Brentford’s comeback sets up Wembley decider
Brentford are one match away from competing in English football’s top tier for the first time since 1947 after staging a comeback against Swansea in the second leg of their Championship play-off semi-final. The London club cancelled out a 1-0 first-leg deficit with a 3-1 win to put them into the Wembley final against Fulham or Cardiff City.
From Griffin Park to Wembley and from Wembley, perhaps, to life as a Premier League team. The ultimate dream is only 90 minutes away from becoming a reality for Brentford, who signed off from their home of 116 years with a stirring victory over Swansea City on a night heaving with emotion in west London.
The last match at Griffin Park, this most old-school of English grounds, always had the feel of a momentous occasion for the club.
Brentford had blown the chance of automatic promotion last week, but here, with no choice but to attack, they savaged Swansea as their floodlights shone for one last time.
Denied the chance to say a proper goodbye to their footballing home, the Brentford fans emerged on to the streets at the final whistle, singing of Wembley and the Premier League and the attacking prowess of top scorer Ollie Watkins. There were chants from inside the old ground, too, with owner Matthew Benham joining his directors in having a beer, and then going for a kickabout on the Griffin Park pitch.
To see Benham savouring the moment was a reminder of how remarkable it is that Brentford are here at all, given the size of the club and their meagre resources. They have been meticulous in their approach, punching well above their weight on the pitch and off it.
Their “BMW” front line, consisting of Said Benrahma, Bryan Mbeumo and Watkins, has been one of the most thrilling sights in English football this season. In their biggest match of the campaign so far, all three of them underlined their worth to Thomas Frank’s side ahead of a meeting with either Fulham or Cardiff City.
“We were very irritated after the first leg,” Frank said. “My adrenalin never dropped since that game.”
With a one-goal lead from the first meeting, Steve Cooper’s Swansea opted against a defensive approach. They were exposed as a result, with Watkins, Mbeumo and Emiliano Marcondes all hitting the net before 47 minutes had passed.
“We gave ourselves too much to do,” Cooper said. “To fall short at this critical stage is disappointing. It is painful at the moment.”
It took until deep in the second half for Swansea to truly threaten, with Rhian Brewster pulling them back into the match and setting up an agonisingly tense finale for the home side.
Amid all the nerves in those final few minutes, Frank was booked for physically blocking a Swansea throw-in. It was a night that called for bodies on the line, and not just for the players. Tongue firmly in cheek, he claimed he had accidentally dropped the ball behind his back, then simply stood in place.
Frank is a wonderfully engaging speaker and before the game he made no attempt to play down the significance of the occasion. He described this as a “defining moment” for Brentford as they prepare to move to their new home next season, and promised that his team would “come out flying”.
His players certainly took the message on board, starting with a ferocity and intensity that was simply too much for Swansea to cope with in the opening exchanges.
In 116 years of football at Griffin Park there cannot have been too many passes as incisive as the through ball delivered by Mathias Jensen to Watkins for Brentford’s opening goal. The pass skimmed through the retreating Swansea defence, fading into the striker’s path as he charged through at speed.
Four minutes later it was two, the tie turned on its head already. Benrahma lived up to his billing as Brentford’s primary creative force, curling in a cross from the left which Marcondes diverted into the corner. Shortly afterwards, a rapid counter-attack ended with Benrahma striking the foot of a post.
“The message was that we needed to start faster than we have ever started before,” Frank said. “We did that.
“I will celebrate with a glass of red, but we know we want to achieve something big. The final speech in the dressing room was: let’s go out there and make it one final magical moment at Griffin Park.”
Mbeumo made it three in the first minute of the second half, converting Rico Henry’s swerving cross. Brentford appeared comfortable, but there was nervousness to come. Pontus Jansson soon failed to clear the ball, allowing Brewster to lob a fine finish over David Raya. Despite the pressure, Brentford’s defence held firm for a victory that may prove to be one of the most significant in the history of their cherished old home.
Flying start: Ollie Watkins leaves Swansea City’s Matt Grimes trailing to score Brentford’s opening goal in their Championship play-off victory, the club’s final match at Griffin Park