Tenth’s time’s a charm. Finally, after a run of nine unsuccessful play-off campaigns, and four final heartbreaks, Brentford have one to cherish now and for the foreseeable future. Arguably the most important one of their 132-year history.
Especially so after the heartbreak of last season. Defeat to Fulham played out at in a cavernous Wembley Stadium felt like a perpetuation of Brentford’s lot as play-off choke artists. But here, in front of 10,000 fans, around 4,000 of their own, they shed that tag in composed fashion with a measured 2-0 win over Swansea City. The Premier League has its 50th team – and their name is Brentford Football Club.
Ivan Toney’s 10th-minute penalty and Emiliano Marcondes’ controlled half-volley at the end of a stunning counter-attack settled the tie. The early boost of a two-goal cushion carried Brentford and crushed Swansea spirits, as clear as night and day in the stands. Swansea were winning the decibel battle right up to the 3pm kick-off. There was only one winner when the final whistle went at 4:55pm.
The numbers tell of the significance of this victory. The estimated £160 million that promotion to the Premier League brings. The return to the top flight of English football after 74 years. That it has come about through crafty use of statistics adds a neat bow on this package. Through the holistic approach of owner Matthew Benham and the engaging methods of Thomas Frank, Brentford have made the numbers work for them.
Fittingly, it was the most successful of those gambles that got things going. Few doubted Ivan Toney’s worth at a higher level when he was going about his business for Peterborough United in League One. But Brentford took the £5 million plunge to win his signature last August and following 31 goals in the regular season – a Championship record – and an equaliser in the 3-1 second-leg win over Bournemouth that took them to Wembley, he added the final flourish.
The conversion from the spot was his 33rd goal in league matters this season, getting them up and running and quelling what anxiety there might have been for their supporters. Moments after the west London side went 2-0 up, Toney almost bagged a spectacular third, when a ball sat nicely for a volley from 25 yards that thundered off the underside of the bar and out.
The flowers, though, belong to his strike partner, Bryan Mbeumo, whose prints were all over both goals. He was not the intended recipient of Sergi Canos’ through pass, but reacted quickest to dart into space and get to the ball ahead of Freddie Woodman. The goalkeeper’s contact sent the forward down for a spot-kick.
The second was also the product of the Frenchman’s turn of speed and smarts. With Swansea committed in the Brentford third, a tackle and quick clearance found Mbeumo free on the left wing with room, Toney and two opposition defenders ahead of him. A cut inside allowed an overlap for Mads Roerslev who readied himself upon receiving the ball in the box, then set a perfect ball for Emiliano to strike in his stride as he bounded into the box.
As ever with English football’s most winner-takes-all encounter, the bitterness is exacerbated for the losers. After Swansea fell at the semi-finals of this bunfight last year, the pain of being vanquished by the same side one stage up carries a twisted irony.
They were a Premier League side as recently as 2018, and as such, boasted greater on-field top-tier experience than their opponents. But that counted for little when the division’s third meanest defence shipped two so softly and so soon. Perhaps, though, the worst takeaway for Steve Cooper is that his side did not give an accurate reflection of themselves. Andre Ayew was left isolated, Jamal Lowe kept quiet. The on-field struggle for meaningful play will spill into the off-season for all of those in light blue.
It’s understandable, of course. The high stakes on offer have often given way for low excitement, in part due to the unconscionable tension. Of the last 14 play-off finals, 12 have either been decided by a single goal or shootout.
Yet you felt this was going to be different when a shot of adrenaline came with the national anthems. Swansea fans booed God Save The Queen, before belting out the Welsh national anthem that drowned out any reciprocated protestations at the other end. And, sure, we could lament a lack of respect. But even in the pettiness of both supporters, there was some comfort to be found that they were even there.
The Welsh were the most boisterous, but the effect on the field seemed counter-productive. Skipper Matt Grimes’s enthusiasm to chase an awry first touch saw him pick up a yellow card as early as the sixth minute when maybe another referee, in another, less pressurised situation, might have given him a red for going into Canos with both feet off the ground.
A far worse and more deserving red came in the second-half when defender Jay Fulton trod on the back of the ankle of Brentford defender Mathias Jensen. Contact in real-time drew an immediate red from Chris Kavanagh’s pocket with replays confirming it was clumsy and dangerous, but far less malicious than on first viewing.
There ended Swansea’s fight. Their 10 men could only dig so deep, as Brentford, now comfortable and that little bit closer to the promised land flexed their muscles.
A third remained elusive. Ethan Pinnock’s strike from six yards was blocked by teammate Jansson in front of the opposition goal. Toney had a team effort blocked at the back post as Swansea ragged-dolled with every counter-attack.
The cherry on top of this all for Brentford is that neither were they at their very best. Full-back Rico Henry and midfielder Josh DaSilva, both coveted by Premier League clubs, were on the sidelines. And the fear was a repeat of last year’s failure would lead to a repeat of last year’s fallout.
Failure to make the grade in 2019/20 led to the stripping of standout assets: Ollie Watkins went to Aston Villa, Said Benrahma to West Ham. As grateful as the club were for the extra £50m in their bank balance, it meant starting again.
Well, they did and now, the job has finished. Of course, not totally, because this is football and no one is ever truly allowed to be satisfied. Survival in the Premier League is now the new, improbable challenge. By virtue of being the last ones to make it up, they will be the first favourites for the drop. But they will attempt to bust those odds with the stars that got them there. There will be no need to sell unless, funnily enough, they like the numbers in front of them. The smart recruiting can continue, this time at a higher grade.
Next season’s job, though, is next season’s problem. Even for a club that plan as meticulously as Brentford, the most important thing right now is the fact that they are there. They are, finally, there.
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