Two wins on the trot for Fulham is a huge positive, but there’s a serious shift needed if the Whites are to make that three in a row against Brentford this weekend. Jack J Collins looks at the facets of the West London derby in the latest Collins Column.
Seven points, a home win and a long-awaited clean sheet have been the order of the day in Fulham’s games since the international break, but make no mistake about it — Fulham are not going to win on Saturday unless they come out firing on all cylinders.
Saturday’s game against Millwall at the Cottage had the feel of a training exercise about it, with Millwall hardly producing anything to trouble the Whites, but things will be very different against Brentford at Griffin Park.
Let’s put some context in here. I was 8 when Fulham were promoted to the Premier League, and throughout our tenure in the top flight, I cannot ever remember hearing a song about Brentford reverberate round the Hammersmith End.
Chelsea, of course; and QPR, but never Brentford. My aunt’s a Brentford fan (shh) and when as a kid, when Fulham were away I used to go down to Griffin Park to watch the Bees on occasion.
Years passed without going down there, but a couple of years back, she offered me a ticket to see Brentford play Yeovil Town in the League One Play-Off Final. It seemed like a good day out.
Off I went, only to see Dan Burn (who else) rise highest from a corner to effectively kill Brentford’s Championship dream, after Trotta-Gate which had taken place earlier in the season. None of that really mattered to me, but what struck me was the fervour with which Brentford seemed to hate Fulham.
All the way up Wembley Way, anti-Fulham songs rang out. We hadn’t played each other since 1998, and yet, here we were, 15 years later, and all they could sing about was little old Fulham. I mentioned this to the people I was with, and they said that it was commonplace. Absence must make the heart grow fonder, as they say. Or the hatred deeper.
It should have been obvious when they had a flag made to commemorate a goal which meant nothing in that first season back in the Championship, but it still strikes me as bizarre. If you asked a Fulham fan who their biggest rivals were, I would imagine Chelsea would top the list, with QPR second and Brentford third, although even Gillingham might give the Bees a run for that spot.
It is unequivocal in the Brentford fanbase who they perceive to be their biggest rivals – us, which gives them an edge on derby day. The issue with that edge is that even if Fulham don’t consider them the biggest local rival, they’re definitely the one closest to us in footballing terms, and are a genuine promotion contender themselves these days.
If the Bees weren’t so forthright in their absolute hatred of all things Fulham (there was a post on a Brentford forum sent to me the other day by a Bees-supporting friend which was apoplectic with rage about the fact that since their marketing team had picked up some ex-Fulham staff, much of their promotional material had been in black and white), there would be more applause from our end about the set-up down at Griffin Park.
Brentford play good, attacking, incisive football, in a manner akin to Jokanovic’s sides. It was absolutely no wonder that in today’s pre-match presser, Slavisa lavished praise on his opposite number and gave him due credit for playing football the right way. He’s spot on as well. After the failed Dijkhausen experiment, Dean Smith was the perfect man to steady the ship and get Brentford playing the way they had been under Mark Warburton.
Astute signings on a shoestring budget, good use of statistics and an in-depth lower league and Scandinavian scouting system have developed Brentford into a very good side. Matthew Benham is an astute businessman, a football lover and a lifelong Bees fan to boot — his influence has transformed the club from lower league hasbeens to genuine Championship promotion contenders.
In Ollie Watkins, plucked from Exeter City by the club’s scouting network, Brentford possess the player who has created the most chances in the Championship — and more than any player in the Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, Ligue 1 or Serie A has managed either —which is no mean feat, especially for a 21 year old.
With Watkins running the show from the left flank, Ryan Fredericks is going to have his work cut out to fulfil defensive duties whilst simultaneously providing the attacking impetus that Fulham have come to rely on from the full-back. Neal Maupay’s petulant foul at the end of the draw at Loftus Road has ruled him out, but it will be Lasse Vibe, who scored two goals that night, who will lead the line.
They’re but two examples of the quality that Brentford possess, but in a game which should be open, free-flowing and attacking, it’s going to be what kind of Fulham team that turns up which defines how this game will end. A week off should have reinvigorated some tired bones, but the return of Kevin McDonald and Tim Ream is crucial.
McDonald in particular is hugely necessary to negate the creative influence of Sergi Canos through the middle, and the return of Ream would allow for Ryan Sessegnon to push up to the left wing position, which is of huge value if the game opens up like it did against Sheffield United. We all know just how devastating the 17-year-old can be if let loose correctly, and if Tom Cairney is rampant like he was against the Blades, there is serious damage that Fulham can cause Brentford.
They want this win more than any other — let’s deprive them of it again, and give them another reason to hate us. If we can shift into a higher gear like we did at Griffin Park last season, quieten the noisy upstarts and close the gap on the playoffs at the same time, then the only way is up.