Thomas Frank’s Brentford renovation now needs the final touch for redemption

·4-min read
 (Action Images via Reuters)
(Action Images via Reuters)

Less than a year on from their last trip to a Wembley play-off final and, in truth, there have been few moments when one did not — deep down — suspect the road for Brentford would lead back here.

There were times, yes, when they flirted with a more direct, less stressful path to the Premier League, particularly throughout a 21-game unbeaten run either side of the new year that looked to have them on course to secure automatic promotion.

And others, such as after the three-game losing streak in February, when you wondered if the chance might have been and gone for another year.

For the most part, however, it seemed inevitable that for Brentford to reach English football's top tier for the first time since 1947, they would eventually have to overcome their hoodoo of nine play-off defeats.

Still, after the hangover of last season's heartache of losing to Fulham at Wembley, a uniquely short summer break, the departures of their two best players and another ponderous start to the new campaign, it was not a given that the Bees would have the chance to make amends so soon.

That they do is, like so much of the club's success in recent years, down to shrewd recruitment, tactical flexibility, an affable, yet steely manager and a lethal centre-forward.

Though hardly a hidden gem (nor a cheap one, at an initial £5million) it says something about the performances of Ivan Toney that the deal that acquired him from League One Peterborough United last summer now looks both a masterstroke and a bargain. His 31st goal of the season set a new Championship record on the final day and, a fortnight later, his 32nd and most important so far kickstarted the semi-final comeback against Bournemouth that set up tomorrow's Wembley finale with Swansea.

Thomas Frank used footage of Liverpool's epic win over Barcelona in 2019 to inspire that second-leg turnaround last week, but like Jurgen Klopp this season, the Dane's task has been made unenviable by a raft of injuries.

Into the business end of the campaign Frank has been shorn of perhaps the two players who look most ready for the Premier League in outstanding left-back Rico Henry and England Under-21 star Josh Dasilva, having already made do without captain Pontus Jansson and, arguably most important of all, his senior midfielder, Christian Norgaard, for much of the season.

Norgaard's return to fitness and form in recent months as the ball-playing fulcrum in a back-three — an idea Frank raised with his compatriot over text as they watched Frenkie de Jong shine in the role for Barcelona — speaks volumes about the adaptability of a squad and a manager who have never shied from the challenge of reinvention, whether to overcome injury or arrest their rare dips in form. Yet, it is the way they replaced Norgaard in midfield during his absence that is most typically Brentford.

 (Action Images via Reuters)
(Action Images via Reuters)

Few had ever heard of Vitaly Janelt when he was signed from German second-tier side VfL Bochum in October, and even the club's official announcement of his arrival claimed he would "need some time to adapt to English football". Instead, within weeks the 22-year-old had become a midfield lynchpin, eventually making 41 remarkably consistent League appearances.

"When I voted for player of the season, Ivan [Toney] was my No1 choice and Vitaly was second," Jansson revealed last week. "He is the perfect Brentford signing, he wasn't supposed to be a star.

"He is like a German machine — you can always trust him. He was eating two white sandwiches with Nutella before the play-off semi-final and I asked him 'What are you doing?!'

"And he said: 'That is me, I am a machine, I just go out and play the game'. He is an unbelievable character."

Not every signing has worked so smoothly, but the balance between renewal and retention has been perfectly struck. Last summer, Brentford were adamant that Ollie Watkins and Said Benrahma would be the only notable departures from the most talented squad the club had assembled, and they stuck to their word, while refreshing just enough to ensure a group that might have been burdened by its collective failure was spurred into life again.

Coincidence, perhaps, but it is a fact that none of the trio of semi-final goalscorers were involved in last year's near-miss, with Janelt and Toney both new arrivals and Marcus Forss first out on loan and then out injured.

For those who were, tomorrow offers a shot at redemption. For veterans and novices alike, it promises so much more.

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