At the start of the season, the goal was clear – promotion. However, I think the impact of relegation, particularly off the pitch, was perhaps worse than expected in terms of morale and the upheaval that followed. Not only was there a managerial change, the first one at the club for eight years, but also 11 senior players left the club. Admittedly a lot of those weren’t heavily involved last season, but they were key characters in the club’s rise through the leagues and left a big hole in terms of experience to replace. Add the loss of those type of players to the likes of Nathan Ake and Callum Wilson in departing, as well as appointing Jason Tindall, who had never managed at this level before, and it was a big change. They started brightly and it looked promising, but results massively tailed off and they were slipping away from the top two spots, but under Jonathan Woodgate have now found momentum at just the right time, albeit a little too late to sneak an automatic promotion place. So the overall objective is still alive, but far from guaranteed in the play-offs.
As you mentioned, Woodgate replaced Tindall as manager in early February, first as caretaker, then on a contract until the end of the season. Before he took over, were there any genuine fears the Cherries might fall away from the promotion picture altogether?
When Tindall lost his job, the mood around the place was pretty low. The gap to the top two had widened and performances were nowhere near the levels they should have been for a squad as talented as this one. Tindall’s final game in charge was their fourth league loss on the spin and while they were never outside the top six under his tenure, they were certainly heading in the wrong direction, form wise. Tindall may well have felt a bit hard done by, just considering the fact that was the first real sticky patch of form in his time in charge and he also didn’t have chance to work with his January signings. The board felt a change was needed, based on both performances and results. Woodgate had only arrived a few days earlier as a coach and was suddenly thrust in charge, but was never initially considered as the new long-term boss. However, he steadied the ship well, results turned and he was given the job until the end of the season. After a defeat to Barnsley last month, Cherries sat five points outside the top six and the dream looked like it was fading. But their form since can be unquestioned and Woodgate deserves real credit for that.
He has guided the club back into play-off contention, with a healthy nine-point cushion between themselves and seventh-placed Reading. How much confidence has been generated from the six-game winning streak they are currently on?
Confidence is a good word for it. On Wednesday night, from the very first minute, they just looked like a team that knew they could turn up, dominate and win the game comfortably. And that was against a Millwall team who are notoriously tough to beat this season and are up in the top half themselves. But some of the football they played at The Den was outstanding, with the first half generally considered as the best they’ve produced this season. Both on the ball and also their work off the ball. Inevitably it makes you wonder what if they could have produced this just a month earlier, but building up a head of steam at this time of the season is ideal really ahead of some massive play-off games.
Arnaut Danjuma seems to have really kicked on in the past few months and has eight goals in his last 11 games. Is he the player Brentford should be most wary of on Saturday?
He’s certainly one of them. Danjuma showed glimpses of his talent during an injury-hit first campaign in England, but he’s really shone this season, particularly in recent weeks. He is full of confidence and contributing plenty of goals and assists and frightening a lot of Championship full-backs. He’s built up a good relationship with Lloyd Kelly on the left, who picked up an injury on Wednesday night, so if he is missing that could hamper things slightly. The other obvious man to watch is Philip Billing. He’s in the form of his life in front of goal, scoring five in his past eight. He has now netted seven goals since Woodgate took charge and moved him into a more advanced midfield position. Billing had only nine goals in his whole career before Woodgate took over, which highlights just how much of a change there has been there!
How is Woodgate likely to set up set up his side at the Vitality Stadium?
One of the key factors behind this run of seven consecutive league wins has been that Woodgate has found a settled side. He doesn’t really change it, regardless of the level of opposition. There may be some tweaks when the play-off spot gets officially secured, but you can pretty much name nine or 10 of the starters every week. So, providing Kelly is fit, it would be quite likely Woodgate would name an unchanged team again on Saturday, in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Brentford came from behind to win 2-1 in the reverse fixture back on 30 December, with goals from Henrik Dalsgaard and Tariqe Fosu cancelling out Dominic Solanke’s opener. What’s your score prediction this time around?
That was a really good game in the reverse fixture and I’d expect something similar again. Brentford are the only team left in the top seven that Cherries haven’t beaten yet this season and I get the sense that the players are keen to put that one right. They may have more than one chance to, as my hunch is this will also be a preview to the Wembley play-off final next month. But the way Cherries are playing right now, it is hard to back against them so I’ll go for a 2-1 home win this weekend.
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