A night for moving on. For shedding baggage, and laying the past to rest. On the night Brentford said their farewells to Griffin Park, they came closer to top-flight football than they have done at any point since 1947. They did so with a sparkling modern brand of football quite at odds with the weathered girders and sardine seats of their old home.
Fulham or Cardiff lie in wait at a deserted Wembley Stadium on Tuesday, the final fixture in this strangest of seasons, and if Brentford are to break their hoodoo of eight successive play-off failures they can ask for few better platforms. Few better front-threes than Saïd Benrahma, Ollie Watkins and Bryan Mbeumo. Few better midfield conductors than Mathias Jensen, who amid the mayhem and flying tackles ran this game on strings.
Few better owners than the visionary Matthew Benham. Few better managers than Thomas Frank, who as well as instilling an elastic, spine-tingling, relentlessly percussive style of play has also forced Brentford to dream big, to write a new chapter in a cherished history.
Of course, breaking into the world’s richest league requires more than a healthy sense of predestination. You need to suffer and you need to sweat, and on a warm evening both these sides played their part in an arrestingly physical encounter. Frank had promised in the buildup he would carry his exhausted players off the pitch at the end if necessary, and in a stunning, full-throttle opening 15 minutes that turned the tie on its head, his team were as good as his word.
It began, as so many of Brentford’s moves do, from the very back: the goalkeeper David Raya finding Jensen, the Denmark Under-21 midfielder on the fringes of the full team. All night Jensen pulled Swansea this way and that, and here he played the sort of defence-splitting pass – fully 60 yards, all along the ground, straight down the middle – that you wanted to watch again and again. It was a pass with its own impossible choreography, right down to the perfectly-timed run of Watkins, who finished with an assassin’s cool for his 26th goal of the season.
Perhaps Swansea were a little concussed by the brutal, geometric coldness of that goal. Certainly that would explain the momentary loss of defensive shape that allowed Benrahma to advance to the edge of their area just moments later. As Swansea’s midfield collapsed on to the back three like a boxer sinking into the deadly embrace of the ropes, Benrahma had all the time in the world to flop a delicious cross on to the head of Emiliano Marcondes. In the space of four minutes Brentford were 2-0 up and Swansea’s one-goal cushion had turned into an ejector seat.
The dangerous Benrahma was beginning to grow into the game, enjoying a string of decent openings, at one point clattering the inside of a post after a magical little exchange with Jensen. Swansea’s best chance came through Conor Gallagher, and as half-time approached they had just about managed to stem the bleeding. But within barely a minute of the restart, Brentford hit them again: Jensen again, releasing Rico Henry (reprieved from suspension after being sent off in the first leg), crossing for Mbeumo to volley home with authority and swagger.
With 12 minutes to go, Pontus Jansson’s terrible fluffed clearance was punished by a marvellous bit of inspiration from Rhian Brewster, lifting the ball over the advancing Raya from 30 yards. Now, as Swansea threw themselves into one last effort, Brentford’s defence would step up. Raya made a wonderful save from Connor Roberts. Christian Norgaard made two or three crucial clearances in a row. And for all the miles in the legs, the 101 matches these two sides had already dragged themselves through this season, remarkably the final stages of the game were just as intense and spellbinding as the first.
A striking and unfamiliar sound filled the air in the minutes after full-time. Fans pouring out of the pubs and the terraced houses into Braemar Road, gathering outside the ground and giving the old place a raucous send-off. There is talk of a proper farewell at some point, perhaps even a socially-distanced exhibition game. But in a sense, this was the perfect way for it to end. The stands will soon be houses. A gleaming new chapel awaits just one stop up the line at Kew Bridge.
Time, in more senses than one, for Brentford to take the next step.