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The day after last season’s play-off final, Brentford’s players and staff gathered to say farewell to those who were leaving the club. Some of the staff were moving elsewhere, while a handful of players were either out of contract or due to join other teams. The mood was sombre, and the pain of their defeat to Fulham was only just sinking in.
As soon as the goodbyes were done, though, the work began. Brentford’s coaching staff and recruitment department held a meeting to discuss their strategy for the transfer window, clarifying their plans and setting the wheels in motion. There were only four weeks to go before the start of the new Championship campaign, and only two weeks before the start of pre-season.
The wounds of the previous night were still raw, but there was simply no time to waste. Did Brentford’s coaches and directors know then, in the midst of all that disappointment, that another play-off final was only nine months away? Of course not.
But they did know that the foundations remained in place, and that the structure they had built would at least give them another chance in the coming campaign. When head coach Thomas Frank returned for pre-season a few days later, he saw a renewed hunger and desire at the club. “I felt it in my own body,” he told Telegraph Sport earlier this season. “I wanted to go again.” Frank and his players get their chance this weekend, when they compete with Swansea City for the biggest financial prize in football. Premier League promotion is once again within the grasp of little Brentford, a club that continues to punch well above its weight and now feels ready to challenge the biggest teams in the land.
Will it be different this year? The sense at Brentford is that the team is a little wiser and a little more experienced than they were last season. For some the mood feels more relaxed than it was in 2020.
Last year they were playing their final season at Griffin Park, Covid-19 was ravaging the country and the crucial play-off games were condensed in a way that caused relentless stress. Now there is more space to breathe, although that is not to say that Frank and his players won’t be fired up at Wembley. One only had to be within earshot of the Brentford Community Stadium on Saturday to know that this club wants promotion with all of its soul.
Frank described the 4,000 fans as sounding like 40,000, and the febrile atmosphere was crucial to Brentford’s stirring 3-1 win over Bournemouth. It felt typical of Brentford’s approach when, a few minutes before kick-off on Saturday, Frank emerged from the tunnel and charged into an unexpected lap of honour around the pitch. Running in his chinos and leather boots, his long hair bouncing behind him, he windmilled his arms towards the supporters, demanding their voices and their energy.
It was certainly unusual, but it was also effective. And Brentford have never been afraid to try something different. If anything, their willingness to be different is the main reason for their growth in recent years.
After all, a club of their stature cannot compete by doing things the same way as everyone else. Brentford are often pointed to as an example that other sides should follow. This misses the point, though, and there is certainly no one within the club who thinks their strategy should provide a lesson for others.
Brentford do what they believe is best for them, in these specific times and in their unique circumstances. The model cannot simply be transferred to another Championship side, and nor would they ever recommend it. Take the decision to close their academy and create a B-team, for example.
The academy system did not work for Brentford, given their financial limitations and their highly-competitive location within London, but that is not to say it will not work for other teams. And Frank’s touchline antics felt right in the moment on Saturday – it came as fans returned for the first time since December, and with no away supporters to heckle him – but it will probably never feel right again. Naturally, there are plenty of clubs who wish they could replicate Brentford’s success in the transfer market.
Their data-driven model, and heavy focus on player development, remains the envy of sides across the country. How many other Championship teams could sell around GBP50 million worth of talent (as Brentford did when they said farewell to Ollie Watkins and Said Benrahma last year) and then earn six more points the following season? How many Premier League sides could do so?
The goalscoring success of Ivan Toney, signed from Peterborough United for an initial GBP5m, has proved to be yet another masterstroke in the market. The previous season, Brentford replaced 28-goal striker Neal Maupay by moving Watkins into a more central position, from which he scored 26 goals before joining Aston Villa. Toney replaced Watkins as the main attacking threat, and he has scored 32 times so far this season.
Brentford would have signed Toney anyway, to play alongside Watkins, if they had secured promotion last year. When they lost at Wembley, they simply pursued the alternative plan instead. Out went Watkins, and in came Toney as the centre-forward.
He has been a leader on the pitch and off it. Meanwhile, Vitaly Janelt, signed for around GBP500,000 from the second division in Germany, has been instrumental in midfield. It almost goes without saying that the last 14 months have provided the most unexpected of tests for football clubs and their people.
And yet, even when it came to coping with coronavirus, Brentford found themselves to be prepared. Remarkably, co-director of football Phil Giles had studied pandemics while completing his PhD in statistics. With Giles providing an unexpected injection of pandemic-based expertise, Brentford took a pessimistic view of the coronavirus situation.
Staff took pay cuts and the players agreed a significant wage deferral. Later in the summer, after they had sold Watkins and Benrahma, the staff were all paid back – with a small bonus on top. With their progressive playing style, the charisma of Frank on the touchline, the new stadium and the strength of their belief in the overarching strategy, the feeling at Brentford is that they are primed for the Premier League.
Promotion would not change the way they operate, yet it would take it up a notch.
Fresh challenges lie in store, then, but first there is a match to win.
Wembley awaits again.
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