Swansea are the surprise final visitors to Griffin Park in our beloved ground’s last match after 116 years, after they snatched a play-off place on the last day of the season.
The Swans played their part in a six-goal turnaround by winning 4-1 at Reading as rivals Nottingham Forest lost 4-1 at home to Stoke, to move into the top six just when it mattered.
Swansea have been in and around the top part of the table for most of the season and were top at the end of August after winning five of their first six games.
However, they only won of their next seven – with the final match of that run being our 3-0 win at the Liberty. They beat Cardiff and Wigan, but then failed to win for another six matches.
Their form continued to be mixed for the rest of the season, but they won five and drew two of their post-lockdown games, and that was enough to set up their play-off semi-final with us.
Swansea have a far better away record than home record this season. They were the Championship’s fifth-best away team with eight wins and 11 draws from their 23 matches on the road – while at home they won 11 and drew five.
Swansea are in their second season back in the Championship.
They enjoyed seven seasons in the Premier League, with a best finish of eighth in 2014/15, although they only finished in the top half of the table in one of the other campaigns.
In 2013, they won the first major trophy in their history when they beat League Two Bradford City 5-0 in the Capital One League Cup final at Wembley.
That took them into the following season’s Europa League, where they negotiated two qualifying rounds to reach the group stages. They finished second to reach the knockout stages, where they lost 3-1 to Napoli after a goalless draw in the first leg.
WHO’S IN CHARGE
Steve Cooper was appointed to his first managerial job to succeed Graham Potter over the summer.
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.
SWANSEA’S PLAY-OFF RECORD
Swansea have been involved in the play-offs on six 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. They 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 in 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 four times – the time Bees fans will remember being in 2006, when 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.
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 PREVIOUS MEETINGS
Earlier this season, we ended a winless run of 10 league games, and 13 in all competitions, against Swansea with a 3-0 victory at the Liberty Stadium.
Said Benrahma hit the opener with a curling shot from the edge of the area, and an own goal from ex-Bee Jake Bidwell, under pressure from Bryan Mbeumo, doubled the lead before the break.
Mbeumo got on the scoresheet early in the second half with a fierce effort from 20 yards.
We completed our first double over the Swans since the 1974/75 season with a 3-1 win at Griffin Park on Boxing Day.
Bryan Mbeumo scored at Griffin Park for the fourth game in a row to give us a 20th minute lead and Ollie Watkins doubled the advantage five minutes later.
Andre Ayew pulled one back midway through the second half, but Watkins sealed our fifth successive home win in the 88th minute to take us up to third in the table, and drop Swansea down to eighth.
BBC Wales Football Correspondent Rob Phillips reviews Swansea’s season, explains why the January transfer window has been so crucial to them, tells us how Jake Bidwell has done this campaign, and pays his own fond farewell to Griffin Park.
Q – In December, you told me you thought Swansea’s pre-season expectations would have been mid-table. What do you make of them earning a spot in the play-offs?
A – My words have come back to haunt me – but in a nice way!! I did indeed predict a mid-table finish for Swansea City. And I am certain the majority of Swans fans would not have argued, even with their brilliant start to the campaign.
My logic was they had a head coach new to the Championship, indeed club football; the Swans had lost two huge players in Oliver McBurnie (to Sheffield United) and Daniel James (to Manchester United); I did not believe they had the squad depth or maybe the amount of experience required to be capable of sustaining a promotion play-off charge.
But Steve Cooper has proved so many people wrong. He was especially adept in January using his experience of dealing with young players – as the Welshman who masterminded England under-17s’ World Cup win – to plunder the loan market superbly.
Liverpool striker Rhian Brewster and Chelsea pair Marc Guehi and Connor Gallagher, who had started the season on loan at Charlton, have been especially effective, particularly since the restart of football after the lockdown.
A few weeks ago, Swansea lost at home to Luton Town. But they did not let that derail them and, of course, they clinched a play-off spot on that extraordinary night last Wednesday as they helped engineer a five goal swing in goal difference by remarkably winning 4-1 at Reading – while apparent play-off certainties Nottingham Forest imploded astonishingly by the same score at home to Stoke City.
As Brentford fans well know, Stoke broke a few hearts in the few days leading up to the almost unbelievable finale to the Championship campaign.
You think you have seen everything in football – then a night like that unfolds before your very eyes at the Madejski in tandem with events at the City Ground. Certainly an “I was there . . “ occasion in my career.
So to sum up – pleasantly surprised the Swans made the play-offs, not least in those circumstances.
Q – The Swans have the joint second highest number of draws in the Championship – 16 with Cardiff. What do you put this down to?
A – Well, after a breathtaking start – winning five of the first six League games – they had a couple of sticky spells, with dropped points often characterised by conceding late goals. They are not defensive in any way, so that does not explain the proliferation of draws. I would say it’s just circumstance, though some draws are better than others.
Since lockdown the Swans have only drawn two games – both on the road, at Millwall and Nottingham Forest.
No doubt the scoring form of Rhian Brewster has lately turned what might have been draws into wins.
Going to three at the back has also helped solidify the Swansea defence.
Q – How much of a difference have the January loan signings of Rhian Brewster, Conor Gallagher and Marc Guehi made to the side?
A – They have played a massive part in Swansea’s late burst to the play-offs. Brewster’s 10 goals since signing speaks for itself. He is not the biggest, but he is strong, robust and – most importantly – is a clinical, instinctive finisher. His partnership with the talismanic Andre Ayew has been pivotal in the Swans’ progress after lockdown.
Gallagher is the link man between the midfield and attack. He plays as a number 10 and though he has yet to score, he has assisted in plenty of goals. And his workrate in getting back to help out defensively has been superb.
Guehi had a difficult start and took time to fit in. But he has blossomed under pressure since the restart, stepping up when the club have most needed him.
As I said earlier, Steve Cooper’s knowledge of the young talent out there has been vital and whatever happens in Wednesday’s play-off return, Swansea fans will be confident he can again make good use of his knowledge of young players at bigger clubs.
Q – Ex-Brentford captain Jake Bidwell has been a regular for the Swans this season – how has he done?
A – I mentioned going to three at the back after lockdown. That change of system has definitely helped Jake Bidwell and Wales full back Connor Roberts on the opposite flank. Bidwell and Roberts both love bounding forward and have much more freedom to do that now the Swans go with three centre-halves.
Steve Cooper has been singing the praises of Bidwell, because the Swans so often rely on their wing-backs to get them up field. And they depend on good delivery when they get to the penalty area.
I suspect neither Bidwell nor Roberts have been in better form than they are now this season.
Q – What do you remember about this season’s two league matches between the sides?
A – When Swansea played Brentford at home in October, they were in one of their fallow periods and, though I was not there, I know the Bees were impressive.
As it turned out, Swansea recovered rapidly because the following game, they beat arch rivals Cardiff City at home in the derby – one of their signature wins of the season! I was, though, at the Boxing Day encounter at Griffin Park, believing it would probably be my last visit to the ground. Little did I know!
Two goals in quick time – from Bryan Mbuemo and Ollie Watkins – put the Bees in control of the first half. They were very slick.
And even Andre Ayew’s second half reply could not inspire a comeback, as Watkins had the last word to underscore a decent Brentford performance.
No doubt, Steve Cooper was by then already planning his January transfer raids into the loan market which have so helped improve his team.
Q – What has been your experience of working at matches in empty stadiums?
A – It’s very different but credit to the football authorities, I have found virtually every game I have been to has been well-organised and socially distancing – correctly so – has been a prime concern. In Wales, the safety measures have been lifted far more cautiously than in England.
My first trip to a football ground was to the Riverside in Middlesbrough – so it was quite novel to go on such a long journey, when I had barely left my house for three months or so.
I still feel very privileged to be able to go to games when thousands of fans are missing out. Football is not the same without fans for anyone – players, officials and even the media.
I long for the day when fans are allowed in – safely!!! The scenes at Reading last Wednesday would, I am sure, have been even more memorable had the Jack Army been in the away end at the Madejski Stadium.
But for now, we continue as we are, often being able to hear the shouts and instructions of managers and players. I much prefer that to those grounds where crowd noise has been piped in. Just do not get that.
Q – How do you feel about being present at the last-ever game at Griffin Park?
A – An absolute privilege! I have been some belting games at Griffin Park, which I have recounted here previously. I have driven past the new ground in the making a few times and that looks impressive, but there is always a tinge of sadness when a ground goes, especially for those for whom it has been a football home.
I have witnessed the final games at Somerton Park, Ninian Park and the Vetch Field.
I cannot think of a bigger occasion at which to sign off at a ground – the right to play at Wembley in the most lucrative one-off club game in world football.
And with all the issues surrounding Sunday’s first leg and with the game beautifully poised as the Swans hold a 1-0 lead, it should be a cracker.
Make no mistake, Steve Cooper and his team know they can take nothing for granted as they look to complete the job they started at the Liberty Stadium.
Brentford have to go for it. Swansea are capable of scoring away from home. And, though added spice was probably not needed, the controversy over Rico Henry’s red card, has thrown in another ingredient.
Sure it won’t be for the faint-hearted. But as finale to the old ground, it could hardly be better. Bring it on!!
Q – Finally, can you give me a likely Swansea line-up and formation please?
A – The Swans line-up may well be unchanged. But, they will have the added presence of experienced former Tottenham Hotspur player Kyle Naughton. He has sat out the last three games because of a red card sustained at Nottingham Forest. Steve Cooper will appreciate his availability, particularly if they are under the cosh, clinging to a precious lead.
It remains to be seen whether Wayne Routledge, hero of the “Madejski Miracle” will be fit for the second leg, having missed the first with a hip injury.
So unless Steve Cooper surprises us, the Swans are likely to be unchanged with three centre-backs.
Cabango Van der Hoorn Guehi
HOW TO FOLLOW THE GAME
The match is being played behind closed doors, but is being shown live on Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Football – broadcast details here.