Following a 2-1 aggregate win over Barnsley, Swansea have gone one better than last season and reached the Championship play-off final. How does that feel?
It’s incredible for everyone at the club. If you look at the semi-finals, Barnsley were actually favourites with all of the bookmakers and Swansea were the outsiders of the four teams to go up. Deep down, having beaten Barnsley twice in the regular season, I think Swansea were quietly confident and, with the players they have in the squad, they knew that they could challenge and get to the final, at the very least. They are going to be the underdogs once again as Brentford are favourites and, probably, rightly so given the way Thomas Frank’s side play, the season they have had and the fact they finished third. To get to the final is one step better than last season, but it, ultimately, means nothing if they don’t go on and win it. It’s a massive occasion and in a one-off game, anything can happen.
As you probably saw, the Brentford crowd provided a significant boost for Thomas Frank’s men in the second leg last weekend. Did the fans at the Liberty Stadium have a similar effect?
Yes, 100 per cent. Full credit to the Barnsley fans, at Oakwell, they were outstanding but Swansea did well to take the sting out of the game early on. In the second leg, they couldn’t really get going, but a great goal from Matt Grimes gave the fans a massive lift. In the build-up to the play-offs, Steve Cooper was regularly asked whether he would prefer to play home or away in the second leg, as it is always perceived to be an advantage to play at home. Without fans, it probably doesn’t make too much of a difference, but with them, it really did. He said after the game that he was always non-committal when asked about that, but he quickly realised it was much better to play the second leg at home because of the fans.
Saturday’s game is a repeat of last season’s play-off semi-final, which Brentford edged 3-2 on aggregate. How desperate are they to exact revenge for that?
Within the club, they certainly won’t be saying that but, interestingly, I have written a piece on the rivalry that has emerged between the two clubs in the last few years. In Swansea’s first season back in the Championship, they beat Brentford three times and Frank was clearly irked by that and set about putting right the wrongs of that first season, where Swansea finished only a point and a place above them. They have mirrored each other since then in getting into the play-offs and failing. There was a bit of bad blood between the teams after last season’s semi-final but I think it has tempered a little bit this season and it is now more about Swansea winning one match and getting back into the Premier League after a three years absence, rather than getting revenge for the defeat at Griffin Park last season.
You reported earlier in the week that Wayne Routledge suffered an ACL injury against Barnsley. How bittersweet does it feel that, in reaching the final, such a superb servant could now have played his final game for the club?
It’s awful for him. He has spent 10 years at the club and been a tremendous servant. In the last couple of seasons, it has been more about what he has done off the pitch rather than on it, but since Cooper has been at the club, he has spoken very highly of him in terms of what he has offered in speaking to the young players, making speeches before games and just being a second voice for the manager as well as the players. His influence is huge and it still will be, even with the injury, so I’m sure he’ll still have a big say in what happens on Saturday, even though he can’t be involved in the game. I think the players would love to win it for him.
Which player is likely to cause Brentford the most problems this weekend?
I think I always say Andre Ayew (above) and I’ll have to go for him again. He is the top scorer this season and lethal from the penalty spot; I think the only penalty he has ever missed for Swansea was against Brentford in the semi-final last season, when he was denied by a great save from David Raya. In the first leg against Barnsley, he didn’t get sniff and barely touched the ball in their half, but then when he did pick it up, he went past Michal Helik, planted it in the corner and Swansea won. He is capable of that moment of magic.
How is Cooper likely to set up his side at Wembley?
I would think it will be 4-3-3 and the same team from the second leg, with the only likely change Liam Cullen or Conor Roberts for Wayne Routledge. The line-up that day was: Woodman, Guehi, Naughton, Bidwell, Cabango, Grimes, Hourihane, Fulton, Lowe, Ayew, Routledge.
The two meetings during the regular season produced two 1-1 draws, but what’s your score prediction for this one?
I can’t say 1-1 again this time, so I will go for 2-1 to Swansea.