Thomas Frank has been invited to step back, for a brief moment, to reflect upon a remarkable season – and journey – for Brentford that rests upon one more weighty occasion.
“We are in the play-off final, after the best (season) in the club’s history in more than 70 years,” Frank says.
“There are many people – and I’ve only been part of this journey for the last three and a half years – who have built a club that can now compete with the biggest clubs in the country.
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Brentford fans celebrate their playoff semifinal win.Source:Getty Images
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“(Fulham) have the experience, they have been a Premier League club, they’ve got the parachute money, been in the play-off final. We’ve been building something over years, we badly want to go there, and now we are level (with Fulham), and it’s going to be a fantastic game to watch and be part of.”
Two west London rivals, separated by 6km and, after 46 games, only goal difference in the Sky Bet Championship table, meet at Wembley on Tuesday night (EST) for a place in the Premier League.
Two clubs who, for much of their history, of course, have inhabited very different worlds: Brentford were playing in the fourth tier 12 years ago and the third tier as recently as 2014; Fulham have spent almost a decade and a half in the top flight this century.
Since Matthew Benham, the owner of statistical analysis company Smartodds, began investing in Brentford a decade ago, however, their data-driven recruitment model, which has earned more than $220 million from player sales and fuelled their ascent, has turned Brentford into a model for any diminutive, aspirational football club.
Frank, a 46-year-old Dane, is a former teacher who, after a brief amateur career, managed Denmark’s youth teams and Brondby before his appointment as assistant coach to Dean Smith in 2016.
The psychology graduate’s team have outscored the rest of the division with an 80-goal haul and their much-vaunted attacking triumvirate – Ollie Watkins, Said Benrahma and Bryan Mbeumo – have netted 57 of them. Yet Brentford, in truth, are one game away from the Premier League because their defence – only champions Leeds United conceded fewer goals – has for the first time been almost as good as their attack.
Can Brentford complete the fairytale by earning promotion?Source:Getty Images
The acquisition of Pontus Jansson – notwithstanding the 29-year-old’s mistake against Swansea City in the semi-final second leg last week – from Leeds last summer added vital leadership to a team with the second-youngest starting XI in the Championship.
Alongside him Ethan Pinnock, a $5.5 million buy from Barnsley who was playing for Dulwich Hamlet as recently as 2016, has been imperious. Christian Norgaard, the pivot at the base of the midfield, shields the unit masterfully.
To see Watkins haring back to help his team-mates defend their lead in Brentford’s swashbuckling 3-1 victory against Swansea in the semi-final second leg was further evidence of the team’s new found resolve. That thrilling comeback, after losing the first leg 1-0, epitomised Brentford at their buccaneering best and was a fitting way to bid farewell to Griffin Park, their rickety old home of 116 years.
The chance to begin life at the 17,000-capacity Brentford Community Stadium, a mile away at Kew Bridge, as a top-flight club for the first time in 73 years is potentially 90 minutes away.
Victory in a game billed as the “richest in football” would be worth about $300 million to Brentford over the next three years, according to Deloitte, the financial analysis firm. For Fulham, already in receipt of parachute payments, it would be worth $250 million.
Would those riches change Brentford?
“I want from the bottom of my heart to say that we would never change,” Frank says.
The all-star Fulham team have endured an inconsistent season.Source:Getty Images
“But because money has that strong power, you never know what will happen.
“The fact is we are still a small club. We have a minor budget, minor stadium, the history – we haven’t been in the top tier for 70 years. But the mindset, in terms of how we can perform against bigger clubs with bigger players, that has changed. Look at Bournemouth: are they a bigger club after being in the Premier League for five years? You just go into a bigger sea with bigger fish, and you need to compete.”
After winning the play-off final against Aston Villa in 2018, Fulham came straight back down. Since then they have had three managers, the last of whom, Scott Parker, remains in charge.
While the strength of his squad made Fulham favourites to make an immediate return last summer, the former England midfielder’s primary task was to dispel a defeatist mindset.
“I realised a long time ago that a good team on paper does not mean success,” Parker said.
“We have seen many teams that have just fallen out of the Premier League bounce into League One, or are sitting 13th, 14th in the division. Often it is because the culture is the same one which got them relegated the year before.”
Originally published asThe $300m game: EPL pot of gold for derby like no other
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