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The telegraph

Two finals in nine months: How Brentford recovered from the agony of the championship play-offs

The day after last season’s play-off final, Brentford players and staff gathered to say goodbye to those who had left the club. Some of the staff moved elsewhere, while a handful of players either no longer had a contract or wanted to join other teams. The mood was gloomy, and the pain of their defeat to Fulham was just beginning. As soon as the goodbyes were over, work began. The Brentford coaching staff and HR held a meeting to discuss their strategy for the transfer window, clarify their plans and get the wheels moving. There were only four weeks to the start of the new championship campaign and only two weeks to the start of the preseason. The previous night’s wounds were still raw, but there was simply no time to waste. In the midst of all this disappointment, did Brentford’s coach and directors know that another play-off final was only nine months away? Of course not. But they knew the foundations would stand and that the structure they had built would at least give them one more chance in the coming campaign. When head coach Thomas Frank returned to the preseason a few days later, he saw renewed hunger and desire in the club. “I felt it in my own body,” he told Telegraph Sport earlier this season. “I wanted to go again.” Frank and his players get their chance this weekend as they battle Swansea City for the biggest financial prize in football. Promotion to the Premier League is back within the reach of little Brentford, a club that continues to be way above its weight and now feels ready to challenge the biggest teams in the country. Will it be different this year? The point at Brentford is that the team is a little wiser and more experienced than last season. For some, the mood is more relaxed than it was in 2020. Last year they played their final season at Griffin Park, Covid-19 devastated the country and the crucial play-offs were condensed in a way that caused relentless stress. There’s more room to breathe now, though that doesn’t mean Frank and his players won’t get fired at Wembley. You only had to be within earshot of the Brentford Community Stadium on Saturday to know that this club wants to rise with all its soul. Frank described the 4,000 fans as 40,000 and the feverish atmosphere was decisive in Brentford’s 3-1 win over Bournemouth. It felt typical of Brentford’s approach when Frank came out of the tunnel a few minutes before kick-off on Saturday and completed an unexpected lap of honor on the pitch. He was running in chinos and leather boots, his long hair bouncing behind him and raising his arms at the devotees for their voices and energy. It was unusual, for sure, but it was also effective. And Brentford was never afraid to try anything else. If anything, their willingness to be different has been the main reason for their growth in recent years. After all, one club cannot match its stature by doing things in the same way as everyone else. Brentford is often cited as an example that other sides should follow. This misses the point, however, and there is certainly no one in the club who thinks their strategy should be a lesson to others. Brentford does what they think is best for them in these specific times and circumstances. The model cannot simply be transferred to another championship site and would never recommend it. For example, make the decision to close your academy and start a B-Team. The academy system didn’t work for Brentford due to its financial constraints and its highly competitive London location, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work for other teams. And Frank’s touchline antics felt just right on Saturday – it came when fans returned for the first time since December and there weren’t any fans to harass him – but it will likely never feel right again. Of course, there are many clubs that wish they could repeat Brentford’s success in the transfer market. Their data-driven model and strong focus on player development remain the envy of sites across the country. How many other championship teams could sell around £ 50m worth of talent (as Brentford did when they said goodbye to Ollie Watkins and Said Benrahma last year) and then earn six more points the following season? How many Premier League teams could do that? Ivan Toney’s goal scoring, signed by Peterborough United for an initial £ 5million, has proven to be another champion in the market. Last season Brentford replaced 28-goal striker Neal Maupay by moving Watkins to a more central position from where he scored 26 goals before joining Aston Villa. Toney replaced Watkins as the main attacking threat and has scored 32 goals so far this season. Brentford would have signed Toney to play alongside Watkins anyway if they’d secured promotion last year. When they lost at Wembley, they simply pursued the alternate plan instead. Watkins went out and Toney went out as a center forward. He was a leader in and out of the field. In the meantime, Vitaly Janelt, who was signed for around £ 500,000 from the second division in Germany, was instrumental in midfield. It almost goes without saying that the past 14 months have seen the most unexpected tests for football clubs and their people. And yet, even when it came to dealing with the coronavirus, Brentford was prepared for it. Notably, football co-director Phil Giles had studied pandemics during his PhD in statistics. With Giles providing an unexpected injection of pandemic-based expertise, Brentford took a pessimistic view of the coronavirus situation. The staff made wage cuts and the players agreed on a significant wage shift. Later that summer, after selling Watkins and Benrahma, all employees were paid back – with a small bonus. With their progressive style of play, the charisma of Frank on the contact line, the new stadium and the strength of their belief in overarching strategy, the feeling at Brentford is they are prepared for the Premier League. Advertising wouldn’t change the way they work, but it would take it a notch. Then there are new challenges ahead, but first there is a match to be won. Wembley is waiting again.

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