Thomas Frank had not long finished wagging an index finger at ecstatic Brentford supporters on a victory lap last weekend – the message being that they are still one game from the Premier League – when the million-dollar question, or, in this case, £178m question, was put to him pitchside: how do you guarantee getting over the line this time? “One thing is for sure,” he replied, “I can’t make sure of anything, because this is football.”
That absurd game was categorical evidence of that. Frank booted a bin in fury as Bournemouth bounced into a two-goal aggregate lead inside five minutes before Chris Mepham’s sending-off helped Brentford wrestle the tie in their favour. Amid the bedlam that followed Marcus Forss’s winner, Ivan Toney tried to chuck what he presumed was a bucket of water over his teammates but inadvertently showered himself in disinfectant meant for the match balls.
Swansea City avoided such excruciating and extraordinary drama to prevail against Barnsley and progress to the Championship play-off final, but in a way it was fitting that Steve Cooper’s side edged through courtesy of a nervy second-leg draw. Frank has maintained fine margins decide games of this magnitude and if Swansea are to return to the top flight, there is a good chance they will frustrate and flummox rather than light up Wembley.
In Cooper, who led England to victory at the Under-17 World Cup four years ago, Swansea have a manager schooled in tournament football. Two players from that squad, Marc Guéhi and Joel Latibeaudiere, will be in the Swansea dressing room on Saturday and such experiences can only help Cooper and his side navigate another knockout competition. “What’s important is that you get the balance right between really sticking to what you believe in and what you do, and committing to that again for another game while understanding the specific context around the game,” says Cooper. “This one is different, it’s big, and we have to try to marry that up.”
Can Cooper compare preparing for Saturday’s showpiece to leading England in India? “I think so. There are a lot of similarities in terms of it being a knockout and everything done on the day, extra time, penalties, and that sort of stuff … but some things are very different. Some things help in terms of preparation but it doesn’t mean that you win, and it doesn’t mean you have all the right answers. It maybe just helps you making decisions in terms of how you want to prepare and plan. In the end, it comes down to the game and really committing to what’s in front of you and that’s the gameplan, mentality, and having great confidence.”
The match will see the division’s golden glove winner, Freddie Woodman, come up against the golden boot winner in Toney, a former Newcastle teammate. Cooper has repaired the soft centre apparent under Graham Potter, whose Swansea side were easy on the eye but vulnerable at set pieces. The centre-back partnership of 20-year-olds Ben Cabango and Guéhi extinguished Barnsley’s attacking impetus and that exuberance, coupled with the experience of the leading scorer, André Ayew, and Wayne Routledge, who will miss the game after sustaining an anterior cruciate ligament injury, has proved an effective cocktail. “He’s been very visible this week and he will be on Saturday as well,” Cooper says of Routledge. “He’s a real good go-between for myself and the staff and the group of lads.”
It is easy to forget this is only Cooper’s second season as a club manager. Guiding Swansea to successive play-off campaigns is impressive, the more remarkable given modest investment. Swansea spent £1.75m on Jamal Lowe, Ryan Manning and Morgan Whittaker this season. Kristoffer Peterson, who joined Fortuna Düsseldorf in October after seven appearances, is the only other notable signing Swansea have paid a fee for under Cooper.
Aside from promoted Norwich and Watford, Swansea boast the league’s best defensive record but they are not exactly prolific. Of their 24 league wins, half have been by a goal and they have scored more than twice on two occasions. Brentford have consistently hit threes or fours, and even a seven in January. They are the league’s entertainers and top scorers, with Toney registering his 32nd goal of the season last weekend.
Contrary to last season, when they lost to Fulham in extra-time, Brentford will treat the eight-mile trip to Wembley as an away game, training on Friday before travelling to the team hotel, hopeful such a tweak may help them conquer a play-off campaign at the 10th time of asking. “That is history,” says Frank. “It is not going into our head because we know that there is not a voodoo curse over Brentford that means we cannot get a positive result.”
This week, Cooper spoke with Nathan Dyer, part of the Swansea team promoted via the play-offs 10 years ago; Alan Tate, also part of that side, is the first-team coach. Cooper, a Welshman, has regularly referenced supporters in team talks throughout this largely ghostly season and will no doubt do so on Saturday. “Of course you try to play with a style and identity, but as much as anything we play with a lot of heart and soul as well, because we know who we are representing,” he says. “The club has had to establish itself and rebuild. Promotion would mean everything to the city and the club.”