Is it really nine years since one of the most infamous days Griffin Park witnessed before the old girl took her final bow? It was indeed nine years ago today that Brentford hosted Doncaster Rovers in a final-day winner-takes-all showdown, with promotion to the Championship at stake. Beesotted’s Tim Street looks back.
While Doncaster were looking for an instant return to the Championship following relegation the previous year, the Bees were looking to reclaim the second-tier place they had lost after just a solitary season stay 20 years previously.
It was Brentford’s second season under former Manchester City striker Uwe Rosler, and after the previous year’s ninth-place finish, had showed their intentions by bringing in the likes of former loanees Adam Forshaw and Harlee Dean on permanent deals from Premier League sides Everton and Southampton, and adding Forshaw’s Everton team-mate, Jake Bidwell, on a season-long loan.
With the likes of Jonathan Douglas, Clayton Donaldson, Shay Logan, Toumani Diagouraga and Harry Forrester having already been recruited the previous year, the club was shaping up to make its move up the leagues, as owner Matthew Benham, who became majority shareholder that summer, stepped up his investment in the side. A pleasing mix of promising youngsters, with one eye on future resale value, and carefully-selected seasoned pros looked primed to finally move the Bees out of the bottom two divisions once more.
It was a season which promised so much – including a run of just one defeat in 20 games between September and January – and that defeat was one which Brentford shouldn’t have lost, chucking away the lead at final-day opponents Doncaster and going down 2-1 after dominating proceedings in South Yorkshire.
The potential within the side was made clear to all when Rosler’s men came within seven minutes of knocking Chelsea – then, as now, champions of Europe – out of the FA Cup, it taking a late strike from Fernando Torres to spare the Blues’ blushes before they finished the job at Stamford Bridge.
But the Bees stuttered going into the final furlong, winning only two of their last seven matches, including that final-day showdown. As with many matches with so much at stake for both teams, it turned out to be a pretty drab affair, with the nerves from both sets of players matched only by those in the stands. Brentford probably edged it in terms of chances, but couldn’t make the breakthrough they needed to snatch second place from a Doncaster side set to be promoted automatically behind Bournemouth.
We all know what happened next, and so will many future generations of football fans thanks to the modern-day equivalent of Nick Hancock’s Football Nightmares or Danny Baker’s Own Goals and Gaffes – namely You Tube compilations and Sky Sports re-runs. Toumani Diagouraga was flattened in the area by Jamie McCombe and referee Michael Oliver awarded a penalty.
What followed were truly farcical scenes – pure ‘It’s Brentford, innit’ – as regular penalty taker Kevin O’Connor had the ball wrestled away by young Fulham loanee Marcello Trotta, as bemused Bees team-mates tried to intervene. To be fair to Trotta, he had taken the Bees’ previous most recent spot kick, in the 2-2 draw at Sheffield United a fortnight earlier, when O’Connor was on the sidelines. Rosler would later confirm that O’Connor was his preferred penalty taker but admitted this had not been relayed to the team before the match.
Trotta, who would later earn himself redemption by scoring the goal at Leyton Orient which all but sealed promotion for the Bees a year later, smashed the ball against the ball from 12 yards, and as the ball rebounded out, Doncaster broke as Brentford’s players sunk to their knees and scored a last-gap winner through James Coppinger, overtaking Bournemouth to take the title in the process.
I can remember standing at my seat in the old Braemer Road press area for what seemed like ages, just staring at the pitch and trying to make sense of what I had just seen, barely registering the delirious celebrations of the Doncaster players and fans due to a kind of numbness I had never felt before. When I finally turned to my former Hounslow Chronicle colleague Jake Murtagh, standing next to me, we found we couldn’t find any words to speak. I can barely remember the post-match press conference or conducting any interviews.
It was peak Brentford. We had been through last-minute heartbreak before. We had lost final-day winner-takes-all games before. We had frozen on the big stage many a time before. We had failed in countless play-off campaigns and lost numerous finals at new Wembley, old Wembley and the Millennium Stadium – the venue never seemed to matter in deciding the ultimate outcome. But to do it in such dramatic fashion – this had to be the worst of the lot – or was it?
For me, looking back, it doesn’t come close to the final day draw with Reading in the Steve Coppell season, when we had been 13 minutes from promotion with a side which had been brilliant all season but we all knew was about to be broken up if the Bees failed to be promoted (and perhaps even if we had been). Or to the play-off semi-final defeat to Huddersfield under David Webb, which had the added heartache of having finished second but not been promoted automatically due to Premier League restructuring.
I quickly decided that nothing could quite hurt us in the same way again – although the play-off final defeat a few weeks later was another huge downer – and so the only way was up. There was also a wider sense that this would not be as fatal a blow as those that came before. Whereas previous big stage failures usually came with a sense that the Bees had blown their chance and more struggles were to follow, this time there was a sense that Brentford’s journey was only just beginning, and this was a mere bump in the road.
And so it has proved. But it also, like the Championship play-off final defeat to Fulham six years later, would help embed a form of resilience into the club’s culture, and play its part in casting off those past failures. Past players I have spoken to since have confirmed this, saying that the culture of the club – once one of glorious failure followed by inevitable struggles – had become one of strength and determination to come back stronger when those bumps were hit.
Once was Alan McCormack, who was signed later that summer and would play a huge part in helping Brentford bounce back. Looking back on when he joined, he remembers a club not dwelling on what had gone before, but focusing on what was to come. He said: “A lot of clubs may have gone the opposite way to what Brentford did that year, but when I met Uwe and other people, I knew straight away this was a determined club. As a soon as we went in for the first day of pre-season, the talk was never about devastation or being upset or a hangover from last season, it was all about this will be our year. There was this focus amongst the group which stemmed from the previous year. To go through that heartbreak made the players very wary of things which could go wrong at that stage – keep going and never relax. Sometimes you need that in life, that big upset and heartbreak to become a better person and turn it into a positive.”
Sam Saunders referenced what the Bees went through six years later – losing the play-off final in the dying minutes of extra time to Fulham – but again, bouncing back the next season to win promotion. He said: “You look at what happened with losing the play-off final to Fulham and then coming back the next year, sometimes it makes you stronger and more ready the second time round, and that’s what happened after Doncaster. When we got promoted to the Championship we hit the ground running, and did the same in the Premier League, so maybe building again and being stronger and better than the year before means you’re better equipped when you do go up. As players and professionals in football, there’s always disappointments, it’s how you deal with them. Keep moving forward and use them as a fire in your belly to do even more the next season.”
I won’t be churlish enough to celebrate the demise of Doncaster, who find themselves on the brink of relegation to League Two, or Brentford’s 2013 play-off victors Yeovil, who have fallen even further, into the National League. Both won promotion fair and square and took advantage of a Brentford side not quite ready to make the step up, but building nicely towards it. Instead, let’s raise a glass tonight to the new Brentford culture of success coming from failure rather than it being the start of yet another decline. Cheers!