Sunday, February 25, 2024

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Swansea Brentford Playoff Final Reaction (from the perspective of a realist first, Swansea fan second)

Brentford & Swansea Crests

Football fans are a romantic breed. We spot patterns where others might not. It’s the reason hunches and superstitions are treated as gospel, the reason commentators often say things like “well tonight this team became the first team to win at this ground by a margin of 3 goals when the wind was blowing in an easterly direction and the managers middle names both began with F,” or whatever. We can’t resist looking for the signs, the connections, and the psychological satisfaction of symmetry.



So, when Facebook gave me a notification last Sunday, informing me it was ten years ago to the day that I posted a video recorded from the upper stands at Wembley Stadium, as incredulous fans cheered their team’s promotion to the Premier League, I could have been forgiven for feeling melancholic that I was not celebrating the same thing again; that the pattern had not repeated itself. Swansea winning promotion back to the richest league in the world, via the richest route, almost exactly a perfect decade on from the last time they accomplished such a thing; it’s almost too perfect for any romantic, pattern-seeking football fan to deny.


However, this time, it wasn’t to be. Brentford, a team who have ended a nearly eighty-year wait, have returned to the topflight, and it’s nothing short of what they deserve. A cathartic 2-0 victory at Wembley yesterday has propelled them to the Premier League for the first time since May 1947.


They, unlike Swansea, look like a team ready for the elite level. Last year when they suffered the narrow defeat to Fulham, and then swiftly lost their most prolific striker Ollie Watkins to Aston Villa and main ideas man Saïd Benrahma to West Ham, it would have been easy for them to fall back down, slumped and defeated, to endure another long period of restoring and rebuilding before they could challenge again.


But the clubs who make it are those with the best recruitment, and in Ivan Toney they have found a replacement for both of those players in one. The striker finished the season with thirty-three goals and ten assists, one of the highest goal involvement returns from any striker in Europe, a record similar to someone like Robert Lewandowski (almost).


His deadliness was epitomised in two definitive moments at Wembley: first through the predatorily calm way he dispatched his penalty, and second by the twenty-five-yard volley which smashed against the crossbar seconds after his team had gone two-nil up. If that had gone in, it would have been one of the goals of the season, and, incidentally, Toney’s first from outside the box this season, lethal goalmouth player that he is.


Prior to the game, the key battle was expected to be between Toney and his opposite number, Swansea centre back Marc Guéhi. Both have reeled in the acclaim this season for their performances; indeed, it was Guéhi’s man of the match display at Barnsley, and general leadership throughout a season in which they were more robust than in previous years, that got Swansea to Wembley in the first place. When Joe Rodon left for Spurs last year it seemed their defence would struggle, but the twenty-year-old Guéhi has risen to Premier League levels, and has a bright future at his parent club Chelsea, where I can see him returning to in the future, or if not there, then to another Premier League club on loan. Maybe even Brentford.


However, their duel was rarely at the forefront of things, and in truth the game as a contest was almost over in the opening thirty minutes. As Brentford’s clarity of vision and calmness was personified first through Toney’s penalty and next through a counterattack equal in pace and measure, finished off by man-of-the-match Emiliano.


Swansea, in contrast, were rushed, frantic and lacking in any sort of attacking flow. Their captain Matt Grimes’ early booking for a needless foul was something of a foreshadower, as, in the second half, just as they were starting to improve and show intent through positive changes in Cullen and Dhanda, Jay Fulton was given a straight red card for a messy, pernicious tackle on Mathias Jensen. It was a lunge made more out of desperation than malice, but no one even tried to debate the decision, and as he trudged his way off the field, he carried with him even the most optimistic fan’s hopes of a miraculous comeback.


The romanticist in every Swansea fan there would have no doubt been recalling that day ten years ago when they beat Reading, perhaps nudging the person next to them and saying something like “Hey, we were 3-0 up in that game and Reading almost came back, it’s not over yet, it’s never over.”


Well, it’s over now, and, in the end, even as a Swansea fan, I can have no complaints about the result. Brentford are a team ready for the challenge of the Premier League, whereas Swansea, if they had been promoted, would likely have been made to endure a season similar to the one Sheffield United have just gone through, where games are essentially a formality, and the points are gone even before they step onto the grass.


Maybe in ten years from now, we’ll have another chance.

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