In late August of 2020, Bayern Munich’s French forward Kingsley Coman headed home to secure the German giants the UEFA Champions League trophy in a close 1-0 victory over Paris St. Germain. Not only did that lone goal secure the Bavarian club the title of European champions, but it also earned the club €19 million in prize money.
Interestingly, the €19 million in prize money on the line does not make the Champions League the most valuable tournament in European soccer. Instead, that title goes to a much more anonymous game —– the English Football League Championship Playoff Final.
The Championship is the second division of England’s four-tiered footballing system. Twenty-four teams compete annually for a coveted spot in the Premier League, which is guaranteed for the top two finishers in the league table. Teams that finish in places three through six then compete in a four-team playoff, with the two playoff finalists competing in “the richest game in football.”
What makes the match so valuable is the same issue that caused a dozen European elite clubs to attempt to split off into the Super League last month: media deals. The immense nature of the Premier League’s media deal means that the winner of the playoff final will receive anywhere from £135 to £165 million. If the club can avoid immediate relegation, that sum could rise to north of £250 million.
This season, four clubs are vying for the opportunity to win football’s richest game: Barnsley, Swansea, Bournemouth and Brentford. The first three clubs are all hoping to make a return to the Premier League: Bournemouth was relegated at the end of last season on the final day; Swansea enjoyed a seven-year stint in the Premier League from 2011 to 2018; and Barnsley is hoping to go back to the Premier League for the first time since 1998.
Brentford, however, were last in the top flight of English football in 1947, the second year of Clement Attlee’s term as Prime Minister. The Bees floundered in the bottom two tiers for decades, until the early 2010s, when a strong League One season returned the club to the Championship.
Their very first season, Brentford finished in fifth place and qualified for the playoff, only to be immediately dumped out by Middlesbrough. The team experienced a minor “sophomore slump” that extended a few seasons, but savvy recruiting and excellent player development prompted Brentford to surge to a third-place finish last year. They even reached the playoff final, only to lose a heartbreaking 2-1 game in extra time to crosstown rivals Fulham.
In the aftermath of that loss, Brentford lost its two best players, English striker Ollie Watkins and Algerian winger Saïd Benrahma, who had combined for 42 goals and 20 assists. It looked like the club was ill-prepared to repeat its promotion charge, but more excellent recruiting saw the club bring in striker Ivan Toney, who rewrote the record books this season with his 31 goals and 10 assists.
Toney’s prolific production meant that Brentford wrapped up the season strong and finished in third for the second consecutive year. Before them now stands their third shot at the Championship Playoff in seven seasons, with the hope that, as the saying goes, the third time will be the charm. Brentford had the joint-fewest losses in the league (7) and scored the most goals in the league (79), which seemingly leaves the Bees well-positioned to reach the top flight for the first time in 75 years.
There is, however, one major cause for concern — in its 131 years of existence, the club has never once been promoted through a playoff. In nine playoff appearances across the divisions, Brentford has crashed out in all nine, never once winning promotion. Ascendance into a higher division has only ever come through automatic promotion. Statistics might be on Brentford’s side, but history is against it.
Before even worrying about the final, Brentford will need to focus first on two games against a capable Bournemouth side. The Cherries had legitimate gripes about their relegation last season, and will be looking to return to what they see as their rightful position in the Premier League. If Brentford can make it through this two-legged semi-final, then they can begin to worry about either Swansea or Barnsley on the other side.
In the Aeneid, Virgil poignantly compares the toils of the Carthaginians to bees in the summer, which he sees as the pinnacle of hard work and industry. If, as Virgil thinks, these Bees can also “work the blooming meadows under the sun” and “close ranks like an army,” then perhaps they’ll have enough to overthrow the yoke of history and reach the promised land.