After 63 years Brentford get another crack at old rivals Chelsea
The Bees have seen some dark days since the last time they met Chelsea in the FA Cup. Now the club are buzzing again, writes Steve Tongue
If the west London football landscape is in a state of flux, with all four senior clubs having considered whether they should move grounds, the pecking order remains much as it has been for some time: Chelsea are top of the perch; Fulham established in the Premier League but some way behind; Queens Park Rangers unable to match ambition with achievement; and Brentford very much the poor relations.
Yet the most senior Brentford supporters can just about remember a period when their team not only towered above Chelsea, today's FA Cup opponents at Griffin Park, but were the highest-placed club in the capital. In the 1935-36 season, the newly promoted Bees finished fifth in the top division, a point ahead of the previous year's champions, Arsenal; for the next three years they would also finish above Chelsea, a run ended only by the intervention of Herr Hitler.
From the very first season after the war, however, a pattern was set. Brentford were relegated, and continued to decline to a point where in 1966 they almost merged with an upwardly mobile QPR – who 20 years later would try the same trick with Fulham. Instead, the latter pair merely ended up ground-sharing from 2002 to 2004 while Craven Cottage was redeveloped.
There has been more talk recently of them sharing a new stadium, but while Fulham press on with redevelopment of their Riverside Stand Rangers, like Chelsea, continue to look for a new, larger venue, and Brentford have become the first of the quartet to find one. In 2016 they hope to move in at Lionel Road, next to Kew Bridge railway station, a plan proposed as long ago as 2002.
In the meantime, a home tie against the European champions is manna from TV heaven and, according to the club's chief executive, Mark Devlin, will be worth up to £300,000 in all. Griffin Park will be full to its present capacity of just over 12,100, which is less than a third of the number that set the ground record in watching a defeat by Leicester City in a FA Cup quarter-final in 1949 – a frustrating result, as Brentford finished above them in the Second Division. They have progressed to the last eight only once since then, losing at Liverpool in 1989 after beating three teams from higher divisions.
Chelsea use Griffin Park for their Under-21 matches but, apart from an occasional pre-season friendly, the first team have not been seen there since 1950, when they won an FA Cup tie 1-0. In almost 60 years, the Bees have spent only one season – 1992-93 – at the equivalent of Championship level, which is where they hope to be in August. Last season's rise to ninth place in League One has been followed by a top-four spot since November under the guidance of Uwe Rösler, who has repaid the board's imaginative appointment since he came through five interviews in the summer of 2011.
Says the manager (above right): "It's very important that we get a good balance at the new stadium between generating more income, giving more comfort, attracting more people and also keeping our traditions – a pub on each corner, having some terraces. It's a challenge we're looking forward to."
The East German was a cult hero at Manchester City, where he scored a goal every three games between 1994-98 as well as helping them win an FA Cup tie at Brentford exactly 16 years ago this weekend. After returning to the unified Germany, he served his managerial apprenticeship with three clubs in Norway, and it is easy to see what appealed to a club who were, he says, looking for someone "from outside the box".
Rösler characterises the current team as "young, average age 22 and a half, with a lot of energy, which is shown by the number of times we've scored in the last five or 10 minutes". He would love still to be in contention at that stage today, which may depend on having kept things tight early on: "The first 30 minutes are important to come through and not concede a goal. The longer the game goes, the better our chance will be."
Those players appear to respect him as someone who, in the words of the centre-half Tony Craig, is "one of those managers who thinks and breathes football 24/7 and knows the strengths and weaknesses of every League One team we play."
Rösler believes the gap between teams in the Premier League and the lower divisions has narrowed technically since his playing days, but would not pretend it has done so financially. Craig (left) travels across London by Tube every day to training but says he is never recognised; and he has yet to meet a Chelsea player on the Piccadilly Line. He will see either Fernando Torres or Demba Ba up close today and promises "dedication, work rate, getting in their face".
Missing out on an early shot at the big time when he failed to make the Millwall team that reached the 2004 FA Cup final against Manchester United, the 27-year-old Craig is merely grateful to have made a career from the game when so many friends failed. "It's every boy's dream to play in the FA Cup, isn't it? It's the fourth round, it's against the European champions, FA Cup holders, the pressure's on them and it's just a game I want to be involved in."
Brentford v Chelsea is on ESPN today, kick-off 12pm
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