It was a transient, yet vitally important, moment for Keith Millen.
As he stood on the pitch at Prenton Park, reeling from Brentford’s 3-2 aggregate defeat to Tranmere in the Third Division Play-Off Semi-Final in May 1991, something clicked.
“When you get that close and fall at the final hurdle, it’s tough to take,” Keith tells us.
“We were told a number of times to ‘remember this feeling’. I knew then and there that we had to use it as motivation. That was definitely something that was spoken about a lot in the group when we came back for the following season.”
He was only in his mid-20s at the time, but already something of a seasoned pro in West London. After several years of mediocrity, it is understandable that once he had come so close to success, the desire to set the record straight increased considerably.
One of the fundamental building blocks to do so would be a solid base and, in Keith and Terry Evans, Manager Phil Holder had one of the most revered centre-back pairings in Brentford history at his disposal. In his own interview, which was published in the Norwich issue last month, Terry spoke about a sixth sense between the pair.
“There was definitely something between us!” laughs Keith. “We were very close, like best mates, really. He knew my strengths and I knew his.
“With the size of him, he was very dominant in the air and set-pieces were a big part of our success that year. I remember we used to work on them because we had Neil Smillie’s delivery and Terry was very aggressive. One of my strengths was reading the game, so we complimented each other; he would be the dominant one and I would try to pick up the pieces around him and sweep up. It worked really well.
“But a team that gets promotion nearly always has a centre-forward or centre-forwards that score goals and that year, Bliss and Deano scored loads. I think that gave us the confidence that if we stuck together and stayed solid, we could always score goals, keep clean sheets and win games.”
With teams that deploy a 4-4-2 formation, there is scope for players to form a bond with whomever plays alongside them, rather than having to plough a lone furrow throughout the 90 minutes. This was particularly the case in the early 1990s and prior, when squads were seldom as bloated as they often are today.
It was not just Holder’s set-up that inspired his players that year, though. As has been mentioned in previous History Boys features this season, in a simpler, less technologically advanced world, bonds on the pitch were forged and strengthened off it.
“The social side of the game was different in those days and it played a big part because we got on with each other and would almost always go out together after games,” Keith continues.
“That was one of the best dressing rooms I’ve ever been in and it became a massive part of our success. You knew when you went out to play, the person next to you had your back and it was the same when we used to go out for a meal or a drink. You knew that that person was there for the right reasons. It was a really tough environment, but it was an honest group that did everything to try and help each other.
“That was one of the best dressing rooms I’ve ever been in. You knew when you went out to play, the person next to you had your back”
“When you look at the squad, there were some big names there and players who had played at really good levels. We had a mixture of a few young lads, but it felt like quite an experienced group and that definitely helped.
“Throughout my career, all the good dressing rooms that have had success have that about them. It has changed now. The modern game, the modern player, the modern dressing room is so different these days and you don’t get it anymore, which is a shame.”
With just four defeats from the first 20 league games of the 1991/92 campaign, Brentford were deservedly top at Christmas. The post-Christmas form threatened to derail the promotion bid, though, with a 2-1 defeat away to Huddersfield on Boxing Day beginning a run that saw The Bees lose exactly half of the next 20.
On paper, the results suggest the wheels were well and truly ready to fall off. Yet inside the camp, there were no such thoughts.
“We started to pick up a few injuries around January, February time, if I remember rightly, and then we had a bit of a wobble,” he says.
“I always felt that we had a real toughness about us and we knew that, once we had everyone fit, we’d be able to go again, so there was never any real doubt. You are always going to have a bad spell in the season, it’s just how you can bounce out of it. I always felt pretty confident that we would be able to turn it around.”
And that they did. Those last six league games of the season are the stuff of legend. A feat so special that any fans, players or staff around the Club at that time will never be able to shake it from their memory, for all the right reasons.
“When you get that momentum going, you know you’re on to a good thing. We didn't just win games, we were scoring goals and a lot of them. We just didn’t think we were going to lose. We would go in full of confidence, understand what we were doing and got to a stage where there were no nerves and there was just a feeling that it was meant to be.
“Clean sheets give you a lot of confidence and we knew – with Dean Holdsworth scoring nearly every game - if we did keep one, we would probably win the game.
“I can remember the Fulham game - I had a really bad ankle and I shouldn’t have really played. I went and visited this particular physio who was looking after me and on the morning of the game, he put strapping on my ankles like a plaster cast - it was ridiculous how tight it was but I just wanted to play. It was that important. That's what we were like as a group, that's what you would do. It turned out to be a brilliant win as well.
“For the Peterborough game, reality kicked in and we knew how important it was. That’s when I remember thinking ‘this is nervy now’.
“We knew that we were relying on what Birmingham did as well. I remember saying to the group that we just had to look after ourselves and just keep doing what we had been doing. Even though it was a tight, nervy game, I always felt confident that it was going to be our day. We were putting our bodies on the line, everyone was.
“When the title win was confirmed, it was a fantastic feeling of pride and relief. The best thing was, because the group was so close, it meant so much more. I have had other promotions and it's always a good feeling, but this one was probably the best I’ve ever had because of the people I was with. We weren’t just team-mates, we were friends, so to see your friends in tears almost and to appreciate what we'd done together was definitely the best feeling I've had in my career.”
“I have had other promotions but this one was probably the best I’ve ever had because of the people I was with. We weren’t just team-mates, we were friends”
The celebrations at London Road and then back at Griffin Park were memorable – but Keith was able to extend the party into the following day at an altogether different location.
“Those celebrations went on for a long time! I remember on the bus, because we knew how to have a good time, we didn’t need any encouragement! I remember partying all the way back to Griffin Park, which was busy, going in there and then carrying on the party.
“I haven’t got a clue what time I left there, but I remember the next day as one of my best friends was getting married! The bride’s dad was a Brentford season ticket holder, so I presented him with my shirt from the Peterborough game. I didn't want to take over the celebrations and the wedding, but I wanted to do that.
“Then we had the bus into the town, which was good because then we could properly share it with the fans. We certainly made the most of it, party-wise!”
Keith would remain a Brentford player until midway through the 1993/94 season, by which point he had been awarded a testimonial against Tottenham for a decade of service to the Club. He was, however, made aware that he was not part David Webb’s plans and appeared in just one Autoglass Trophy fixture before joining Watford in March 1994.
“I had a couple of opportunities earlier in my career to leave Brentford and I didn’t want to. I don’t regret not leaving because I had ten great years there. David said it was probably the right time for me to move on and it was the right thing to do; it was the right time for me and it was the right time for the club, though, obviously, I was sad to leave.
“I loved it at Watford. That period - and this particular season at Brentford - is certainly the highlight of my career. We struggled for about a year-and-a-half when I first went there and then Graham Taylor came back and put together a group of players that were very similar to that of my Brentford time. We had a very tight dressing room and a good social life together because we all lived quite close to Watford.
“We had the same characteristics in the dressing room; good leaders who were well-coached and organised by Graham. We had promotions to the Premier League, so that was a really good period for me. I was 27 when I signed for Watford and I think that was the peak of my career, if you like.”
After five years at Vicarage Road, Keith joined Bristol City and closed out his playing career there, before embarking on a coaching career at Ashton Gate and subsequently going on to work in various roles at Blackpool, Crystal Palace, Tottenham, Portsmouth, MK Dons, Orgryte IS in Sweden and Carlisle.
However, if the timing had been different, he could have been in the dugout in TW8.
“I did actually speak with Thomas when he first got the job. He had a tough period for the first ten games and I was interviewed to go in there as one of the First Team staff, though they ended up promoting Kevin from the B Team. I nearly went back and I get on with Phil, so never say never!”