How Brentford rose from League One club to Premier League giant killer

Brentford Football Club have been the surprise package in the English Premier League for two seasons in a row. After their promotion in 2020-21, the club beat Arsenal 2-0 in the very first game of the 2021-22 season.

Many dismissed this as the adrenalin rush of reaching the pinnacle of English football for the first time since the 1946-47 season and moving to a new stadium.

But the Bees were here to stay. Thomas Frank’s men finished 11 points ahead of the drop zone, an achievement for a club that had languished in the lower leagues for decades.

In the 2022-23 season, however, they have gained the reputation of giant killers after taking the scalps of huge clubs: Manchester United, Liverpool and, most recently, Manchester City. They were the better side in each of the games as well.

Looking at the club now, it’s easy to miss how it clawed itself from near obscurity to thriving in the Premier League.

Re-evaluating the structure

Back in the summer of 2016, Brentford found itself in a tough spot. Over the previous years, the cream of the crop in their academy had been regularly taking an exit to bigger clubs even before signing professional contracts.

This disallowed Brentford from making any significant profit from player sales. The club decided to take a drastically different approach: creating a B Team, the only one of its kind in England. The operating costs of running an academy for them was around £2 million.

This, coupled with the tough competition for talented players in London with big clubs such as Arsenal and Chelsea, made the club wary of a lack of significant return on investment.

Brentford, which was only promoted to the Championship from League One, had no way of competing with names that have been ever-present in the highest league.

The B Team

The B Team model works on the concept of signing players between the age of 17-20 who had been released by the academies of other clubs, allowing Brentford to work on the best of outcasts from different clubs and ‘undervalued overseas markets’, spending much less in the process.

Brentford’s Head of Football Operations at the time, the late Robert Rowan told The Guardian almost a year after the inception of the B team:

“We discussed various different options when we were doing the review and we felt the B-team model was the one that gave us the best chance of producing first-team players.”

He added that this model was the most effective and sustainable option, allowing much more flexibility as it was not bound by the existing rules and regulations associated with academies.

“It’s a lot easier to assess something that has got a turnaround of three years than over 10 years.”

The three years came to a conclusion in the summer of 2019 and the club saw its fair share of ups and down in this phase. During the first year, potential recruits found the B Team to be a gamble since it had yet to yield any results.

Despite this, a few of the players – Chris Mepham, Reece Cole, Jan Holldack and Justin Shaibu – had managed to break into the first team by this time.

The last time four players had managed to feature in the first team in a year was more than a decade before this. Mepham is considered a prime example of the model’s success.

Their gradual success saw Huddersfield also follow suit in 2017, which had set up its academy in 1999. They phased out all players under the age of 16 from the squad.

While the model had already been a triumph in terms of players breaking through, Brentford B slowly began showing results at the competitive stage as well.

In January 2019, the B Team announced itself to the world as a side to look out for when it thrashed the Bayern Munich academy team 5-2.

On other fronts, the side finished as the runners-up in the London Senior Cup and triumphed in the Middlesex Senior Cup.

The team has found its feet on the competitive front after Lars Friis was appointed as its head coach in December 2018.

Friis first joined the team in 2018, heading the individual development coaching for the first team and B Team.

He was appointed the B Team coach after Kevin O’Connor stepped up to the first team. A lot change after this and not just in terms of match results.

Speaking about the upturn since his appointment, the B Team head coach stated the team had significantly improved since Christmas 2018.

He credited small changes for the development: “We have tried to adjust a little with the environment. Tried to encourage the players to work a little bit more to be self-management athletes.”

Communicating with the players is significant for Friis as a manager. His opinion is that you can develop a player more if you know a bit about them. “If you know the human, you can push the player behind them too, not the other way around.”

As the head coach, it was essential for him to develop players for the first team. He said that the B team does everything it can to push players to the next level, but it’s ultimately up to them.

“We want to teach them how to swim before they hit the deep water. When they come into training, we know that it’s a long journey”

Friis also praised the B Team model itself, commenting that the initiative is a forward-going process. He felt that the B Team had been exceedingly successful in its aim of producing quality players for the first team.

On whether the B Team would continue after its initial three-year period concludes, he said: “Right now we’ve been quite successful so I don’t see why the board should close the B team down.”

When asked if the B Team model had been more successful than academies of other clubs, he said that he did not “have a clue” about other clubs, but Brentford B’s numbers speak for themselves.

“What I can see is we have in 2019 two debuts from the B team. The board outside the dressing room, it says 8 players I think from the B team to A team since 2017.”

As mentioned before, for Brentford B, the first big success story has been Chris Mepham. After breaking into the first team in 2017, he was eventually sold to Bournemouth for £12 million on 22 January.

Friis believed that this will be immense in motivating other young players to emulate Mepham. “You need role models and you need good history. Half of the B Team has played with Chris, so they know him,” he said, adding that the Bournemouth defender had made his career with sheer hard work which is a fantastic success story for any coach.

Brentford found Mepham after he was released from Chelsea’s academy. But Friis made it clear that it wasn’t easy for Brentford to sign the best English talent. “We need to be realistic and say we are maybe number 15 to pick our players.”

Scandinavian market

Consequently, Brentford has kept an eye out for Scandinavian players. The owner of the club also owns the Danish team Midtjylland FC, providing them with a good connection with Scandinavian markets.

Friis added that these “undervalued” markets are cheaper. “If you try to find someone with the same level of talent in England, they would be very expensive.”

One such player identified by Brentford was Gustav Mogensen, who was signed from Aarhus in Denmark on 31 January, 2019.

We had the chance to talk to him about the move in 2019. On why Brentford B appealed to him as a player, he admitted that he had heard a lot about the club even before they began showing interest in him.

He had also known Friis beforehand, which played a hand in his decision. 

He added that he felt the culture and environment at the club would be superior for him compared to that of Danish clubs and the path from being a B Team player to the first team would be shorter.

“I thought this would be a big step for me in becoming a good professional football player.”

The Scandinavian factor also helped. The number of Danish players in the squad made it easier for him to adapt. Another reason was competition.

According to him, the difference between the top teams and the lower teams in the championship is much less than in the Danish League.

Opening up about his aspirations for the future, he revealed his ambition to break into the first team and then be sold for a bigger club, in the same way that Mepham’s career unfolded.

Past and future

While Mogensen was ultimately unable to replicate the likes of Mepham and transferred to the Norwegian club Sarpsborg in 2022, the interview does provide insight into how the club operated in luring players during the non-glamorous years.

Developing and selling players like Mepham and, more recently, Neal Maupay and Saïd Benrahma, to Brighton and West Ham respectively, have helped the club rise to its current stature.

And with their current form, they show no sign of going back down any time soon either.