3 April ~ Brentford's visit to Wembley for the Johnstone's Paint Trophy final with Carlisle today is a chance to meet some of the season's raised expectations generated by the increased playing budget provided by owner Matthew Benham. The Carling Cup run which saw off Hull and Everton and took eventual winners Birmingham to a penalty shoot-out plus excellent away wins at Southampton and Charlton (for the first time in 51 and 85 years respectively) was interspersed with some truly dire performances. Most notably there was the abject 5-1 mauling at Dagenham which proved to be a defeat too far for manager Andy Scott.
His (for now) temporary replacement, Nicky Forster, has lifted the shackles from players trapped in Scott's rigid functional style and the likes of Sam Saunders and Toumani Diagouraga are beginning to show the ability we all suspected they possessed. Some excellent results and more attractive football have almost certainly come too late for a play-off push but have left fans wondering what might have been.
Brentford and Carlisle are two evenly matched sides separated in the league only by goal difference until last Tuesday and the result is probably too close to call. With a team in good form and eight loanees to choose from, Forster will find it tough to choose his starting 11. Unfortunately, Richard Lee, whose penalty saving heroics kept Brentford alive in both the Carling Cup and Johnstone's Paint Trophy, and Charlie MacDonald are both injured. But Gary Alexander seems to like playing at Wembley and he'll probably be joined up front by the splendidly-named and lightning-fast Jeffrey Schlupp, on loan from Leicester via Germany Under-19s. He's already announced his intentions by scoring three times in two starts, including the goals that beat Carlisle in last Friday's league rehearsal.
Whatever the shortcomings of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy as a competition, it certainly captures the imagination of both players and fans from the semi-final stage onwards. Brentford have sold nearly 25,000 tickets – five times the average home attendance. We're all well aware that outside the two clubs involved, nobody really remembers past winners but it would do Brentford a lot of good to break their big-match hoodoo. This includes Football League Trophy defeats in 1985 and 2001, not to mention play-off final defeats in 1997 and 2002. Perhaps a more lasting legacy, though, would be if some of those extra 20,000 were inspired to attend Griffin Park rather more regularly in the future. Chris Dean