The Premier League has said goodbye to three relegated managers but after tonight’s Championship play-off the “richest game in football™” we will know the identity of the third replacement who will join an already combustible pairing of Marco Bielsa and Slaven Bilić in the top tier.
If form is any measure in the match calculated to be worth €190m then fans and media can look forward to an intriguing new force joining the party next season, one about whom they know relatively little.
Brentford’s Thomas Frank, 46, has no pedigree as a player (although, revealingly, he would have liked to have been Andrés Iniesta) and entered youth team coaching after gaining a degree in physical education, psychology, and coaching-based leadership in Copenhagen in 2005.
After progressing through his stewardship of the Danish national Under-16, U17 and U19-teams his first professional challenge came at Brondby, the club which launched the careers of Michael and Brian Laudrup and Peter Schmeichel. This appointment ended in a manner that indicates the Thomas Frank story is one which may contain some rich chapters in the future.
During a period of rebuilding and uncertainty over the club’s future ownership between 2013 and 2016, Frank guided Brondby initially to 9th and then to fourth and a Europa League spot, and then to third. He relied on a group that included some significant experience including Daniel Agger, once of Anfield, Bolton striker Johan Elmander, and Teemu Pukki, now of Norwich City.
Football players and managers are well used to the perils of social media but imagine if you discovered that your own boss was one of the keyboard warriors trolling you over your performance?
That was exactly what happened to Thomas Frank who resigned from Brondby when it was revealed that his chairman, international businessman Jan Bech Andersen, had been discrediting him online using the handle ‘Oscar’ and, it was suggested, utilising his son’s log-on credentials.
In what inevitably became known as “Oscargate” Andersen stepped down as chairman but retained his place on the board (although he later declined to stand for re-election).
Frank resigned, delivering one of those terse summaries which are emerging as his stock-in-trade: “It is no secret that the relationship between Jan and me has been strained from time to time, and after the last days of massive media attention, he and I had a talk. Based on that talk, I have chosen to end the co-operation.”
Co-operation is a Thomas Frank mantra and that is just as well given that Brentford, who last appeared at the most senior level in English football in 1947, are a club run along unusual and progressive lines.
The Bees are subscribers to the Moneyball theory which holds that smaller clubs can find a lucrative niche by identifying undervalued players or developing talent which they can eventually sell for a significant profit while at the same time delivering consistent on-field results.
There is a heavy reliance on statistical analysis and Frank attracted much attention when he produced a whiteboard to explain his tactical vision during a drinks break in an important match against Charlton Athletic. Brentford were losing 1-0 to Lee Bowyer’s side at that time but went on to win 2-1 with late goals.
He works alongside not one, but two, co-directors of football fellow Dane Rasmus Ankersen, a former player, author and high-performance expert, and Phil Giles, statistical guru (and Newcastle United fan) whose analysis feeds into player recruitment and selection. Together they report to owner Matthew Benham.
Giles told the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle: “My interpretation of the data is different and this is really complicated data. For example, player tracking data is very complicated. We want to look at it differently to other clubs. If we look at it the same way, we come to the same conclusions and we’re in the same place in the league.
“I would hope that in a few years’ time if someone says ‘Brentford’ to you, you’ll know exactly what the club is about — regardless of who the coaching team is.”
Frank was brought in after Oscargate in Brondby as part of Dean Smith’s team to assist the evolution and passage of young players into the full squad (Brentford have a much-admired youth development policy and also run a B team). When Smith departed to Aston Villa in 2018 Frank was appointed head coach and is contracted until 2023.
His start was traumatic coinciding with the tragic death of technical director Robert Rowan at the age of 28, and a sequence of only one victory in his first 10 games. They ended the season outside the play-off places but for much of 2019/20 looked nailed on for automatic promotion until inexplicable defeats to Barnsley and Stoke City.
Frank favours a speedy 3-4-3 relentless possession and intense-pressing game and has at his disposal the much-admired “BMW” strike force of Saïd Benrahma, Bryan Mbeumo, and Ollie Watkins. Mbeumo was signed from Troyes in France for €7.2m; Benrahma from Algeria draws comparisons with Riyad Marhrez and is coveted by a number of Premiership clubs while Watkins can play either as striker or attacking midfielder and opened the scoring in the second leg game against Swansea. In full flow, this trio can be irresistible, and promotion will allow Brentford to retain their services.
After Brentford blew their chance of automatic promotion and slipped to a 1-0 first-leg defeat in Wales Frank went full Henry V to press and players: “I can feel inside my body how my emotions are and when I speak to the players and speak to the staff, we are in total combat mode. We will come out flying.
“We will do everything we can to make it a last magical moment at Griffin Park that can stay with fans forever. I can promise them that when we are done, I know that I personally will carry my players off the pitch if they cannot do that themselves.”
Brentford stands at the confluence of the River Brent, a sometimes pretty river that meanders through North West London, and the River Thames which was crossed at its highest tidal point by Julius Caesar and his legionaries in 54BC.
The poet John Betjeman wrote of it:
“Gentle Brent, I used to know you
Wandering Wembley-wards at will”
Bees supporters would like to be wandering Wembley-wards tonight and the sadness is that they have not had the opportunity to say a proper goodbye to their 116-year home. They will be playing next season (and sharing with London Irish rugby) at the nearby Brentford Community Stadium. They will leave behind Griffin Park, a fine traditional ground famous for a pub on every corner (The Griffin, The Princess Royal, The Brook, and The New Inn) and Frank has promised to have a pint in each of them if Brentford win tonight and join the Premier League.
With the best of will towards Scott Parker and Fulham FC, it would be a storybook end to a surreal campaign.
And would introduce a cerebral and bright wattage new personality for us to watch.