By Paul Jones
Something will have to give at the Liberty Stadium tonight when the team with the most clean sheet in the Championship hosts the team with the least number of defeats.
Last season, Swansea City were pipped by Brentford in the play-off semi-finals and they are both back among the leading candidates for promotion – Swansea in second place and the Bees two points back in fourth.
Steve Cooper’s Swans will have their title credentials tested to the full over the next 10 days with both Brentford and league leaders Norwich City due to visit the Liberty Stadium. Then. they have got Manchester City in the FA Cup fifth round.
“We are loving life at the moment, everyone is enjoying their work and we’re just taking each game as it comes,” says Cooper.
“Brentford are a good team very much in form, so it’s got the makings of a really good game. They are unbeaten in their last 16 games in the Championship.”
Cooper can counterbalance that statistic with an impressive one of his own given that Freddie Woodman has kept 13 clean sheets and his side has only conceded 13 goals in 24 league matches. Only five of those have been conceded on home soil.
When the two teams met in London earlier in the season it ended in a 1-1 draw and Cooper isn’t concerned about any potential scarring from last year’s play-off defeat.
“We both got to the play-offs, but neither team got promoted. There were no success stories for us,” adds Cooper.
“I know how hungry this group is a there is no lack of focus. They are not complacent in any way and they want to stand up for each other and the club.
“The training ground is a vibrant place and the signs are good. We are always trying to improve our culture and enjoying the ride on a journey that still has a long way to go before we can start looking back.”
Down the road at Cardiff City, Mick McCarthy will head to Barnsley tonight with only one thing in mind – beating his old home town team.
The former Republic of Ireland manager won’t be harbouring any sentimental feelings about returning to the town of his birth or the club at which he launched his professional playing career 43 years ago.
Having been parachuted into the hot seat at Cardiff City following the sacking of Neil Harris last week, he knows he has got to stop the rot after seven successive defeats in all competitions for a Bluebirds side low on confidence and closer to a relegation battle than a push for promotion.
“Barnsley is my home town, I love the place, but I want to go back there and win,” says McCarthy ahead of his first game in charge.
Even though he has got more than 900 games as a club manager under his belt during spells at Millwall, Sunderland, Wolves, Ipswich and Cypriot side AEOL FC, McCarthy admits managing under COVID rules is new to him.
“When a team hasn’t been winning the players are always looking for somebody to tell them what to do. Footballers all seem to have this great confidence, but we are insecure when things are going badly for us,” he added.
“We are looking for somebody to give us a magic cure. There isn’t one. If by me coming in they can feel a bit of confidence, or fell a bit better about things, then I’ll be delighted.
“The only way to judge it is on Wednesday night at Barnsley and then against Millwall and Bristol City. People talk about my experience, but I have never experienced anything like this, it is all new to me.
“I do know the league, I do know football and I do know the players, but in terms of preparation and creating team spirit in these times, that’s alien to me. I am learning on my feet.
“Whatever time we train at, the players come in 15-30 minutes before, put their boots on and walk down to the training pitch and we start. There is no interaction in the dressing room, going into the gym first to do some pre-hab and weights, no sitting having breakfast together and having some crack.
“There is no interaction at all and it is difficult for the players. It is hard to have team spirit in these tough times, they don’t have the same camaraderie as they would have if things were normal.
“The only chance you’ve got to have a bit of fun is on the training field. We have a two hour window to try to do that because they all then go off in their own cars to have a shower at home.
“The first team train and get changed in one place and then the others change in another one. If you are left out of the team it only gets exacerbated by being told to go into another dressing room.
“That is having an effect on players and I will do whatever I can to change things.”