Fulham challenge is to overcome potency and belief of Brentford's 'History Boys'
Body language. Maybe it reveals less than you think. But sometimes, the inescapable feeling is that it tells you everything.
The contrast between Brentford and Fulham players at the end of their respective play-off semi-finals last week was stark.
Maybe the Bees’ altogether more extravagant demonstration of delight was merely down to them having completed a great comeback. Perhaps the Whites’ far more subdued reaction at full-time was simply down to exhausted relief that they had held onto a lead established much earlier in their tie.
Perhaps. Perhaps it was something else though. The inescapable feeling is that the Bees were so excited because they had rediscovered the momentum that had gone missing in a run of three unexpected defeats as the season reached its climax. They looked like they felt there was no stopping them now.
Was theirs the response of men who felt a sense of destiny? Everything points to a huge wind of change at the club now. Griffin Park is being abandoned after 116 years. A shiny new stadium down the road at Lionel Road awaits expectantly.
This season has felt like the culmination of the great Moneyball project that owner Matthew Benham instigated. This is the year of vindication when that statistical business model reaches the moment of perfect pay-off.
The top flight for the first time in 73 years would be some prize for a club with a 12,000 capacity that in recent decades has often looked above its station in the second tier – or even cast envious looks at that second tier from the third tier as if it were Everest.
The buy ‘em cheap sell ‘em high structure has kept delivering. The recruitment has been second to none, with each developed and sold-on player’s profit going on a replacement who has seemingly been even better. Tell us your secret Brentford.
Somehow, Fulham have to stop this seemingly inexorable tide. They should have the means. They have had the parachute payments to invest heavily in new signings and in retaining their main striker.
The season began with a striking triumvirate expected to sweep all before it in Knockaert, Mitrovic and Cavaleiro. As it turns out KMC is not as catchy as BMW – nor as prolific. For while Aleksandar Mitrovic has become the Championship’s golden boot winner with 26 goals, the Fulham trio’s 36 goals between them is dwarfed by the 59 banged in by Benrahma, Mbeumo and Watkins.
In fact, Fulham’s three have not always started together, such has been the disappointing form at times of Ivan Cavaleiro. Anthony Knockaert’s boundless energy makes him look irresistible, but he has more bookings than goals this season and four is a low return for the number of shots at goal he has had.
There is also the matter of this season’s double. Emiliano Marcondes has not been shy in coming forward to embrace the mantle of bookies’ favourites by saying he sees no reason why the Bees will not be repeating their two previous wins against Fulham this season – when the Whites also failed to score.
Just before Christmas, Fulham were a major disappointment and lucky to only lose 1-0 at Griffin Park. The return match – the first one after the restart – was much closer and looked to be heading for a draw until two late goals won it for Thomas Frank’s side. But they would not have complained had it ended in a draw.
So can the managers make a difference in tomorrow’s showpiece? The charismatic and emotional Frank against the more sanguine Scott Parker, who, lest we forget, is still only in his first full season as a manager.
Parker has had to cope with a weight of expectation where anything less than the play-offs would have been deemed a failure. That is a tough ask when you are new to the job. If he is less demonstrative than his Danish counterpart, his players clearly respond to him, though, and he kept them in the hunt for automatic promotion until the very end.
What Frank has done this year, however, is show a capacity to think on his feet and make changes when things are not quite right. He reacts quickly – as do his players. He also infuses his players with an infectious passion that maybe most managers would struggle to match. At times, he has seemed like the Championship’s answer to Jurgen Klopp, such is the bond he has forged with his squad.
The ingredients are all there for something memorable at a Wembley Stadium that would have been filled to the roof. The fans would have made it a west London carnival and it will always be a great shame that it cannot happen, for reasons we all know too well.
But we are still in for a treat. The brilliant calm geometry of Fulham’s fluid passing – led by the magic wand of Tom Cairney – against the high-tempo pressing and jugular-searching thrusts of an-ultra potent Brentford attack. It will be down to who shines and who freezes on the day – as finals always are.
Fulham may believe their experience of playing in the Championship final two seasons ago will work in their favour, but the current crop of Bees players will be unencumbered by history. The neutral might say the very idea of Brentford being in the Premier League is too fanciful. But Bournemouth managed it. And Harrogate overcame the oldest name in English football to reach the Football League.
Brentford will feel the hitherto impossible can become reality. They will feel their moment has come. It is up to Fulham to prove they have the pedigree to maintain the natural order of things.