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From the pandemic to the Premier League: the last two years have been a remarkable journey for Brentford. “Honestly it is incredible what we have achieved,” Thomas Frank, the head coach says.
Here, in Frank’s own words detailing the club’s seven defining games, is how the club with the smallest budget, the lowest wage bill and with no top-flight experience “attacked the league” - from a bus stop in Hounslow.
Brentford 5 Sheffield Wednesday 0 (March 7, 2020)
Thomas Frank: We played in a capacity stadium. We didn’t know it would be our last game at Griffin Park but football was shut down. I had a Zoom call that night – me, Brian (Riemer, his assistant), Rasmus Ankersen and Phil Giles (the co-directors of football) – and it was, like, ‘what do we do? Should we allow players to travel back to Denmark, for example?’ I remember Mathias Jensen and Christian Norgaard had pregnant girlfriends and they wanted to go. I said we should keep them here and Phil said ‘let them go home, we don’t know what’s going to happen’. In the end we allowed them to travel and I clearly remember Phil – whose masters (degree) was in pandemics, by the way – said: ‘Take it easy. It will take months and probably a couple of years before this is over’. And he was bang on.
So we started in June and we had to play these nine games – Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday, Wednesday – and we were 10 points behind Fulham and West Brom but we thought ‘let's go for it, let's see what happens’. We won the first 2-0 away to Fulham, then 1-0 at home to West Brom. Game on. We won seven in a row. We met here (at the training ground) before the second last game, away to Stoke, and travelled up late because of Covid. We saw the first-half of West Brom v Huddersfield and Huddersfield go 1-0 and our players are jumping. Just before we left, West Brom equalise. Fine. We are in two buses and Huddersfield score five minutes before the end. The players are going mad. We arrived at 10pm in the hotel and I said: ‘we can go past West Brom with a win so make sure we do things normally’. But I think the turnaround from the emotions and playing the next day at 12.30pm (kick-off)… we didn’t have time to process it. So suddenly from being the ‘chasing one’ a few players thought ‘wow, we can do it’. We lost 1-0 and then lost to Barnsley. The narrative will always be ‘you bottled it’ but we should have won. Instead we went to the play-offs.
Brentford 1 Fulham 2 (Championship play-off final, Aug 4, 2020)
We played the final at Wembley, a ghost stadium with no fans. It was a 0-0 game and should have gone to penalties but David Raya, the best goalkeeper in the Championship, made a mistake. 1-0 and we lost 2-1. It just ended on such a down and I remember in the dressing room that feeling… so hard, so hard. We then had eight days’ holiday – but it was no holiday – and I drove back to Denmark. I had three days with my family and we went to a nice hotel but I was on the phone. There was work to be done and we went straight into the new season and sold the two best offensive players in the league in Ollie Watkins and Said Benrahama. We got Ivan Toney in from League One. We tried to replace Said but we didn’t manage it and we had to go again in the craziest of seasons. We were by far the team that had the fewest days off. We had to push one more time. It was unbelievably hard. But I knew he had a strong squad that could compete for promotion. I told the players: we go to try and win the league.
We didn’t get a top start. Maybe it was because of what happened (at the end of the previous season). But we then went 21 games unbeaten and in the 21st game we beat Reading to go top of the league and I thought ‘wow this looks good’ and then we lost to Barnsley, lost to QPR and Ivan got injured, (Henrik) Dalsgaard got injured, we knew Josh (Dasilva) was struggling and he was done for the season. We lost against Coventry and Rico (Henry) had a big hamstring injury, out for the season. But in that run of 21 games we went to the semi-finals of the (Carabao) Cup. I am not stupid I don’t play the same 11 every game but I put a strong team out because I believe in consistency. But when we played Tottenham we were the team in the whole of Europe who had played the most games in that season. In the whole of Europe. We have a unique staff but the training ground is a s---hole. We don’t have top facilities. We love it and have a fantastic atmosphere but we didn’t fly home on jets. Not in the Championship.
Norwich City 1 Brentford 0 (March 3, 2021)
I was tired. Done. I was just exhausted. Not stressed, no chest pains or I couldn’t sleep but I was so tired. I remember that international break and we couldn’t travel, we were still hit by Covid and I didn’t watch any football. I just slept. I decided for the last part of the season that I needed to leave the training ground at 4pm at the latest, go home, walk the dog with my wife, watch a stupid Netflix series, maybe have a nap and then make dinner with my wife – or she made dinner and I had a glass of red! – and talked. I was like the phone that you put on charge overnight and in the morning I was not 100 per cent but maximum 80. I had to change my lifestyle to make sure I could keep the energy. I usually have a huge engine and am pushing, pushing but because of Covid, because it had almost been two years, I was just knackered. It was after Norwich that I recognised it.
Bournemouth 1 Brentford 0 (play-off semi-final first leg, May 17, 2021)
Bournemouth got a corner in the 89th minute and they only put a few players up there and wanted to keep the ball and defend. And I just thought ‘okay, you know what? We are going to beat them in the next game because they are afraid’. They were playing at home and were not going for the second goal? It was not as if they were through if they won. I went into the dressing room and told the players: they are afraid of us. Then in the second leg it was the best game-plan ever. It was the master-piece. I did the tactical meeting in the dressing room and showed two short videos, a minute each. One was tactical, the other motivational. Then I spoke to the ref, which I normally never do, and said ‘they will time waste. If they take more than 15 seconds at goal-kicks I will be standing like this (holding his arm in the air and tapping his watch) live on Sky. I am telling you now because they did it in the last game. Besides that I will try to behave on the touchline’.
I don’t believe too much in final speeches but with this one I got everyone in a huddle and put myself in the middle and said ‘I need us to be cool’ and pointed at Pontus (Jansson) and Sergi Canos. I then said I needed aggression and pointed at Mathias Jensen and Ethan Pinnock. Then I said ‘I need presence’ and I pointed at Ivan (Toney), at Dalsgaard and (Emiliano) Marcondes. Christian Norgaard asked ‘Can I say something’. He made a very emotional speech saying ‘we are a family, play for each other, like you would play for your mother, your brother, your children’. I get goosebumps now. Staff had tears in their eyes.
Then I did another thing. I have only done it once and I don’t think I will do it again. I ran this lap around the pitch because I knew I needed to maximise every single detail. Because of Covid we had only 4,000 fans and we needed to make it loud.
We came flying out, first five minutes, it was crazy. We had a corner, they ran down and scored. 1-0 down. I turned around and smashed my foot into the bin and said ‘Thomas, cool, cool. Keep your emotions. Deep breath’. I turned around and smashed my foot one more time and said ‘no, cool’. We went on and won (3-1).
At that stage I knew, no disrespect to Swansea, that if we hit our top performance we would beat them in the final (Brentford won 2-0). For me that game is bigger than any other except for the final of the World Cup or the European Championship. Champions League Final? No. Do they want to win? Of course. But you cannot describe what it means to Brentford to win the play-off final. It’s life-defining.
Brentford 2 Arsenal 0 (August 13, 2021)
That will forever be a stand-out moment in my career. I remember after the game I sat with Brian in his apartment close to Kew Bridge and we were with Rasmus. We had a glass of red wine around midnight and Rasmus said: ‘This is probably going to be one of the top five games in Brentford’s history’. The first game, at home, live across the world and beating a top side.
I was convinced before. We know we want do things differently. We know we have to find a new way to beat the established clubs and we came into the season with zero (Premier League) experience: players, staff members, me with one of the youngest teams ever to get promoted, with the second youngest team in the Premier League, with the lowest budget and lowest wage bill. But we believed with our knowledge that we could make a difference.
In the week up to the Arsenal game I kept saying to the players, and it was not a mind-game, it was literally my feeling, that I would be disappointed if we did not beat them. It was no disrespect to Arsenal but it was analysing everything. I just had a feeling. So I am glad we are sitting here now and are not just crawling over the line. If you look at all the stats, analytics, XGs (expected goals) we probably deserve to be even higher (than 13th). They are not the only truth but they are a good indicator.
Before the season started we got some time off. Because of the play-offs we were behind everyone else and you can’t plan. On Monday I went on holiday to Scotland. We drove to Edinburgh, Fort William and Loch Lomond. We had six days and in that week there were Zoom meetings about transfers and phone calls but I was relatively calm. Then I went to Denmark for three weeks which was fantastic. Because it (promotion) was such a big achievement and I was so happy I think my emotions were helping me cope with the tiredness.
We were convinced the squad was good enough to play in the Premier League. We targeted three players – a midfielder, who could press, a winger and a centre-back. Kristoffer Ajer and Frank Onyeka were done relatively early and Yoane Wissa was a later one. We didn’t want any other players.
I knew in my head. The plan was clear. I knew we had to be fantastic defensively, on set-pieces and in fitness. We knew the style of play and what I wanted to do. We were more dominant in the Championship, the highest-scoring team for two years, and it was about breaking the opposition down but we had to change that.
We needed to be one of the best defensive sides in the league. With set-pieces we knew were equally as good as any other team. Maybe they might have a tiny bit better delivery but in terms of physicality and the plan we were top. And then fitness. I should be able to run as much you. Maybe there is a little physiology but it’s really about mind-set and training. We focused more on defence especially in pre-season. We had to nail it.
Manchester City 2 Brentford 0 (February 9, 2022)
With the start we had I was thinking ‘can we be top 10?’ and then we got hit by injuries. Raya was out, a top six keeper in the league, for four months, Ajer out, Rico, Ivan. We had the bad spell. We lost nine out of 11 from Boxing Day to the end of February. I remember before the season people saying we could lose five in a row in the league and I thought ‘never’. Because of the culture and mindset. And we had the City game away. We lost and that was the fifth game. But we played really well and that kept me believing. Then the key players came back and I knew if I had my best XI then no problem. City was so close to being a defensive master-class but that spell was tough to take.
I hate losing, the players hate losing and that’s the biggest difference from the Championship to the Premier League for a team like us. We are just losing more games. For the top guys, (Jurgen) Klopp and (Pep) Guardiola, they only found out last Sunday (the Premier League’s final day) whether they are a success or not – more or less. They get a lot wins and that’s a nice feeling and it’s easier to go to work the next week. When you get the ‘hits’ you still need to stand up, come in with positive energy, smile, still producing messages (smacking the palm of his hand hard) and it’s tough. My three words this season were: cool, brave, aggressive. Every game.
Chelsea 1 Brentford 4 (April 2, 2022)
There were three reasons why we went on a good run. Firstly we could never do it if we had not performed well in the bad spell. The basics were there. Secondly key players were fit. Even when City play without Kevin De Bruyne they are not the same. And then there was Christian (Eriksen). I am still convinced we would have stayed up without him. 100 per cent. But he has given us top quality, coolness, he has made his team-mates better. They have responded to him. He is smiling, enjoying playing football and being part of something and not just something but something remarkable.
In the last seven years, before us, there is only Aston Villa who stayed up – by a point, and they were lucky with the goal-line technology (failing) against Sheffield United and spent a lot of money – in the first season after the play-offs. And we are so comfortable where we are without – more or less – spending money and playing our type of football.
The Chelsea game is the obvious one. The Norwich game (3-1 win away from home) and the Burnley game (2-0) were very important but going to Stamford Bridge, playing against the European champions, the best cup team in the world, coming full strength and we beat them fair and square. Not many teams do that. I was crazy proud. It’s very, very rare as an underdog to perform at your max in all aspects of how you want to play. Following a game plan 100 per cent. That almost never happens.
We started planning in February. We planned for the Premier League. We didn’t assume anything but it is better to plan this way. If we were relegated then, yes, we might have sold a player or two but we would still be in a strong position, going down.
We will look to get two to three players in. The plan is to keep everyone, including Christian Eriksen. That’s the big plan and I can’t see why that shouldn’t happen. I think he will make his decision in the next two weeks. There is no set date but he doesn’t want to drag it out.
Personally I don’t believe in the ‘second season syndrome’ narrative. I am extremely respectful of this league and it’s relentless and I am very aware that next season we can finish 20th or we can finish seventh. I don’t see that if we do things well enough, that if we are not hit by injuries, if we keep our squad, if we manage to add players who can bring quality then why can’t we at least perform at the same level and develop things? But I just know that the margins between 20th and seventh is this (he smiles and holds his fingers very close together).