Brentford FC: an English fairytale with strong Danish influence

“There should be a lot of clubs out there dreaming. Everything is possible if you work hard, have a clear strategy, togetherness.” When Thomas Frank said this in May, Brentford FC had just ended a 74-year wait to return to the top tier of English football. It was a comment made at a press conference where Frank sat draped in a towel and where he spoke of wanting to be “so drunk.” In short, it was said in a moment of unbridled joy and would have been treated as such if Brentford were at or near the bottom of the Premier League standings nearly two months into the season.

But after eight games–okay, it is early days and they have big games coming up–across competitions Frank’s team has refused to wake up to an alternate reality. They began by beating Arsenal. Granted, Arsenal were particularly rudderless that August night but then Brentford held Crystal Palace and Aston Villa, beat Wolves, smacked Old Athletic 7-0 in the EFL Cup and drew 3-3 with Liverpool in a roller-coaster of a game. Their only defeat so far has been a 0-1 home loss to Brighton, a game where Brentford striker Bryan Mbuemo could have scored four.

In that game, striker Ivan Toney tried a Patrik Schick and almost pulled it off, his long-range shot sailing over not by much. Midfielder Vitaly Janelt’s attempt to steal from Emiliano Martinez as he tossed the ball for a goal-kick in an earlier game was cheeky but showed that the promoted team was anything but overawed. “In all three games we have had solid performances and been brave, pressing high and going forward. But I know they are good enough to show even more,” said Frank.

Everything Frank had said after Brentford beat Swansea 2-0 to win the Championship playoff came together against Liverpool. If Kristoffer Ajer’s slide for a goalline save and goalkeeper David Raya’s performance encapsulated Brentford’s desire, Toney’s back-heel for the first goal showed the tools for flair play and goals from Janelt and Yoane Wissa their self-belief. Trailing twice against the vaunted Liverpool frontline, damage control could have been the Brentford way but “The Bees” swarmed the rival goal instead. To aid that, Frank took off central midfielder Christian Norgaard and brought on Wissa, a striker for a defensive midfielder. From 3-5-2, Brentford switched to 3-4-3.

Brentford’s press, their focused attack on the right side of Liverpool’s defence, the variety in their set-play routines worked through signals from the touchline from Bernardo Cueva, the club’s Mexican tactical statistician, to the players was proof of the meticulous planning that had gone into the game. “We went toe to toe with one of the best teams in the Premier League and more than held our own,” said Frank. “We struggled with their long balls and they deserved their three goals,” said Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp.

MAKING A STATEMENT

Along with Young Boys, Club Brugge and Sheriff Tiraspol in Europe, Brentford are a roundhouse whack on the idea of a super league which for now has imploded under the weight of its own contradictions. “Look at their players. I don’t know how much (Leandro) Trossard, (Adam) Lallana and (Danny) Welbeck are worth compared to our players,” Frank had said after the Brighton game. But given the chance that would have been denied them in a closed club competition between football’s fat cats, Brentford showed they can compete.

Assured of 178 million pounds for qualifying to the Premiership, Brentford are a club so big on smart buys and data analytics that it has evoked comparisons with Oakland Athletics, the baseball team that was the subject of the 2011 film Moneyball. Left-side centre-back Ethan Pinnock, who scored against Liverpool, was playing in the seventh tier of English football in 2018 and the ever-mobile Janelt was got for 500,000 euros from Bochum.

To understand Brentford’s fairytale, we need to—fittingly–look at Denmark. Or FC Midtjylland since Matthew Benham invested 6.2 million pounds in 2014. Benham is a lifelong Brentford fan who became the club’s owner in 2007 when his loan of 700,000 pounds was not repaid.

Brentford were then in League Two, the fourth tier of English football. A physics graduate from Oxford, Benham was a vice-president at Bank of America before joining a betting firm. By 2004, having made pots of money as a sports gambler, Benham founded his own betting company Smartodds. Benham’s advice to clients is based on algorithms, data and research. Which is how Midtjylland began to run their football team since he had majority ownership.

By 2015, the Danish club, according to The Guardian, was tracking shots in the danger zone–the area between the six-yard box and the edge of the penalty area, from where 77% of Premier League goals were scored. At half-time, coaches would base team talk on inputs on key performance indicators they would be given. “I knew he thought very differently about football,” said Rasmus Akerson, the chairman who is also a co-director at Brentford, about Benham. Where the model differed was that while Midtjylland, from where midfielder Frank Onyeka joined this term, set great store by their academy, Brentford disbanded theirs in 2016.

Instead, they formed a B team and made it the pathway to the senior side. With a host of Premier League clubs in the city, this west London club realised spending almost 2 million pounds annually on running an academy wasn’t giving the right return on investments. Also, there were too many teams to look after too. Better to form a squad comprising players aged between 17 and 20, ones let go from top teams in London, ones from Europe who had slipped under the radar of top clubs. Such as midfielder Josh Dasilva. Recovering from a hip injury, Dasilva has refused a new deal at Arsenal, preferring to stay at Brentford.

These 40-odd B team players train on a pitch next to the senior team and through the season, play games in England and Europe. According to The Athletic, 10 players including Finnish international Marcus Forss, who scored a hattrick against Oldham and the goal that took Brentford to the Championship playoff, have graduated to the first team.

These B team players are combining well with the likes of Toney, Ajer, who cost 12.5 million pounds, Pontus Jansson and Norgaard (among the five internationals Brentford sent to Euro 2020), and Raya whose ability to find teammates with long passes–it is often Toney and usually after some signals–help Brentford hit on the break.

Bought for a record 6 million pounds in 2020, Toney was playing in lower leagues till 2018 and was mocked on social media for saying he believed he could play in the Premier League. And he was signed after Brentford made approximately 90 million pounds from the sale of Ollie Watkins, Said Benrahma, Neal Maupay and Ezri Konsa.

Including 11 penalties, Toney scored a record 31 goals in The Championship in 2020-21 and is a solid physical presence on both sides of the pitch. He and Mbuemo usually lead the press with Janelt tailing anyone dropping deep from the midfielders. Toney has six goals and two assists going into Sunday’s away tie to West Ham. He and Mbuemo are working a fine combination as was evident from the game against Brighton and the second goal against Wolves. “They are a dynamic duo. It is not the same but it is a little bit like (Dwight) Yorke and (Andy) Cole,” Frank has said.

His hair parted in the middle, often flopping on his forehead, and in chinos and tees, Frank, 47, didn’t have much of a playing career and began coaching youth teams when he was 20. He has read sports psychology, has a degree in physical education and has worked under current Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmund when he was at Lyngby. At Brentford since 2016, the former Denmark youth team coach worked as Dean Smith’s assistant before taking up the top job when Smith joined Villa in 2018.

“I really, really walked the hard way, coaching from when I was 20 from under-eights to Premier League,” said Frank. “I hope that can inspire other coaches out there who have that dream to inspire people to be better people and players.”

Frank was in charge when Brentford lost 1-2 to Fulham in the 2020 playoff. It wasn’t the only time Brentford had come close to moving up a division. In 2013, Marcello Trotta’s 94th minute penalty hit the framework and denied Brentford promotion to The Championship. In 2001-02, they needed to beat Reading in their final league game to be promoted and failed.

But you would reckon that a club which plays Hey Jude–post-match, a beaming Frank is often seen asking the fans to amp it up–would be able to take a sad song and make it better.

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