It was another tense last day of the season involving Wigan Athletic, but alas this time, none of the drama affected Latics.
They put in a valiant effort to be Brentford’s party poopers but in the end they had to stand back and watch as Brentford celebrated reaching the Play-Offs, winning the three points here as their rivals failed to win elsewhere.
Gary Caldwell’s men were much the better team for the first half but found themselves a deflected goal down at the break, lost concentration after seconds of the restart then ran out of steam - in that sense the game was typical of the season.
However, with Latics finishing the game with two home-grown debutants on the field, and two in the starting line-up, Caldwell has already rightly started looking forward to the future. That has to be the ray of hope as Latics bid farewell to the Sky Bet Championship.
Caldwell made four changes to his starting XI, with Billy Mckay starting for the first the first time since his move from Inverness Caledonian Thistle in January and Lee Nicholls making his first appearance of any kind in a Latics shirt for 18 months. Other changes saw starts for Don Cowie and Marc-Antoine Fortune with Jordan Flores back among the substitutes alongside Louis Robles, the Youth Team captain and Player of the Season, who has netted 30 goals this season across the Under 18s and Development Squad.
With so much riding on the game for the home side, it was Latics who capitalised on Brentford’s nerves in the early stages. Fortune stung the hands of keeper David Button after just three minutes with a fierce shot on the turn, before Gaetan Bong tried his luck from distance five minutes later, Button again having to save. Fortune then had the ball in the back in the net from close range on 19 minutes but the goal was ruled out after the linesman judged the ball had gone out of play before Bong pulled it back. James Perch then fired in a 25 yard effort that was deflected for a corner. It really was all Latics, the vocal support behind Nicholls’ goal making all the noise.
But then things turned in a moment that really summed up much of this season, as Alex Pritchard’s 30 yard free-kick after 26 minutes flew into the top corner of Nicholls’ goal in Brentford’s first significant attempt, but only with the aid of a wicked deflection. Cruel on Latics who had worked so hard to contain the home side until that point.
Still they looked the more creative side, however. Tim Chow’s effort on the turn took a deflection that saw it land kindly into Button’s hands, then only Harlee Dean’s last ditch tackle prevented Mckay latching on to Chow’s through ball and be clear on goal.
Pennant replaced Kim Bo-Kyung for the second half, which exploded into life when Jota found a way through the Latics rear-guard within seconds of the restart to double the lead. Agony, but Latics should have hit back straight away, a great move down the left eventually saw Mckay smash the ball against Jake Bidwell and Button had to claw the ball off his goal-line – it looked very close.
As news filtered through of results elsewhere turning in their favour, so the atmosphere at Griffin park was transformed and Latics had to stand tall. Dean smashed one effort onto the bar as the home side sensed the tide had finally turned.
Then just after the hour mark, came Robles and Flores, replacing Fortune and Chow. A bold statement of intent from Caldwell as he looks to assess his squad for the future. Both – along with Chow before them – looked lively and showed immense desire – these HAVE to be great omens for next season.
Gray scored Brentford’s third from near the penalty spot after a neat interchange on the edge of the box after 80 minutes, before Latics’ miserable afternoon – and season – was almost compounded when Alan Judge was upended by Cowie in the box. James Tarkowski stepped up to the spot but Nicholls stretched out brilliantly to his right to smother his penalty.
It did nothing to dampen the home crowd’s spirits as their party could really begin, the final whistle greeted by a mass pitch invasion. Congratulations to them, therefore, it was certainly their day but they are proof, as Latics are, along with the likes of AFC Bournemouth, that fortunes can change very quickly in football. We will be back.