It’s an intriguing time at Brentford, where Reading travel to on Saturday after the conclusion of the international break. The Bees are again challenging for the top six after years of competing to get into it, but there’s a longer-term story in the background: a move away from Griffin Park at the end of the season.
How would you sum up Brentford’s season so far?
In a word, it’s been bonkers. I personally feel as though it has been a season of growing up for the Bees as we try to take the club forward and hang with the ‘big kids’ in the division. The transfer window was arguably the most memorable in our club history, as we broke our transfer record multiple times, as well as a rather “non-Brentford” acquisition in Pontus Jansson from Leeds, and sold our two key players from last year in 28-goal Neal Maupay and club captain and midfield maestro Romaine Sawyers. Many beers were drunk by fans in both celebration and commiseration, and expectations were high come mid-August.
Thomas Frank has had a turbulent time with integrating lots of new, relatively inexperienced signings into the team, and tinkering the formation from 3-4-3 to 4-3-3 amidst lots of colourful feedback from the terraces of Griffin Park. Our lack of results earlier on in the season caused many to question the viability of the formation, players, manager, owner, diet, kit and everything else you can imagine.
Thankfully, our underlying performance indicators and statistical analysis metrics have finally turned into good results with four wins from five games and some outstanding goals along the way. Our stats-based approach still divides fans; there are those who embrace the warm and cosy comfort of what the numbers say, and those and see the scoreline after the full-time whistle as gospel. Both sides of the xG coin are important, and it’s led to yet another interesting season.
With our attacking players finally starting to click and our re-jigged and bulkier defence looking watertight, there is currently a breezy optimism flowing through the club, despite injuries to fan favourite Sergi Canos (who scored THAT goal at the Madejski Stadium in recent years) and striker Nikos Karelis. The season is far from over, and we have hopefully got our traditional ‘bad run’ out of the way early.
How do you feel about leaving Griffin Park at the end of the season? Is it what’s needed to take the club to the next level?
I use the analogy of leaving the family home. It’s a place you’ve known all your life and despite the flaws, you love it and it’s been a part of your upbringing and holds so many memories. However, it is absolutely necessary that we move.
Griffin Park barely functions as a Championship football ground. That’s the simple truth. We consistently get near 11,000 coming through the door each game and that number keeps growing as the club becomes more popular. The food and drink kiosks, toilets and corridors simply cannot accommodate for that rate of change, nor can it keep up with the additional requirements modern stadiums need to facilitate a proper match day experience for fans.
It’s what makes the difference between a ‘ground’ and a ‘stadium’, and the new stadium will help us provide that. The new stadium has not been without debate, with the names of stands and hospitality rooms coming under much scrutiny and rightly so. The big talking point about the new stadium is the multi-coloured seats, which were put in place to give the feeling of the stadium being more full up. Needless to say, this has sparked a lot of controversy.
But back to Griffin Park, the hallowed turf taking its final bow as a football stadium. It will be an emotional ending and has seen decades of incredible moments that will stick with Bees fans for eternity. The pub on each corner aspect has been the drawing factor for many fans around the UK, even if the football has been mediocre at times, and there is no more awkward ground for away teams than Griffin Park on an evening kick-off, with the fans being so close to the pitch.
The club’s Fan Engagement Manager, Ryan Murrant, talked a lot about creating new habits to continue the traditions from the old stadium - an ethos I completely agree with. It will be a sad day when we say goodbye, but we know it’s for the best.
What are your standout memories of games against Reading at Griffin Park, for good or bad reasons?
Unfortunately, the main memory of the Bees vs the Royals at Griffin Park goes back to 2002, on the last game of the season. With Brentford leading 1-0 and heading for automatic promotion, that little sod Jamie Cureton nipped in behind our defence and lobbed a helpless Paul Smith in goal to send Reading up and resign us to yet another play-off campaign (not winning the playoffs is a Brentford tradition).
It was a hell of an atmosphere, and our manager at the time, Steve Coppell, went on to successfully manage our conquerors that day, who also saw players such as Stephen Hunt, Ivar Ingimarsson and Ibrahima Sonko move over from West London in future years.
Other than that, I can recall some good victories in recent years. A 4-1 thrashing springs to mind from a couple of seasons ago, including an outstanding team goal finished off by Josh Clarke. The games between Reading and Brentford rarely end 0-0, but the past two years have yielded scoring draws.
2016’s win aside, these games are usually tight and decided by a moment of madness or genius, which means we’ll either see an abysmal refereeing decision that leads to a missed penalty in the last minute to the team with two players sent off, or a 35-yard backheel volley screamer from a centre-back with his weaker foot.
What are the main strengths of this Brentford team?
Our defence, which is something that still feels like speaking another language given recent history. Brentford teams in recent years have traditionally been an expansive attacking side playing beautiful football and attempting to outscore the opposition to claim the three points. This year, we’ve kept the attractive football, but tightened up at the back.
Towards the end of last season, we were operating with three centre-backs and two wing backs, consisting of Ezri Konsa (sold to Villa for £12m in the summer), Yoann Barbet (left on a free to bitter rivals QPR in one of the most perplexing transfers in the history of everything ever) and Julian Jeanvier, who remains a tough-tackling unit in our defence this season.
Following the sale of the two ‘ball-playing’ centre backs this summer, we brought in Ethan Pinnock from Barnsley, who comes highly regarded following an unorthodox route into Championship football, and Pontus Jansson from Leeds in a move that bottled up a mixture of confusion, excitement and downright audacity, and sent that cocktail across the entire Brentford supporters base.
It was a real statement, and has led to us conceding very few clear chances against teams that would’ve taken three points off us with ease last season. Our defence is near airtight at times, and with fullbacks Henrik Dalsgaard (recently becoming our most-capped international player with Denmark) and Rico Henry in good form too, all backed up with David Raya in goal. We are now a formidable defensive unit. Not impenetrable, but formidable.
In all honesty, there is not really a clear weakness in our side. But as a team, we really struggle to breakdown park-the-bus teams. It’s been the same for Brentford for years. We play such good-looking football, all on the ground and shifting across between the midfield and defence with the occasional cross-field diagonal to Dalsgaard. But when teams stick 11 players, a bus and the kitchen sink in their own half we can struggle to find a way through.
We don’t really have an alternative to the way we create chances, other than to do Plan A better. We are not inclined to stick our big centre back up top for the last five minutes when losing to lob balls into the box, and the model we use for identifying performance dictates that continuing to keep the ball on the deck will pay dividends.
However, we have dropped plenty of points that should have been ours simply because we couldn’t get through an 11-player blockade. On our opening day, we played Birmingham City at Griffin Park in a result that can’t really be described. We had 25 shots to their one - guess who won the game 1-0. I was tempted to phone a lawyer.
Similar ‘bad results vs good performances’ have followed against the likes of Charlton Athletic and Stoke City, but we managed to snatch three points from being 2-0 down at home to Millwall, the catalyst for our recent good form. We tend to do better against more open teams, and struggle against the defensive powerhouses.
How do you see the game going, and what will the score be?
As I said earlier on, it will be a close game. Both teams are in decent form - Reading currently diagnosed with NewManagerInjectionitis and coming off the back of two victories, and the Bees enjoying 12 points from a possible 15. Puscas has proved he can get goals in the Championship and should cause a threat, and we are arguably better away from home this season than at Griffin Park. Throw in the international break and the fact that Julian Jeanvier, as well as our ever-improving defensive midfielder Christian Norgaard, are suspended, and it makes the game tough to predict.
Ethan Pinnock is a cracking option to have in place of Jeanvier at centre half, so our defence should hold. I think it will be a tight first half with no goals, build to a crescendo and lead to a frantic last 20 minutes where everything happens. My prediction is an optimistic 2-1 victory, with Watkins and Mbuemo adding to their tallies for the season following Reading taking the lead.
As always, we look forward to hosting away fans at Griffin Park. Enjoy the pubs, the beers and the chat. You will see a comprehensive pub guide in the match preview on Beesotted on Friday and best of luck for the season!