So this is it then – for the second year in a row, Brentford are going to play in the so-called “richest game in football” for the chance to earn a place in the Premier League.
Last August, the Bees lost to Fulham in an empty Wembley Stadium – this time, however, they meet Swansea in front of a crowd of about 12,000, with approximately 5,000 Brentford fans among them.
The backing of the 4,000 supporters who were at the Brentford Community Stadium last Saturday played a key role in the semi-final victory over Bournemouth, and while there will be opposition fans there this Saturday, those of us lucky enough to have a ticket can make a difference once again.
The Bees finished third in the Championship for the second season in a row, although with six more points than last year, with Swansea seven points behind us in fourth place.
It is the Swans’ second successive year in the play-offs. They lost to us in last year’s semi-finals, after snatching sixth place on the last day of the season.
They maintained their momentum in this campaign, with their defensive record playing a key part. They only conceded 39 goals – the third best record in the Championship – but by contrast only scored 56 times, the lowest figure of any of the top nine clubs.
WHO’S IN CHARGE
Steve Cooper was appointed to his first managerial job to succeed Graham Potter in the summer of 2019.
He spent his playing career in Welsh football with The New Saints, Rhyl, Bangor City and Porthmadog before moving into coaching and becoming the head of youth at Wrexham. From there, he moved to Liverpool’s academy, becoming its manager in 2011.
Two years later, he joined the FA’s youth set-up and ran the under-16 team and then the under-17s, who he helped win the World Cup for the first time in 2017. He also led them to the European Championship semi-finals a year later.
All Bees fans reading this will know about Brentford’s miserable past play-off record – having failed to win promotion even once from nine appearances.
For the record our appearances are:
1990/91 – Finished 6th in Division Three (now League One) Lost 3-2 on aggregate to Tranmere in the semi-finals.
1994/95 – Finished 2nd in Division Two (now League One) Lost 4-3 on penalties to Huddersfield in the semi-finals after 2-2 aggregate draw.
1996/97 – Finished 4th in Division Two (now League One) Lost 1-0 to Crewe in the final after beating Bristol City 4-2 on aggregate in the semis.
2001/02 – Finished 3rd in Division Two (now League One) Lost 2-0 to Stoke in the final after beating Huddersfield 2-1 on aggregate in the semis.
2004/05 – Finished 4th in League One – Lost 3-1 on aggregate to Sheffield Wednesday in the semis.
2005/06 – Finished 3rd in League One – Lost 3-1 on aggregate to Swansea in the semis.
2012/13 – Finished 3rd in League One – Lost 2-1 to Yeovil in the final after beating Swindon 5-4 on penalties following 4-4 aggregate draw.
2014/15 – Finished 5th in the Championship – Lost 5-1 on aggregate to Middlesbrough in the semis.
2019/20 – Finished 3rd in the Championship – Lost 2-1 to Fulham in the final after beating Swansea 3-2 on aggregate in the semis.
Swansea have been involved in the play-offs on seven previous occasions – winning promotion twice.
Their first experience was in 1988, when the format was different to how it is now.
The Swans had finished sixth in Division Four, and that pitted them against Rotherham, who had come 21st in Division Three, over two legs. The Swans won 1-0 with a late goal at the Vetch Field and reached the final after drawing the return leg 1-1. In the final they faced Torquay, who had finished one place above them. Swansea won the home leg 2-1 before hanging on to draw 3-3 in Devon to win promotion.
Their other success came in 2011, when the Swans went up to the Premier League via the Championship play-offs. After finishing third in the table, Swansea beat Nottingham Forest 3-1 in the semi-finals, with all the goals in the second leg at the Liberty Stadium. They then beat Reading 4-2 in a thrilling final.
They have failed to go up through the play-offs five times and played us on two of those occasions.
In 2006, they beat us 3-1 on aggregate in the League One semi-finals.
Michael Ricketts equalised Jay Tabb’s opener in the first leg at the Liberty Stadium, in which Bees keeper Stuart Nelson was sent off, but a Leon Knight double in the first 15 minutes at Griffin Park was enough to take the Swans through.
They were beaten 4-3 on penalties by Barnsley in the final after a 2-2 draw at the Millennium Stadium.
And then of course, last season, we beat them 3-2 on aggregate in the semi-finals. Andre Ayew gave the Swans a 1-0 lead in the first leg, in which Rico Henry was shown a red card which was later rescinded.
In the final first-team game at Griffin Park, goals from Ollie Watkins, Emiliano Marcondes and Bryan Mbeumo put us in charge, with Rhian Brewster’s reply nothing more than a late consolation.
The other times they missed out were in the 1993 Second Division (now League One), where they lost 3-2 to West Brom in the semi-finals, in the Third Division (now League Two) in 1997, where Northampton beat them 1-0 in the final at Wembley, after the Swans had overcome Chester 3-0 in the semis, and in the same division two years later, where Scunthorpe beat them 3-2 after extra-time – again at the semi-final stage.
THIS SEASON’S MEETINGS
Both this season’s matches ended 1-1.
The first game, at the Brentford Community Stadium at the start of November, saw the Bees, wearing our new third strip, take the lead through Ivan Toney’s 10th goal of the season in the 36th minute, but Andre Ayew equalised in the 77th minute to earn the Swans a point.
We also took the lead in the away game in January, through Tariqe Fosu in the 74th minute, five minutes after Kyle Naughton had been sent off. But Conor Hourihane equalised direct from a free-kick, and once again the points were shared.
Q – How would you assess Swansea’s season?
A – I think whatever happens at Wembley on Saturday, this has to go down as an excellent season for Swansea City.
Although they reached the play-off semi-finals in 2020, they did it with an unforgettable late surge.
Not sure too many Swans fans started this season believing they would be in the shake-up again, and their confidence would have been further sapped by the loss of Wales defender Joe Rodon to Tottenham Hotspur at the end of the summer transfer window.
What is more, in the January window, head coach Steve Cooper was unable to bring in the central striker he craved.
But the Swans have been among the pacemakers all season, and at one stage harboured hopes of making the top two before having to settle for a play-off place.
They finished with 80 points – equalling the total they had in 2011 when Brendan Rodgers steered the club to the Premier League with a Wembley win over Reading.
They were favourites against Barnsley in the play-offs and had to show huge defensive resolve. But they provided more quality in front of goal at vital times and no-one could argue their Wembley place is merited.
Having said all that – the ultimate judgement on the season will be dictated by the result at Wembley on Saturday.
Q – Given the chance that they, and Brentford, had at one point of finishing in the top two, how much disappointment is there in ending up in the play-offs instead?
A – As I said, there was some optimism a few weeks ago when they had the top two in their sights.
But at the same time Swansea had something of a wobble in March, Watford were putting together a dynamic winning run to power to second place.
Swansea did beat Norwich at the Liberty Stadium in February to suggest they were capable of making the automatic positions.
Yet Norwich were clearly the best side in the league throughout the campaign ,and Watford just had that irresistible look about them when they hit form.
Whatever disappointment there might have been about not reaching the top two has been dissipated by the two semi-finals being attended by supporters, after nearly a season behind closed doors, and reaching Wembley.
Q – How important is it for Swansea to go up this season, given that their parachute payments are about to come to an end?
A – I suppose that remains to be seen.
The Swans have not been one of the big spenders in the Championship, anyway. They have relied heavily on the shrewd business and the contacts of head coach Steve Cooper, particularly in the loan market.
The recruitment for a second consecutive season of defender Marc Guehi on loan from Chelsea has been pivotal in their success. He has been outstanding.
Obviously the loss of the parachute payments is a blow to any club and there will then be more onus on the American owners to make resources available.
But having been so frugal since relegation, there is unlikely to be severe consequences.
The other difficulty surrounds Andre Ayew, who is the biggest earner and loves the club, but is clearly a cut above the Championship. The outlay on his wages is heavy for the Swans, but he has more than justified it.
Could they afford to keep him in the Championship? And, despite his place in Swansea hearts and the content around his stay in the area, would he want to move higher where his talents would have a more appropriate stage?
Q – Swansea seem to have come through the semi-final against Barnsley fairly comfortably – how were the two games?
A – They were games which showed the ingredients which have been key to Swansea’s success this season.
There was defensive solidity as, in both legs, Barnsley launched a ferocious, direct assault on them, but they held firm. Guehi and Wales defender Ben Cabango were immense in both ties, the solid base from which the more adventurous players could prosper.
But Swansea also showed key moments of the utmost quality in both games to see their way through.
Andre Ayew’s goal in the immensely important first leg win at Oakwell, was pure class as he cut in and curled home a left-foot shot. Defenders often know what he is going to do but it is so difficult to stop him.
In the second leg, captain Matt Grimes – so important to the Swans if they are to control games – scored a peach. Again a touch of class amid football at a frenzied place.
Though Cauley Woodrow’s fine strike to get Barnsley back into the tie late in the second leg ensured a nail-biting finish, Swansea had the organisation and game management to see themselves through.
Swansea have not always played the attractive football for which the club has become famous this season, but they have showed a capacity to find a way through difficult situations, scoring at vital moments.
Nothing illustrated these qualities more than the victory in the semi-finals.
Q – How key is Andre Ayew to the Swans’ performances?
A – The stats speak clearly but don’t tell the whole story.
Ayew is the top scorer with 17 goals. He has often struck at critical moments. His goal tally is impressive enough.
But he is worth much more than goals to Swansea City.
Ayew is not the captain, but is the leader on the pitch and a figure who has earned total respect around the club off it.
Steve Cooper has often sung his praises, not just for his work during the game but the way he supports and helps individuals in the dressing room and around the club.
The Ghana captain is a vastly experienced international player who has played in the Champions League.
He is a player who is happy to share his knowledge and wisdom. He is a huge asset to the club and has a great connection with the Jack Army. A talisman across both sides of the white line.
Q – Given the two draws between the Bees and Swansea this season, Saturday could be close again – how do you see the game going?
A – It’s a really tough one to call.
I hate sitting on the fence, but I really can’t pick this one.
Brentford clearly have an array of attacking talent, not least Ivan Toney – the leading goalscorer in the Championship this season.
But they also have an unenviable record of failing in play-offs.
Both regular league encounters have been draws this season, though Brentford had the edge over two games in nerve-wracking play-off semi-finals last season.
Swansea have not been prolific in front of goal. But as I said earlier, they have shown a capacity to find a way this term.
No-one will be too surprised if it goes to extra-time or penalties.
Q – Finally, can you give me a possible Swans line-up and formation please?
A – Woodman; Naughton, Cabango, Guehi, Bidwell; Fulton, Grimes; Hourihane; Lowe, Cullen, Ayew.
HOW TO FOLLOW THE GAME
Live audio commentary is also available on iFollow with Mark Burridge, Ben Burgess and Marcus Gayle with a match pass available to buy for £2.50, and there is also live commentary on BBC London, (not available online).