t was long after the final whistle at Griffin Park on Wednesday, and a little before David Raya and Sergi Canós carved up the goal net to take a patch as a souvenir from the stadium’s last competitive game. The Brentford owner, Matthew Benham, was taking penalties at the Ealing Road end, trying to replicate Marcello Trotta’s infamous stoppage-time miss against Doncaster, when the striker smacked the crossbar before James Coppinger tapped in at the other end to extinguish any hope of automatic promotion from League One. Seven years on, the magnitude of the prize at stake is incomparable.
Thomas Frank has been told that wheeling out his whiteboard to talk tactics during drinks breaks is forbidden but that is unlikely to throw Brentford off course at Wembley.
They are silky smooth, a hungry team with the most prolific frontline in the Championship – Ollie Watkins, Saïd Benrahma and Bryan Mbeumo have 59 goals between them – and they possess the second-best defence in the division, three masterful great Danes in midfield and arguably the league’s finest goalkeeper in Raya.
It has been an extraordinary season for a forward-thinking but modest club. Earlier in the year, sometimes only one or two reporters would turn up for a pre-match press conference but on Tuesday the world will be watching.
They are one game away from promotion, with their neighbours Fulham the final obstacle. Watkins’s evolution into a No 9 has been so impressive he is level-pegging with Aleksandar Mitrovic in the goalscoring charts.
But the most discernible difference between the team who failed to trouble the play-offs last season and this one, who racked up eight successive victories to cement a top-six berth and threatened the automatic promotion places, is the defensive steel they added last summer. The captain, Pontus Jansson, has forged a mean centre-back partnership with Ethan Pinnock, and Christian Nørgaard has been equally influential in front, helping Brentford to concede 21 fewer goals in the regular campaign.
“When I signed for Brentford I knew the offensive quality this club had – so many offensively good players – but the only problem had been that lack of solidness and working hard defensively,” Jansson says. “Henrik [Dalsgaard, right-back] said when I came here: ‘We normally have to score three or four goals to win because we always concede two or three.’ But it is something that has changed this season and it’s nice for him and everybody here before.”
When Jansson walked through the door from Leeds he felt the dressing room was too quiet but, 12 months on, the decibel levels have gone up a few notches. “Against Preston when we scored early I had to tell Saïd to be quiet because he was talking too much and creating a stressful atmosphere in the team,” he says, chuckling.
“We have so many leaders on the pitch. Ollie also has developed not only as a player but as a person and as a leader. And Christian … people watching this league do not understand how good Christian is. I think [Leeds’s] Kalvin Phillips is one of the best players in the league but I think Christian is either as good or if not just behind him, [he’s] one of the best midfielders in the league and he needs more credit.”
As an end-of-season wobble showed, Brentford are not invincible but it is impossible not to be impressed by the strides made under Frank, who earned his stripes coaching Denmark at youth level. The former Brøndby manager joined as an assistant coach in 2016 but was always viewed as a potential long-term successor to Dean Smith, with whom he and his assistant, Richard O’Kelly, lived during his first weeks in London.
When Smith left for Aston Villa in October 2018, Frank assumed his position but endured a bumpy start. In January last year they were six points above the relegation zone after two wins in his first 14 matches, including eight defeats from his first 10 games, but neither the hierarchy’s faith nor his belief wavered. “He is one of the most positive coaches I’ve ever worked with,” Jansson says.
A challenging start did not get any easier following the death of Robert Rowan, the former technical director who oversaw the development of the B-team and was influential in the signing of Canos and the former Arsenal midfielder Josh Dasilva. The club chaplain informed the squad and grief counselling was available to players and staff but for weeks the club was in mourning. At their training ground a board with the names of more than a dozen players who have progressed from the B-team to the first team was renamed in his honour.
Brentford’s shrewd recruitment is the envy of rivals. The 20-year-old Mbeumo, formerly of Troyes, is the latest player to flourish after being spotted in Ligue 2. They are comfortable trading and have sold almost £100m of talent since 2014 but in the past 18 months the sales of Chris Mepham, Ezri Konsa, Neal Maupay and Romaine Sawyers have helped bring in almost £50m, enabling them to replenish in key areas.
It is a model that has worked so well that even Jansson says he fancies sitting down with the owner at the end of the season to pick his brains and learn more. But there is one last game to play first.