best Brentford teams most of us can remember. In that time, we have all known that one way or another, the stand out players would soon enough be playing in the top flight. I don’t begrudge those who left, though it’s a shame the club didn’t rise quite as quickly as they did. With Toney, there’s nothing but gratitude because I do think he made the difference between promotion and another year of having to rebuild
Brentford of course started down the road that has brought the club to the Premier League long before signing Ivan Toney, he’s not the reason we have made it. But it’s a critical data point: in nine previous attempts in the play-offs we failed, the first time we had Toney leading the line, we cruised it.
We really have never had a player like him.