When Thomas Frank walked into Brentford’s training ground on Wednesday morning, having given his players a short break at the end of a condensed Championship season, he was struck by the first day of school feeling.
“The players were just buzzing, energy, talking,” Franks says. “I was thinking: ‘What? They’ve not been away from each other for three weeks, it was only three days’. The energy in the room was extremely good, I just love that atmosphere because it tells me that the squad is in a good place.”
The contrast with a year ago is stark. Brentford’s last play-off campaign began on the back of a dramatic, draining end to the season, played out in a still-novel Covid environment against the backdrop of an emotional farewell to Griffin Park, as the Bees blew not one but two chances at automatic promotion with successive defeats to Stoke and Barnsley. So great was the tension that some players were struggling to sleep.
“I felt devastated after the Barnsley game,” midfielder Christian Norgaard recalled this week. “Conceding that late goal, the big celebration from them and then getting into the changing room and seeing the result of the West Brom game. There were a lot of emotions attached to it.”
This time around, Brentford head into Monday’s semi-final first leg against Bournemouth on a run of four straight victories - one of them against the Cherries - and having had plenty of time to come to terms with missing out on the top two.
“It’s been less stressful, the last few weeks compared to last year,” Norgaard says. “We’ve had more time to settle and wrap our heads around what’s coming up. Our preparation has been better this time and it’s been more calm around the training ground.”
The serenity has been brought on not only by the lead up to this defining fortnight, but also the knowledge of what lies beyond, with Frank’s side having bounced back from last season’s eventual play-off final defeat to Fulham to stand on the brink of the Premier League once more.
“The biggest redemption would, of course, be to get promoted and then maybe I would forget the loss against Fulham,” Norgaard adds.
“But we also saw that life goes on. Even though we lost a big game, we managed to put on a fantastic season again and that’s good to know going into these games.”
Still, while the Brentford camp is awash with a wave of calm, there has been a narrative shift outside of it. Whatever the reality, and the historical size of the club, this no longer feels like plucky old Brentford, punching above their weight to even be in contention, with their nostalgic ground and shrewd recruitment.
A run to the League Cup semi-final, a production line of Premier League-bound talent and a brand-new state-of-the-art home have increased the club’s perceived standing in the minds of English football fans. They are now perennial promotion contenders.
Should they fail - for a record tenth time without success in the play-offs - there will be markedly less external sympathy than a year ago. Speaking ahead of the trip to the Vitality Stadium, Frank did not shy away from that dismal record.
“When you come third two years in a row, you prefer that it was just the three best teams in the division that get promoted,” the Dane admitted. “But it’s not in our heads. We know it’s a modern world, we know it’s not like there’s a voodoo curse over Brentford that we can’t get out of.”
Miss out again, and he’d be forgiven for wondering if there was.