Let’s talk about the Championship!
If you’re not familiar with the Championship, it’s the second tier of professional football in England, and each season the top two teams are automatically promoted to the Premier League, the next four go into a playoff for a promotion place, and the bottom three teams are relegated to League One. The Championship tends to have a vast range of quality in both teams and individual players, as well as a vast range in budgets for the teams competing. The money is nowhere near as good as the Premier League, so teams are often desperate for promotion for the giant windfall of TV money that the top flight brings.
Cue 2020, and the pandemic restart.
Brentford FC are the closest professional team to me, and the first team I saw in person after moving to England. The fact that they are named after me certainly endeared them to me, and I have followed them with interest for the last two years.
After a massive winning streak during the restart, Brentford had promotion in their hands coming into the final games. They’ve only been in the top flight for five seasons in their history, stretching back to 1889 and most recently in 1947. With two matches to play, West Brom had dropped points and Brentford needed a win to move into second place and the automatic promotion slot. Heavily favored against a Stoke side that was in the Premier League just a few years ago, Brentford managed to lose 0-1 away at Stoke. There’s an old joke in football about the prima donna continental teams: they might look good on Saturday afternoon, but can they win a match on a rainy Tuesday night in Stoke? Turns out, Brentford could not. Sigh.
Going into the final day, Brentford no longer had their own fate in their hands. They needed a win and for West Brom to drop points. West Brom had played well all season, but their form was patchy during the restart. All the matches on the final day of the season were played simultaneously, and West Brom struggled to a 2-2 draw against Brentford’s local rivals QPR, and Brentford were at 1-1 against Barnsley, who were fighting for survival. With only minutes remaining, it was less a football match and more a basketball game. The ball and the players were moving from end to end of the pitch as both clubs were desperate for another goal. Brentford, at the last, had a defensive breakdown and Barnsley scored at 90+1 minutes. The celebrations from the Barnsley players were rapturous and hard to begrudge. After spending most of the season in the relegation places, they survived on the final day.
Brentford’s season was not done, however. Enter the playoffs. Brentford, 3rd in the league, traveled to Wales to face Swansea, 6th in the league, who managed a small miracle to sneak into 6th place and the playoffs on the final day. The Swans were all over the Bees, continuing Brentford’s run of poor form. At halftime the match was goalless, but around 60 minutes the Brentford left back, Rico Henry, made a (stupid) lunging challenge on a Swansea winger. Henry got the ball, but he also clattered the player. It looked worse in real time given that he started his slide about two meters from the Swansea player. Henry was shown a straight red, and Swansea made good on their advantage to score a goal and take a narrow lead back to Brentford.
The second leg was last week in Brentford at the side’s historic home ground. Griffin Park is a proper, old stadium in the middle of a block of houses. It famously has a pub on each corner and includes the only standing terrace in the Championship. The standing area was a special dispensation from the Football League given Brentford’s recent promotion up from League One and their plans to move to a new stadium. Next season (mere weeks away at the time of writing), the Bees move to their shiny, new Brentford Community Stadium (17,250 all-seater) about a mile from Griffin Park.
Brentford’s attack this season has been a poor man’s Liverpool, powered by a front three of Ollie Watkins, Said Benrahma, and Brian Mbeumo, who scored 57 goals between them. Unlike Liverpool’s front three, Benrahma, Watkins, and Mbeumo have a snazzy nickname: BMW. Behind the BMW Brentford have a midfield core of Josh DaSilva, formerly of the Arsenal academy, who has been outstanding, as has Danish international midfielder (the poor man’s Cristian Eriksen) Mathias Jensen. 2019 signing Pontus Jansson from league-winning Leeds has been a rock in the defense, helping Brentford to the second best goals against record, behind only Leeds.
Fifteen minutes into the second leg Swansea had a corner. David Raya, the Brentford keeper, caught the ball cleanly, threw a laser beam pass to the right flank where Jensen waited. Jensen took three touches and played another laser beam 60 yards on the grass to a sprinting Ollie Watkins, who finished his 26th goal of the season coolly. Four minutes later, a lovely little chip from Benrahma found previously unmentioned Emiliano Marcondes wide open for a glancing header to make the match 2-0. Swansea picked up the pace and played well going into halftime, but were still down the two goals.
Prior to the match, Brentford appealed the Rico Henry red card. I was watching it in real-time, and when it happened, I turned to my wife and said, “That’s a yellow.” It was a bad tackle, but the ridiculous slide made it look worse than it was. The club were convinced it would be overturned, and with nothing to lose, lodged the appeal.
Seconds after the kickoff, Brentford worked an overlap down the left wing. Rico Henry, having successfully dodged a ban for his red card, ran onto a great pass and hit a great one time cross to the edge of the six yard box. Brian Mbeumo, a man with a damned good left foot and absolutely no right foot, connected with his left foot to a ball about waist high and put it in the net. Brentford 3 – 0 Swansea.
With promotion to the Premier League on the line, Swansea weren’t done. Chelsea loanee Rhian Brewster capitalized on a wretched mistake by Pontus Janssen and chipped the ball over David Raya to make it 3-1. At about this point I pulled out my phone to lookup the Championship Playoff rules in the event of a tie. It turns out, there’s no away goals rule. Any tie results in extra time being played, and if the match is still tied, it goes to penalties. (The away goals rule applies in European competition, and it means that in a two-legged tie the team with more goals scored at the opponent’s stadium wins a tie. If that number is equal, the match proceeds to extra time and penalties.)
Swansea pushed hard and had a couple of chances, but Brentford held strong to win 3-1 on the night and 3-2 aggregate. They now face local rivals Fulham.
The final is next Tuesday, August 4th at 19:45 local time, 2:45 PM EST. Brentford have beaten Fulham twice this season, and go into the match as favorites, but no Brentford supporter will forget the three match losing streak that nearly undid a season of superlative football.
If you can spare a couple hours of your afternoon next Tuesday, tune in!