Since the turn of the millennium, 22 teams have won promotion to the Premier League via the play-offs, but eleven of those have gone on to be relegated the very next season. From the spectacle of Blackpool to the disarray of Derby, the showpiece match winners tend to struggle in the big time – but that’s not been the case this season.
Thomas Frank led Brentford to a 13th place finish with 46 points – a terrific total that no team has surpassed since Swansea in 2011/12, and one no team has equaled since Crystal Palace in the 13/14 campaign.
But even Palace (a club who hadn’t played in the top flight for nearly ten years by then) were able to spend £30 million on new signings, while counting on the experience of Ian Holloway, Neil Warnock and Tony Pulis during a whirlwind season which resulted in an 11th place finish.
Their squad contained some 15 players who had played in the Premier League before, with vital experience coming in the shape of Marouane Chamakh, Scott Dann, Barry Bannan and more.
Brentford, on the other hand, have been different. Prior to this season, they hadn’t competed in the top flight of English football for 74 years, with relegation in 1947 proving to be their fifth and final season of first division football – until now.
Despite the market inflation, Brentford spent just £3m more than Palace did during their return to the big time, but they weren’t blessed with the experience that the Eagles had to call upon – beginning the season without a single player who played consistently in the Premier League (not counting 19 minutes spit across three Newcastle and Liverpool appearances for Ivan Toney and Sergi Canos).
While the three gaffers who took charge of Palace in 2013/14 had managed more than 1,000 matches by the time they stepped foot into the Selhurst Park dugout, Frank had managed just over 100 senior games with Danish side Bröndby IF between 2013 and 2016 before pitching up at Griffin Park.
To get there, Frank cut his teeth in youth football – eventually making his way to the Denmark U16 national side and progressing from there to the under-20’s setup (managing the likes of Christian Eriksen along the way). He impressed enough to catch the eye of Bröndby who entrusted the Dane with rebuilding a club slipping towards the bottom of the Superliga.
He restored The Boys from Vestegnen to the top end of the league before leaving in March of 2016 amid tension between himself and the board, with a quest in England on the horizon for one of Europe’s up-and-coming coaches.
Frank joined Brentford in December of that year as assistant head coach Dean Smith, linking up with fellow Danes Lasse Vibe and Andreas Bjelland as the Bees began to explore the foreign markets – enjoying a prosperous relationship with ‘sister’ club FC Midtjylland both on and off the field.
The Danish manager impressed in his role as both assistant and as a bridge between the club’s ‘B’ Team and first team, so much so that he landed the top job when Smith departed for boyhood club Aston Villa in October of 2018.
But the new man in charge would endure a turbulent start with the club rocked by the death of Technical Director Robert Rowan, as Frank won just one of his opening ten games. His switch from Smith’s 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 bore fruit, however, and the Bees flew from 20th to 11th by the season’s end.
Those next two summers saw plenty of big names depart, including Neal Maupay, Ezri Konsa, Ollie Watkins and Saïd Benrahma, but Brentford did what they do so well: invest and replace.
Ivan Toney, Vitaly Janelt, Pontus Jansson, Ethan Pinnock, David Raya, Mathias Jensen, Bryan Mbuemo and Christian Nörgaard joined over those two years, with seven of those eight starting their victorious 2021 play-off Final against Swansea.
Frank became the first manager since the legendary Harry Curtis in 1935 to win promotion to the top division with the Londoners, achieving the feat in just his 157th game as a manager in English football. But Brentford haven’t just been in the big time to make up the numbers.
They played in the domestic season’s curtain-raiser, defeating Arsenal on Friday Night Football in a pulsating game at the newly opened Brentford Community Stadium – where again seven of their eight major signings between 2019 and 2021 started.
Brentford were brave; pressing high and with intent, getting at Arsenal aggressively to force errors and win the ball in dangerous areas. They played that opening game as if they were the side who had featured in 1,114 Premier League games, trouncing a pathetic (albeit depleted) Arsenal side.
Sergi Canos became the first player since Les Townsend to score a top-flight goal for the Bees as he rifled into the near-post before Nörgaard made the game safe by capitalising on a long throw-in. Brentford set the tone for their early season, in more ways than one.
At full-time, Frank led his side on a lap of honour to celebrate the ground’s first-ever game in the Premier League, while toasting a victory over one of its most formidable giants. The lap became commonplace in West London as a sign of appreciation for how far the Bees have come under his stewardship.
Frank and Brentford’s dream start to life in the top flight continued from there – losing just once in their opening nine games in all competitions including a terrific away win at Wolves, a 7-0 hammering of Oldham, a memorable 3-3 draw with Liverpool and a last-gasp 2-1 win at West Ham which left them 7th in the Premier League. Perhaps their lightning-quick start to life in the Premier League is no surprise – Brentford have some really good players.
Ivan Toney made waves last term as a top-level centre-forward, earning plaudits for his goal-scoring exploits (with 12 placing him joint-eleventh in the PL), his defensive efforts and his ability to link play as a strong attacking option. It’s no surprise that some of the bigger clubs are sniffing around him, with Toney showing he is capable of taking his goal-scoring touch wherever he goes.
Pontus Jannson, Ethan Pinnock and Christopher Ajer also caught the eye in defence, with their versatility allowing Brentford to play in a back three or a back four. Christian Nörgaard won more tackles than anyone else in the Premier League this season as an all-action midfielder, dovetailing nicely with the magnificent Vitaly Janelt in central midfield.
Rico Henry, David Raya and Sergi Canos also put in highly impressive maiden top-flight campaigns, but as Brentford marched on it became apparent the depth below the subtle excellence of their first Xl could cause issues.
The Bees still thrived in the early season, though, and continued to earn plaudits despite defeats. While they lost 1-0 to Chelsea in October, Frank’s side managed 17 shots to Chelsea’s five, before a 2-1 defeat to Leicester read a similar story in terms of dominance. Plaudits remained, but Frank was about to face his most testing time since those early days west of the river.
David Raya and Christopher Ajer suffered mid-term injuries in the back-end of October, leaving gaping holes in their rearguard which Frank found difficult to plug.
Backup goalkeeper Álvaro Fernández struggled to fill the sizable boots of his fellow Spaniard, most notably in his distribution. Charlie Goode came in to replace Ajer originally but his inexperience told, as Brentford began to leak goals between October and Christmas.
This is where Frank should earn the bulk of his praise for this season’s exploits. Brentford entered a tailspin, but he stuck to his guns – not without making tweaks – and earned respite where he could. A battling 3-3 draw against Liverpool was followed up by a hard-earned victory over Everton – introducing a seven-point buffer to themselves and the bottom three in the process.
It would prove to be a brief reprieve, however, as Frank had to roll with the punches of the intensity and unforgiving nature of the Premier League. Henry, Toney, Janelt and Frank Onyeka all spent time out during the most difficult period of Brentford’s season and the club’s lack of like-for-like or able replacements hurt them hugely around the turn of the year.
A 2-1 win over Aston Villa on January 2nd preceded a 4-1 hammering of League Two side Port Vale to suggest maybe Frank’s side had turned a corner, but what followed next was the worst period of the Dane’s fledgling career.
Six straight defeats soon became eight from nine, with a 0-0 draw against Crystal Palace their only somewhat positive result between the start of 2022 and the end of February.
They were 12th after that Villa win, but by the end of their disastrous 2-0 home defeat to Newcastle – a direct relegation rival – they were 15th, firmly rooted to the bottom of the form table and had seen their once 12-point gap from the relegation zone reduced to just three.
In a season so heavily disrupted once more by COVID-19, Brentford remained somewhat unharmed – obviously good for the health of their players and the spirit of the game, but I’m sure they wouldn’t have minded a week off.
By the start of March, they had played 27 games; the joint-most in the division, one more than three of the sides below them and three more than the other two. When you’re sinking like a stone, that’s the last thing you need – but the Bees had an ace up their sleeve.
Christian Eriksen joined Brentford on a free transfer from Inter Milan on January 31st, the first official move of his career after suffering a cardiac arrest during a Euro 2020 game for Denmark against Finland.
News of his return rocked world football, with many of the stories rightfully surrounding the improbable nature of his return so soon after such an ordeal – but the man who knows the true meaning of survival reminded us all of the magic he possesses.
His long-awaited debut came as a substitute in that 2-0 defeat to Newcastle, but the relegation six-pointer with Norwich a week later signalled his first start for the Bees – and it was like he’d never been away.
An Eriksen corner in each half set up their first and second goals on their way to a 3-1 win at Carrow Road – a victory which brought Frank’s men just their second win in 13-league games, and crucial points against one of the sides alongside them in the dog fight. The game also brought one of the funnier and more light-hearted moments of the season.
As the ex Spurs playmaker threw himself back into the rough-and-tumble life of Premier League football, he cynically hauled down Brandon Williams as the Manchester United loanee skipped away from him. Initially enraged, Williams began to throttle the midfielder before spotting who it was – instead embracing him and helping the Dane to his feet.
Brentford now had three things; a cutting edge, genuine creative quality in the midfield and players returning from injury – a potent trio in Frank’s escape plan. The week after, Eriksen swung a delicious ball in for Toney to head home a late goal against Burnley, which he soon followed up with a second from the penalty spot in added time.
The brace took Toney joint-third in the Golden Boot stakes and Brentford nine points clear of the bottom three, as an ever-dissolving cushion became a yawning chasm and confidence began to flow through Frank’s men like fresh air in the lungs.
A memorable 4-1 win at Chelsea at the start of April crowned perhaps the greatest result in the club’s history, with a superb Vitaly Janelt strike bringing them level before Eriksen completed the four-minute comeback by rounding off a lightning-quick counterattack.
Brentford were in dreamland, and just five minutes later Janelt had his second – impudently dinking Edouard Mendy after a flowing Bees move, before Yoanne Wissa finished the rout to send the West London bragging rights back to the Brentford Community Stadium.
They were now closer to the top half than the bottom three, as Frank had masterminded a turnaround which, in fairness, many Brentford fans could have seen coming. He had always stuck to his guns (rightly or wrongly at times), and as key players returned, it was no surprise to see Frank’s side pick up points once more.
The Bees swept past high-flying West Ham and Watford before taking a point off Spurs – ensuring they took something off of every London club in the division. A 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford was countered by a 3-0 win of their own against Southampton and a 3-2 comeback win over Everton to round off their away campaign in style.
By the time their season finale against Leeds rolled around, Frank had already confirmed that the lowest Brentford could finish in their debut campaign was 14th, while they still had a feasible chance to finish as high as 11th by the end of play.
They didn’t spend a minute of the season in the bottom three, and while a final day loss to Leeds ensured a 13th place finish, Brentford had denied all of their pre-season doubters.
Frank was, rightfully, nominated to win the coveted Manager of The Season award, joining David Moyes, Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp, Eddie Howe and Patrick Vieira, with Klopp coming out on top.
While the decision to award Klopp the title despite finishing second in the league seemed puzzling, the fact Frank hardly even seemed in the discussion is even more bizarre.
He took a squad who had barely even dipped so much as a toe into the Premier League before and threw them right into the deep end, navigating the choppy waters of the mid-season and guiding them to the safety of shore with relative ease.
Christian Eriksen has received plenty of plaudits, but it’s easy to forget Frank took a big risk in signing him – he showed faith in his former youth player, and it was repaid in abundance.
The fact they signed a world-class playmaker in January has, somehow, been used to his detriment, despite the fact they finished above Phillipe Coutinho’s Aston Villa, Dele Alli’s Everton and just three points behind the £100m January of Newcastle.
He managed five goal involvements from eleven outings, while dropping consistently excellent performances – but the man who plucked him from obscurity and returned him to the global stage should take a whole heap of credit.
Only Liverpool managed more points from behind, while only the Reds, Manchester City and Chelsea scored more goals beyond the 80th minute during the season – stats that pay homage to the Dane’s uncanny ability to alter things late in games to give his side the edge.
‘I think we showed that we could be an asset to the Premier League, and that’s what I’m most proud of’, said Frank at the end of the season – a promise he most certainly kept.
History shows it isn’t easy being, on paper, the weakest side to make it to the big time, but Thomas Frank negotiated every challenge, obstacle and difficulty he faced with a smile and a plan. He might not have won the personal accolade his efforts deserved, but he can be proud that Brentford will remain a Premier League club next season.
By: James Pendleton / @Jpends_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Getty Images