Saturday’s fixture at Turf Moor will be the first time Brentford have come up against James Tarkowski since the former Bees defender refused to play against Burnley in January 2016, as he looked to secue a move to the promotion-chasing Clarets. Beesotted’s Tim Street looks ahead to the weekend’s clash in East Lancashire.
The 2016 January transfer window was already midway through when Shaun Dyche brought his Burnley side to Griffin Park for a Friday night fixture. The Clarets had already had a bid for Tarkowski turned down earlier in the window, and the defender had made clear his desire to leave ASAP and return to his native north-west.
Nothing had seemed out of place until very late on that cold January day. I don’t even recall any rumours doing the rounds as I set off for Brentford late in the afternoon, but by the time I arrived in the pub early evening, all the talk was of Tarkowksi making himself unavailable to play that night.
A club statement read: “James Tarkowski will be the subject of internal disciplinary action after telling head coach Dean Smith that he did not wish to play against Burnley in tonight’s Sky Bet Championship match.
“Following discussions with Smith, Tarkowski declared himself unavailable for the fixture despite being selected in the starting line-up. As a result of these actions, he will be disciplined by the club. Any resulting sanction will remain confidential and the club will make no further comment on potential punishment.
“Tarkowski has been the subject of transfer bids during the current January Transfer Window but none have matched the club’s valuation of the player. In fact, all recent bids have been substantially lower than one that was rejected last year.”
It was the last thing Smith needed. Having only landed in the Brentford hot seat a month-and-a-half earlier, an initial run of three wins and only one defeat in his first six games had quickly gone south. The Bees were 3-0 down to Premier League-bound Burnley by half time and went on to lose 3-1, a fourth defeat in a row and one of 11 from 14 games.
In for that game came Jack O’Connell, scorer of a heroic equaliser at Fulham a month previously, but who was destined to never fulfil his potential with the Bees. Yoann Barbet instead established himself as Harlee Dean’s centre-back partner, although O’Connell enjoyed a brief run in the side after Barbet was sent off at Sheffield Wednesday.
O’Connell, like Tarkowski, was scouted from the north-west as a youngster with huge potential for development. But while former Blackburn man O’Connell eventually realised his potential elsewhere, ex-Oldham defender Tarkowski quickly became a Brentford hero for his unflappable ability to bring the ball out of defence with a mazy run or start an attack with a well-placed pass.
For Brentford fans bought up on a diet of centre-backs playing it long, safe or into Row Z if necessary, a ball-playing defender seemed a novelty. Who can forget the gasps when Herman Hrediarsson – who the previous year had been a Premier League player – regularly picking the ball up at the back and slaloming through Division Three defences, at a time when Ron Noades was throwing money around (not his) like there was no tomorrow?
Tarkowksi would sometimes make mistakes – I can remember more than once him being caught in possession in a position which would give some defenders nosebleeds. But more often than not his advances up the pitch would delight, as Brentford’s footballing culture started to shift to a new paradigm. He wasn’t a bad defender either!
Following the game, Bees boss Smith told the gathered press that he had told Tarkowski he was “making a mistake” and had been “misguided”, adding that “we all make decisions we sometimes regret, and he’ll regret it”. Smith went on to say the decision had surprised him as Tarkowski was “a really good kid” but said whether or not other parties were involved was a question for the defender.
It took more than a week for Tarkowski to apologise, via the club’s website, and explain that he had been distracted by his mother’s serious illness, and had been working with the club on a solution to get him closer to home. He went on to say he had been “completely frazzled and unable to concentrate properly” in the run up to the Burnley match and feared his distraction could result in an error on the pitch if he played in such a state of mind.
While there was every sympathy for Tarkowski’s family situation, there was still a strange feeling left lingering over the whole affair. Having sat in on the post-match press conference following the Burnley game, the impression given out by Smith was of someone who felt completely let down by the player. Why not say at the time, without going into too much detail, that Tarkowski was dealing with personal issues if that was the main cause of his absence? And if it had been a situation ongoing for months, why just that match he felt unable to play in?
Tarkowski, in the end, moved to Burnley on the final day of the transfer window. He has since gone on to make almost 200 appearances for the Clarets, make his England debut and be touted as the first big-money signing for Newcastle’s new owners in January. Clearly it was the right career move, but not done in the right way. Who honestly, as a Bees fan, felt the same pride seeing Tarkowski pull on an England shirt as they did seeing Ollie Watkins do the same a few years later?
Talksport’s Adrian Durham had his say during the saga, calling it “bizarre” for Brentford to expect Tarkowski to help them take points off a side he was hoping to win promotion with that same season. Really? Should every player down tools the moment they’re linked with a club their current one could conceivably come up against? If so, there’d be a lot of players going on strike.
By chance, Andre Gray had also made the move from Brentford to Burnley earlier that same season, following speculation that Bristol City were in for him as well as the Clarets. Gray didn’t play for either side when Brentford travelled to Turf Moor at the end of August, having signed for Burnley the previous day.
A few weeks before, he had declared himself not in the right frame of mind to start against Ipswich on the opening day of the season as speculation over his future mounted. He did come on as a sub, however, and scored to inspire a late Bees comeback (Tarkowski, of all people, scoring a last-gasp equaliser!) He also played, and scored, against Bristol City a week later, despite the Robins being one of the teams chasing his signature.
Gray later explained his opening day decision, saying: “I just didn’t feel I was right in my mind. I was honest with the manager and the players and made it clear I didn’t want it to affect the club. They would have been playing with ten men, and thought it wasn’t fair on them. But when I came on, I forgot about everything and gave my all, I thought I can’t let the boys down.”
I can’t help thinking if Tarkowski had at least sat on the bench that January night, he would be more fondly remembered by Bees fans. If he had come on and played well, would Burnley fans really have held it against him when he signed for them a few weeks later? If he’d had a decent game, would it have affected Burnley’s promotion bid that much? Would it have affected the transfer if Burnley were that keen to sign him? In reality, the transfer would have gone ahead regardless, Burnley would have gone up regardless – and if I was a Clarets fans, I’d have far more respect for a new signing who’d fronted up to my team rather than crying off. But that’s just me.