Last weekend I wrote about the joys of promotion to the Premier League and the raucous celebrations at Vicarage Road when Watford were promoted after a 1-1 draw with Sheffield Wednesday. This week, however, I was in for quite a different experience, the tooth and nail drama that I was denied when Watford went up a week early as I travelled to Griffin Park in West London to see Brentford take on Middlesbrough in a Championship playoff semi-final first leg.
While it may not originally appear that way this was a matchup of David against Goliath. The visitors, Middlesbrough, although they have not been in the Premier League since 2009 and are overshadowed in the Northeast by their rivals Newcastle and Sunderland, have spent 60 of their 105 seasons in the top-flight and won the League Cup in 2004. Middlesbrough play their home matches in the modern 35,000 all seater Riverside Stadium, which was constructed in 1995 and is the 14th largest club ground in England and the third largest in the Championship. They spent most of this season challenging for one of the two automatic promotion bids and looked to be in really good shape after beating Norwich at Carrow Road in the antepenultimate match of the season, but lost to struggling Fulham at Craven Cottage and then drew at home to Brighton on the final day of the season and had to settle for a playoff spot.
On the other hand, the hosts Brentford have a much less illustrious history than their counterparts from the Northeast. Brentford have only spent one season in the second division since 1954 and have not been in the top-flight since 1947. Out of the four clubs in West London (Brentford, Chelsea, Fulham and Queen’s Park Rangers), Brentford are by far the smallest. They play in 12,300 seat Griffin Park, which is the third smallest in the Championship. Because this is Brentford’s first season in the second tier since 1993, they have not yet conformed to the standards laid out for stadiums by the Taylor Report. Griffin Park still has terraces at both ends of the pitch and is the only stadium in England to have a pub at all four corners of the ground. This Championship playoff semi-final was probably the biggest match ever to be staged at Griffin Park and tickets were almost impossible to come by.
Despite the differences between the resources and history, both teams were still 180 minutes from Wembley and a further 90 minutes from (at least one) season in the Premier League full with mouthwatering clashes with the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. The next 180 (or 270) minutes could mean the difference of 150 million pounds and because of this the playoffs are the most stressful and lucrative anywhere in world soccer (including the Champions League). For Middlesbrough, it is a yearning to be back in the big time where they spent nine years at the turn of the century and to be reunited with old foes Newcastle and Sunderland (provided one of them do not go down). For Brentford, this was an extension of a dream; they were tipped by many to be relegated from the Championship and instead finished fifth and in the position to be the second “David” (along with Bournemouth) to go up. After 46 matches over nine months and the classic Tuesday night away trips during the winter to cold, windy grounds the whole season would come down to this. One match at Griffin Park, one match at the Riverside and maybe one match at Wembley; that is all that separates the two sides from fame and fortune.