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  • Writer's pictureBy Kaz Mochlinski

Still no win, but Bees continue taking baby steps towards safety after Benham's 'Feud Derby' draw with Brighton

Brentford (0) 0

Brighton (0) 0

Brentford took another small step away from the Premier League relegation zone with a point from a goalless draw at home to Brighton & Hove Albion - but it was a result which did not satisfy either side in what has surprisingly become one of the bitterest current rivalries in English club football.

The Bees remain 15th in the table, just six points above the relegation places, but an additional disappointment for owner Matthew Benham was failing to beat his old boss Tony Bloom’s team, as their long-standing personal feud has inevitably extended to matches between their respective clubs.

It has become particularly visible now at Brighton’s annual game away to Brentford, with Bloom making a point of treating the encounter differently from any other, travelling up from the south coast on the team bus and then watching the match with the Albion fans in the away end.

According to a newly-published book by Alex Duff, ‘Smart Money: The Fall and Rise of Brentford FC’, Benham worked for Bloom’s sports gambling firm, Premier Bet, before being sacked in a dispute over the use of a betting model. That was 20 years ago, and the pair have not spoken again since then.

Benham went on to establish his own gambling company, Smartodds, but soon found that he had more than just this in common with Bloom. Their separate successes as professional gamblers enabled both of them to come to the rescue of the stricken soccer clubs which they supported.

From initially playing each other in the lower leagues, their differing uses of data analytics have been instrumental in raising first Brighton and then Brentford up into the Premier League. Along the way, both have also driven significant stadium moves, from the Goldstone Ground and Griffin Park to more modern homes.

However, this season their trajectories have diverged notably, with Brighton playing in Europe for the first time, and retaining a chance to qualify for one of the UEFA club competitions again for the 2024-25 campaign, while Brentford have battled to stay above the dreaded drop zone at the foot of the table.

Moreover, this week Albion announced a record profit of £122.8m for the last financial year - which does not even include the transfer fees from last summer’s sales to Chelsea of Moises Caicedo (for a potential British record £115m) and Robert Sanchez (for £25m).

In complete contrast, Bees fans are still processing last month’s news that Benham is looking for new investors in the club, and possibly an entire change of ownership. It will not help his mood or perspective that Brentford’s first 0-0 draw of the season happened to come when hosting Brighton.

Nevertheless, even without much memorable action to excite another capacity crowd at their compact ground, there were several unexpected aspects to the game this time of real rarity value, including a Brentford clean-sheet at home, and Brighton unusually not changing their goalkeeper.

Most notably, a referee refused to alter his on-field decision when prompted to do so by a VAR intervention. Andy Madley did not adjust his original impression on reviewing a possible foul by Yoane Wissa on Lewis Dunk in the Brentford penalty area from a Brighton corner in stoppage time at the end of the first half.

Advised by the VAR Michael Oliver to look again at the incident on the pitchside monitor, Madley confirmed his initial verdict that there was shirt-pulling by both players, and that Dunk appeared to be the first culprit before Wissa responded. It turned out to be a crucial moment in a match of few clear-cut chances.

Significantly, both managers were in agreement that it was refreshing to see a VAR check which failed to change a referee’s in-play call. It is reported to be only the second time this season that this has happened, and it drew praise for Madley from Roberto De Zerbi as well as Thomas Frank.

The Brighton boss had earlier sprung another surprise by not rotating his goalkeeper. De Zerbi has already in 2023-24 broken a Premier League record by changing the starting goalkeeper 17 times. But he seems to have ended the experiment, with Bart Verbruggen now retaining his place in the 11.

The visit to Brentford was the Dutchman’s fourth consecutive game, and his third in a row in the league. Jason Steele has not appeared since a 4-0 defeat away to Roma in the Europa League last month, and he has not played in the Premier League since the 3-0 loss at Fulham almost five weeks ago.

Verbruggen was not overly tested by Brentford, for whom Ivan Toney has now worryingly failed to score in his past seven matches in the Premier League, not finding the net for his club since 17th February against Liverpool, although he did put away a penalty for England last week against Belgium.

Frank was far more pleased with a clean-sheet - incredibly Brentford’s first at home since a 3-0 victory over Burnley back in October. Afterwards, he emphasised his delight at the way that his makeshift defence is finally starting to settle, in the continuing absence of the first-choice back four plus Christian Nørgaard.

He was even more positive about avoiding defeat in two successive games for the first time since a sequence of 3 wins at the end of October and beginning of November. It may only be a couple of home draws, but that has finally finished a period of frustrating inconsistency.

In all, it extended Brentford’s home run to three draws in a row - and five matches without winning on their own pitch, since beating Nottingham Forest 3-2 in mid-January. Overall, they have now gone eight games with no wins, and are still struggling to pull completely clear of the relegation zone.

They have won only twice in their last 19 matches in all competitions since losing to Brighton in the reverse fixture in early December. Furthermore, Brentford have to still play away at relegation rivals Luton Town and Everton before the end of this month.

And a scoreless draw with Brighton is hardly something to savour., especially as the Seagulls are now winless in seven away games in London this season. Plus Albion have quirkily not managed to score in any of their four evening Premier League matches this year, against West Ham United (0-0), Luton (4-0), Wolverhampton Wanderers (0-0) and Brentford (0-0).

But, after this Wednesday night’s stalemate, there was a feeling that the Bees had perhaps turned a corner late on in a season described by Frank as “difficult”. At least they are a point nearer to survival for another year in the Premier League.

Frank insisted: “I think it was a good point, a well-deserved point. I did not think it was a lucky point. If we cannot win, then it is important that we do not lose, which we have not been good at doing this season.”

Plus he commented: “I am never happy when we do not win. But I am very happy with the performance. I am very happy with a clean-sheet. I am very happy that we made it difficult for the opponent.”

His positive assessment was evident when he added: “And now we are on an unbeaten run! I say that with a smile, but I actually mean it. That is two games in a row that we have got something out of.”

And he concluded: “I am not thinking about the drop zone. We are just thinking about putting some good performances together. This will be crucial for the confidence.”

Brentford: (3-5-2) Flekken - Zanka, Ajer, Collins - Roerslev, Yarmoliuk (Damsgaard 64), Janelt, Jensen (Onyeka 85), Lewis-Potter (Reguilón 72) - Wissa (Mbeumo 72), Toney

Brighton and Hove Albion: (4-2-3-1) Verbruggen - Veltman (Moder 85), van Hecke, Dunk, Igor Julio - Baleba, Gross - Buonanotte (Welbeck 73), Lallana (Enciso 64), Adingra (Lamptey 73) - João Pedro

Attendance: 17,024


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