Brentford nearly defied the odds last season by winning promotion to the Premier League, a moment that will live long in the memory of midfielder Toumani Diagouraga as he continually has to pinch himself at how far the Bees have come in five years.
Despite losing out to Middlesbrough in last season’s Championship play-off semi-finals, Brentford were on the brink of sealing back-to-back promotions following their impressive second-placed finish in League One just 12 months earlier.
The 28-year-old, who arrived at Griffin Park from Peterborough United back in 2010, is now regarded as the Bees’ longest-serving player having made over 220 appearances for the club.
Diagouraga’s admiration and affection for the club is for all to see, yet the Brentford supporters love him just as much as he does after being rewarded the Supporters’ Player of the Year last term, having made 43 appearances in all competitions.
After last campaign’s fall at the last hurdle, the midfielder is desperate to be recognised as a Premier League star with the Bees and is determined to help Brentford achieve successive top-six finishes come May.
Shoot spoke exclusively to the defensive midfielder about his five-year spell at Griffin Park, the club’s summer restructuring, his Premier League desire and a potential root into an international career.
You are now considered the longest serving player at Brentford. What is it you love about the club?
“The family feel. It is very family orientated and it is a good place to be. I wasn’t really playing at Peterborough [United] at the time, so I had to go out on loan and came here for a month to start with and had a good experience. Then they wanted me to sign, so I joined. The fans are great with me. The whole club made me feel welcome, so I didn’t see any reason to leave. I was good here, so I thought it was better to stay.”
The last two seasons at Griffin Park have been tremendous. First promotion from League One before finishing an impressive fifth in your first year back in the Championship. Can you sum up the last two years?
“Yeah, the season before I was a bit in and out. But then I came back and last season was very good because I don’t think a lot of people expected us to finish where we did. But the way we played and where we finished was a good achievement.”
Last season you were rewarded with Brentford’s Supporters’ Player of the Year. What was your reaction to receiving that award?
“Shocked, a little bit. But at the same time, over the moon. I don’t really score goals or get individual praises, so to get that award was a very good achievement that I was happy with it.”
How much of a personal boost is it for you to know that the club’s fans are fully behind you and support what you are doing on the pitch?
“It is very good for your confidence. Because as a footballer, when you are confident and enjoying your football, that is when you play the best.”
Unfortunately the club lost out to Middlesbrough in the play-offs. Despite that defeat, you must look back now and be proud of how well the team did?
“Thinking about it now, it was a great achievement and I am very proud of it. But at the time, we thought we had enough and we wanted to win and get promoted. It wasn’t meant to be. But hopefully we can try again this year. [Last season] we were looking to finish in the top six. We knew we had a good team. We knew we could get there. Our ambition was just to win every game and see if we can take ourselves in there.”
So what about this season. Is a top-six finish the aim again?
“We have had a lot of players coming in and players that have left the club, so we are in transition at the moment. So we are just attacking every game at the moment, trying to win. Then come the later part of the season, we will see where we are and go from there. I would like to [see the top six as our minimum objective]. I think we are good enough to get into the top six again and I am sure that is what we will try and do.”
And for you as an individual. What are you looking to achieve?
“Just to keep on doing what I did last year and do better, if possible. I just want to help the team achieve promotion and have a great season. I would like to improve that area [goals] of my game. Where I am on the pitch, I think I am more used to defending and break up play and pass the ball instead of scoring. But hopefully if I get the opportunity, then I can get one or two!”
As mentioned, you’ve been here a long time. Can you believe how far the club has come since you joined?
“No, I didn’t expect that when I joined because it was just a standard League One team. But now, at the start of the season, we were one of the favourites to get into the Premier League. So that just shows you how far the club has come. With the new stadium coming, it is a club that is moving forward.”
Does Brentford’s achievements justify your decision to join the club back in 2010?
“Yeah, now it does! At the time, people might have thought it was a step back, but when you look at it now, it was a good decision.”
Although manager Marinus Dijkhuizen has left the club, do you feel the owner, Matthew Benham’s changes will help fulfil the club’s dream of reaching the Premier League?
“I think so. I think he has done really well with his business, so he knows what he is doing. So I’m sure, behind what he has done, there is a reason behind it. Hopefully it will pay off and we will get to the Premier League. It would mean the world to me [to play in the Premier League]. As a footballer, everyone wants to play in the biggest leagues against the best players and the Premier League is the best league in the world. So if we can make it there, then I would be over the moon. I think if you play football, or any sport, I think you always want to make it to the top at some point. I haven’t stopped thinking about that, so hopefully one day, I can make it happen.”
You were born in France, but to Malian parents. Have you ever been approached to represent Mali on the international stage?
“No, not yet. I would definitely consider it, [if they asked me]. I am 28 now, so that call from France, I don’t think it is coming anytime soon! So I would definitely consider it. It would be very great for me. As a footballer, you want to play as an international and in the biggest leagues. That is a goal of mine. So if that call-up ever comes, then I am sure I would think about it.”