Brentford belief building as Fulham derby win boosts dreams of Europe
It was midway through the second half here and, tentative at first, the scattered murmurs were only just loud enough to make out.
But, in the dying minutes, with their side well on their way to a derby victory over Fulham that was nothing like as tense as the scoreline suggests, Brentford’s fans held back no longer and began to sing, with some gusto, of plans for a European tour.
And why not? Recent seasons have taken this club to places unimaginable even a decade ago. Heck, it was only in early 2020, during another west London derby against QPR, that you first heard true conviction in a chorus of “The Bees are going up!”, premature as it turned out, as that Championship season ended in yet another play-off failure.
Success in this less-familiar pursuit remains an outside chance and obvious caveats apply: the race for Europe is littered with contenders of greater prestige, grander resource and more proven staying power; its parameters are yet to be defined, given the chance of a surprise FA Cup winner; Brentford are still only ninth — yes, having played fewer matches than most of the teams above, but aware that a game in hand might not be worth points in their push.
Unbeaten in the League since late October, however, belief is building.
“We dream,” head coach Thomas Frank said with a smile after full-time. “We are allowed to dream. It’s very important to aim as high as we can, that’s been the aim since the start of the season.”
To those uninitiated in a rivalry that for a long time played out either in the third tier or nowhere at all, Brentford versus Fulham does not scream grudges, blood and thunder, a fixture just as likely to spring up in a horticultural contest as the Premier League, one leg staged at Kew Gardens, the return at the Chelsea Flower Show.
But for the periods in history where fortune has brought these sides, just a few miles up the Thames from one another, into regular close contact, it is a meeting that has tended to deliver — and here was no exception, both sets of supporters fired up, Brentford’s a little too literally as flares thrown onto the pitch prompted delays after each of their first two goals.
“I said before the game to the players that this is, for us, definitely our biggest derby in the Premier League,” Frank said. “It’s more special against Fulham and in recent years there have been a lot of interesting games between the teams, so of course it meant something extra.”
Perhaps Chelsea fans no longer care, perhaps QPR’s would love to have reason to, but only the second ever top-flight clash between these sides also came with the novelty of, on paper at least, being a genuine meeting of west London’s two leading teams.
On the night, there was no disputing the best of them. Brentford had already worked three excellent chances by the time Ethan Pinnock’s deflected strike gave them the lead on six minutes, and then clipped the woodwork twice from free-kicks.
The in-form Manor Solomon nodded his fifth in five games to equalise with Fulham’s first shot on target, but Ivan Toney blocked out the distraction of an ongoing betting investigation to restore the advantage from the spot, before substitute Kevin Schade played a pacey hand in setting up Mathias Jensen’s clincher. Only in the ninth added-minute did Carlos Vinicius punish a rare error from David Raya with nigh on the last kick of the game.
Fulham, for their part, did well to hang in during the Bees’ opening onslaught, but missed the disruptive presence of the suspended Joao Palhinha at the base of midfield. His replacement, Sasa Lukic, was fortunate to avoid a second booking when tripping Yoane Wissa before half-time.
“To be honest, it was more our fault [that we lost],” said head coach Marco Silva. “We cannot play a derby away from home and start the way we started both halves. We knew how they are aggressive, how they can punish you.”
Still seventh despite last night’s defeat, a European campaign remains on the radar for Silva’s men, too, with fond memories of not-so-distant nights under Roy Hodgson to long for. For Brentford, the incentive is in breaking yet more new ground.