It was the morning after the night before. Last August Brentford’s co-directors Rasmus Ankersen and Phil Giles, coaching staff and players convened at their Jersey Road training base, not to dissect the play-off final defeat but to draw a line in the sand. Some were more downbeat than others, most short on sleep. There were goodbyes to those out of contract and key recruitment meetings, one of which triggered Ivan Toney’s inspired signing. The new season was only four weeks away, pre-season even closer.
“Tomorrow the sun will rise again and we will move forward, learn from it and bounce back,” said Thomas Frank hours earlier, after Fulham’s extra-time win at Wembley, and Brentford’s head coach struck a similarly philosophical and perky tone following defeat at Bournemouth on Monday. That result leaves a team that have finished third in successive seasons at risk of recording another near miss. “We don’t want to feel what we did before, we don’t want to be ‘a nearly team’ or a ‘could’ve been [team]’,” Toney said last month.
A team that straddled the third and fourth tiers until promotion to the Championship seven years ago have become victims of their own success – it is why Valérien Ismaël said this play-off campaign would be the first and last that Barnsley, as underdogs, would play without pressure – but that bittersweet sentiment is something Brentford have got used to, with player trading at the heart of their business model under their owner and lifelong fan Matthew Benham. In the last two seasons, the sales of Ollie Watkins, Saïd Benrahma, Neal Maupay and Ezri Konsa have brought almost £90m profit. Across the previous five years, it is thought they made about £70m profit from departures, including Bournemouth’s £12m purchase of Chris Mepham.
They squandered the chance to seal automatic promotion last season by losing their final two games and, even if the worst-case scenario again unfolds and another opportunity is missed, their evolution into an established Championship club, a lesser-spotted position of luxury many others crave, should not get lost. A glistening new home, shrewd recruitment, a modest wage bill, and a fun, free-scoring style: what is not to like? This is why, if they could go one better this time, it would be the perfect promotion.
They sold Watkins in a deal worth £33m and replaced him with Toney, who was signed for a club-record £6m, plus add-ons. The scary thing is Brentford first tried to sign Toney in January last year, to complement Watkins. Thirty-one goals and 10 assists later, Brentford are realistic: they expect interest in the striker but are insulated by the five-year contract he signed last summer. They are yet to receive an approach for Toney, the left- back Rico Henry or the midfielder Josh Dasilva, the players Frank namechecked as contenders to follow in the footsteps of Watkins by pulling on an England shirt.
Regardless of which division they are in next season, they expect to keep the nucleus of their squad. “Hopefully we will all be playing in the Premier League with Brentford,” the midfielder Christian Nørgaard said last week. “Last year we knew certain players might want to leave us after the play-off final and we did sell two of our best players but we managed to replace them and put on another fantastic season. In a club like Brentford, which is so well managed from the top down to us players, you expect us to be at the top of the Championship again next year if we don’t manage to get up. No matter which players we will sell, I’m sure that we can replace them.”
Brentford are determined to earn a shot at redemption at Wembley this month but there is, naturally, a tinge of frustration that they allowed their commanding league position to slip – three straight defeats saw them surrender top spot in February before a run of seven draws in eight matches left them with an insurmountable gap behind second-placed Watford. Behind the scenes there is a sense that injuries to Dasilva and Henry, the club’s longest-serving player, extinguished their hopes of automatic promotion. The captain, Pontus Jansson, returned from ankle surgery in March.
A 3-0 friendly victory over Derby at St George’s Park was an early indicator for another promising season and, beyond Toney’s form, there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful: another, albeit nervy, play-off finale, the seamless transition made by another summer signing, Vitaly Janelt, from Bochum, plus the emergence of Fin Stevens, an 18-year-old full-back signed from Worthing, and Mads Bidstrup, a 20-year-old defensive midfielder picked up from RB Leipzig. The club recently appointed Steven Pressley, whose son, Aaron, made his Brentford debut in December, as head of individual development to enhance the progress of their B-team youngsters.
Frank said all of the right things following defeat. He preached positivity and rallied supporters for the return leg – “Bournemouth fans did a good job … I expect our fans to do a better job” – and there is discernible confidence that they can map out another route to the final. “It is exactly the same as last year,” Jansson said. “We were 1-0 down to Swansea [after the first leg] and then we came out flying from minute one and were 2-0 up at half-time. Hopefully, we will see something similar on Saturday.”