Nicky Forster takes his Brentford team to Wembley for tomorrow's Johnstone's Paint Trophy final against Carlisle United after less than two months and just 13 matches as manager. His longest-serving player, captain Kevin O'Connor, has waited 14 years for his chance and will play for the first time at the national stadium in his 430th appearance for the Bees.
Forster, a 37-year-old striker who has scored goals for Gillingham, Brentford, Birmingham, Reading, Ipswich, Hull, Brighton and Charlton in a career spanning 19 seasons, returned to Griffin Park as a player last summer but was offered the chance to begin his managerial career when Andy Scott was sacked in February.
"I got the position almost by default as I was the most experienced player here in terms of my age and the games I've played," Forster said after a training session this week at Brentford's training ground at Osterley. "I was obviously disappointed for my predecessor as he had played a big part in getting us to Wembley. The chance to manage came sooner than I had imagined, though I'd always wanted to stay in the game and I've done my coaching badges."
Forster's first spell with Brentford was between 1995 and 1997, which was the year when O'Connor signed for the club. "My uncle was working with a coach at Brentford and asked him if I could have a trial," the 29-year-old midfielder recalled. "I played at under-15s level and things moved on from then.
"I've always been happy here. I've always been involved under every manager, which always helps, and Brentford have been a brilliant club. I can't speak highly enough of the people who work here. A lot of them have been at the club for years."
Forster, who has not played since he took the hot seat, has made a promising start, winning eight of his 13 matches in charge including the last three, the latest a 2-1 victory last week over tomorrow's opponents and a 3-1 win at Sheffield Wednesday on Tuesday. The improvement is probably too late to resurrect the chance of winning a place in the League One play-offs, but the manager is pleased with his team's form.
"We're playing some good football," he said. "We know that momentum is key. I think getting into the final has given a buoyancy to the club. I was concerned that we might suffer a bit of a dip going into the final as players would try to protect themselves for the big day, but thankfully that hasn't happened."
Which of his managers had he learned most from? "I've taken bits and pieces from all of them," Forster said. "Alan Pardew and Steve Coppell both taught me a lot at Reading, as did Joe Royle at Ipswich. I liked Steve Coppell's calm approach. He didn't rant and rave. Whenever he spoke you listened. I don't think you can shout and bawl at players these days because they'll just switch off and they won't respond."
O'Connor, who played for the Republic of Ireland's Under-21 team, also has good memories of Coppell, one of 10 managers he has served under at Brentford. His first was Ron Noades, who was both owner and manager of the club.
In O'Connor's second season in the team, Brentford played in the final of the LDV Vans Trophy – the same competition in which they have reached this season's final but with a different sponsor – but he was injured and did not feature at the Millennium Stadium. He came on as a substitute when Brentford returned to Cardiff a year later, when they lost to Stoke City in the play-off final.
"I've never been to Wembley as a player," O'Connor said. "I'm really looking forward to it. I've been a couple of times as a spectator. I went to the Carling Cup final. A few of us were in a box and it was an amazing view. It's a fantastic stadium and it's hard to believe now that I'm going to be playing there.
"I thought the chance of playing there might have passed me by. I've got about 30 family or friends coming to the match. My brother works out in the Cayman Islands but he's coming back for the match."
The one major disappointment for Brentford is that their goalkeeper, Richard Lee, will not be playing because of a shoulder injury. Lee had played a crucial part in Brentford's run to Wembley, which featured penalty shoot-out victories over Leyton Orient, Swindon and Charlton.
Brentford have sold more than 24,000 tickets for the match, which should draw a crowd of around 40,000. Carlisle, their opponents, are the tournament specialists. This will be their sixth appearance in the final, the most recent having been a defeat to Southampton 12 months ago.