“I recall two clear moments that happened after signing Vitaly Janelt,” says Brentford technical director Lee Dykes.
“Firstly, Thomas [Frank] called me after taking Vitaly in his first training session and said, ‘Well done, top job, what a player’, which doesn't always happen, of course.
“Secondly, Phil Giles [Brentford's director of football] turned to me after his goal against QPR at home in the Championship and said, ‘There you go, it's confirmed, he's ready’, which we laughed about at the time.
“Vitaly's signing will always stick out as a top piece of business, and he’s someone who has played a key part in the club’s rise in recent years.
“It’s a situation where top recruitment, combined with top coaching and top player potential, results in success. He's a top guy and a top player - we are lucky to have him.”
Selecting Brentford’s greatest signing of all time is like trying to pick the Bees’ best London derby win, Mathias Jensen’s cheekiest nutmeg, or a player from the club’s current injury list - there are just so many to choose from.
But, when having a debate about the club’s shrewdest piece of transfer business, one name, without fail, will always come up: Vitaly Janelt.
Signed from 2 Bundesliga [German second division] side Bochum in October 2020 for a fee in the region of £500,000, the midfielder has gone on to make 122 appearances for the west Londoners and has become a key cog in Frank’s midfield.
But, just as many of Brentford’s signings have been over recent years, Janelt didn’t come to the club ready-made; the Bees spotted something in the versatile 22-year-old, who was struggling for minutes and consistency in Germany.
“I was at Bochum for three and a half years and, during that time, I had six managers,” Janelt explains.
“That was tough for me, it was hard to get consistency. But, to be honest, I wasn’t performing at my best and I wasn’t consistent enough back then, so I wasn’t like, ‘I have to play’.
“There was one coach that was there for about 18 months and I think I started about 10 games in that time, and a lot of them were at left-back. Sometimes I wouldn’t come on or even make the squad. That was a tough period for me.
“That’s when I started to think, ‘I have to play football’. I was young, I showed before what I could do. But I never lacked confidence, I was always mentally strong, and I knew I was good enough.
“I just needed another chance to do something. I needed a new beginning.”
And, looking at the situation from afar, Lee Dykes had noticed Janelt's lack of game time in Germany and was baffled by his omissions from the Bochum starting XI - which led to him going to extreme measures to work out why that might be.
The Brentford technical director explains: “We identified Janelt through scouting Germany Under-21s games - he always seemed to be in the top-five performers for the youth national team. We couldn’t work out why he wasn’t playing regularly for Bochum.
“I had to look deeper into that, of course. This resulted in me even speaking to the manager of Vitaly’s favourite restaurant in Germany, which freaked him out a little when I told him!
“We saw how versatile he was, being able to play left-back and left centre-back, in addition to his main no.6/no.8 positions.
“He had a presence on the pitch and always wanted to take the ball in possession, whilst showing a real maturity and game understanding off the ball. Physically, he was also a good fit for the Championship and for the Premier League.
“We had also decided that window that covering the 6 position and a player who could play as an 8 would be an area where we could add a very good, promising, undervalued asset to our squad, for amazing value: Vitaly ticked every box.
“At the time the club had also done some top business in Ligue 2 [French second tier] and there was a collective understanding, internally, that 2 Bundesliga could be equally as productive for us.”
But there was competition for the midfielder. On the face of things, this wouldn’t be an easy deal for the Bees to complete.
A strong approach and heavy interest in Janelt had come from another 2 Bundesliga club in January 2020 (the Bochum sporting director persuaded him to stay until the summer), before an advance from a side in Germany’s top flight in the summer of that year.
In most cases, an approach from a Bundesliga side for a player who had represented almost every German international youth side from under-15s would be a done deal - signed, sealed, delivered - but Janelt's agent still pitched the idea of a move to Hounslow to him, asking what he thought about potentially relocating to the UK.
Janelt recalls: “I said, ‘To be honest, I have no idea’. But I like English football - I always loved Old Trafford when I was playing FIFA - so I knew about the Premier League, and English football, for me, was the top level.
“I had to ask who and where Brentford was, because I didn’t know about them. They had just lost the Championship play-off semi-final first leg against Swansea.
“My agent was in touch with them and they told me to come after the first leg so, after they lost, I was wondering if I should still go. I just wanted them to concentrate on the play-offs.
“So we waited and they won the second leg. But I couldn’t help but think that if they went up, even though I could play in the Premier League, they might not want to sign me; if they don’t go up, it might be better for me because I have a chance to play more in the Championship and go up with them next season.”
A defeat to Fulham in the play-off final followed, which, as Janelt alludes to, potentially ensured that the club’s intention to sign him still remained; the Bees would have been able to shop from a completely different pool of players had they secured Premier League promotion.
But, even after that defeat which saw the club remain in the Championship, Janelt recalls there being an agonising wait, as he anticipated an update from his agent about a move to the west Londoners materialising.
Eventually, the deal progressed and a Zoom call - a familiar pastime for everyone during the Covid-19 pandemic - was arranged between Dykes, Janelt and his agent. This online discussion was to discuss the fine details of an important football transfer, however, not to take part in an interactive quiz or a virtual gym class, like the rest of the nation.
Known for his reliability and consistency, it’s very rare you’ll see Janelt make a mistake on the pitch. This season, the centre-midfielder has been dispossessed just twice and, since the Bees’ promotion to the Premier League, he is yet to make an error leading to a goal.
However, just minutes into his first interaction with Dykes, Janelt made a big blunder that proved to be costly, in more ways than one.
Both recollecting the meeting, Dykes states: “The first thing he said to me was: ‘I want to come. I have watched your games and I feel I can help your team. I am ready to become a Brentford player’.
“This made our job very easy, of course; I didn't have to sell the project too strongly, I just further explained his role so that he understood what the plan was.
“I have never spoken to a player who was so set on coming to the club like I did with Vitaly.”
From his point of view, Janelt adds: “We talked about contracts and I asked for a certain amount - I knew I was never getting it, but that’s just what you do in negotiations!
“I’ve spoken to Lee about it recently and he said I made one mistake: I told him, ‘I don’t care, I just want to play for Brentford’, so he knew he could get me down to the number he wanted.
“But I went back and told him that he made one mistake: he could have given me a lot less and I would have signed it! I did just want to join the club.”
Janelt adds: “I couldn't really speak English, it was my first time. I learnt it in school but it wasn’t even the basic stuff and I don’t think I paid that much attention! We had a good chat but, to be honest, I didn’t understand everything.
“I wasn’t shy or afraid, but it was my first time abroad. I had no family, my girlfriend [now wife] hadn’t come over either, so I was here alone without anyone. But I settled in quickly.
“The only player I could talk to in German was Christian Nørgaard because he played for Hamburg, but I said to him, ‘Please don’t talk to me in German, I have to learn English’.
“I came over to Brentford for the first time but I didn't actually know it was in London - it wasn’t until I saw the London Eye and I said, ‘F***ing hell, I know that thing!’"
The signing of Janelt was announced on 3 October 2020, with the transfer window that summer extended due to Covid-19.
In an article on the club’s website confirming the deal, a quote from Brentford’s former co-director of football Rasmus Ankersen reads: “He will need some time to adapt to English football.”
And, according to Dykes, that was a view held by a number of people around the club, with one individual boldly questioning the signing altogether.
“After signing Vitaly something weird happened: an employee of the club contacted us and asked why we had signed him,” the technical director reveals.
“They knew he was a good player but, due to his lack of game time, were unsure of his potential. They were keen to understand what it was that we identified in him that would see him play for our team.
“There was a debate internally on how good he would be straight away and how much time it would take for him to settle into the group.
“However, the recruitment team were 100 per cent sure he was the top option and that he had huge potential but, as with all signings, players do take time to transition.
“But we were soon going to find out where Vitaly was at when, days after he signed, Christian [Nørgaard] picked up an injury which would rule him out for the majority of the promotion season.”
This is a moment that Janelt is keen to highlight as a crucial one in his Brentford career.
Especially when you consider that his response when asked if he ever thought he’d become a Premier League player is: “No, of course not! I can name lots of quality players in the Championship, for example, but they just don’t get the luck or the chance.”
This was his chance and he firmly states he knew he had to take it, which is exactly what he did.
When asked about this period, Janelt recalls: “I remember, clearly, it was during an international break, there was only a few players that were at the training ground and we played first team against B team, 11v11.
“I smashed it, the whole training session. We had just lost 4-2 to Preston and I was the only one who could play as a 6, so I was thinking, ‘Okay, I have a good chance to start’, but obviously I was new and I thought Thomas might stick to the players that were already there.
“Mathi [Jensen] started as the 6 but I came on for the last 20 minutes and I think Thomas saw quite quickly that I could adapt, I know what to do, and I could implement all the things he wanted.
“The next game I played against Sheffield Wednesday away, got an assist, and played almost every game after that.”
After making just 19 starts for Bochum the season before, Janelt came to Brentford and featured 44 times for the Bees during the 2020/21 campaign, which included 74 minutes in the 3-1 play-off final victory over Swansea City at Wembley Stadium.
For the majority of the squad, it was a time for jubilance, a time for celebration, and a time to drink as many jägerbombs as they could stomach.
That wouldn’t have been a wise idea for Janelt, however, who had a flight to catch the next morning. His season wasn’t over just yet.
“The Germany Under-21s manager Stefan Kuntz called me a couple of days before the play-off final and asked me to come and play in the Under-21 Euro 2021,” Janelt explains. “He said that it was totally up to me.
“I said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re winning this tournament, I’m coming’. Brentford won promotion to the Premier League on Saturday, I still couldn’t believe it, and my flight was really early on the Sunday morning.
“It was hectic. I got there at 2pm or 3pm - they lost my luggage as well - and then the game was on Monday.”
Just over a week after he had lifted the play-off final trophy in England, nearly 1,000 miles away in Slovenia, Janelt had his hands on his second trophy in eight days, as Germany U21s beat Portugal U21s 1-0 in the Under-21 Euro final.
And, just a month later, Janelt completed the hat-trick: “That summer, I also got engaged to my wife. It was the best summer of my life.”
Since then, as well as getting married, relationships have grown on and off the pitch at Brentford.
Two years on and Janelt has made 77 appearances in the Premier League, scoring seven goals and providing two assists.
Only Bryan Mbeumo has played more minutes than the midfielder this season and he, along with Nørgaard and Jensen, have been mainstays in the middle of the park.
Talking about his partnership with the Danish duo, Janelt explains: “Us three are now that flexible - I know them, they know me. For example, if Christian wants to join the attack, he can join and I’ll stay.
“Playing like this, I think we have proved to be better on the ball, controlling more games, creating more chances in possession, counter-press and set-pieces, so I think we have improved a lot.
“Thomas has tweaked the role between Mathi and me, so I’m now next to Christian in the build-up and Mathi now has the license to be in a freer role and, basically, do what he wants.
“And I think this really fits me because I can do both. I'm very good at arriving in the box late, but also being in the first part, trying to build up.”
At 25 and playing regularly in the Premier League, it’s unlikely that Janelt has spent too much time thinking about his post-playing career.
But, as ever, Dykes is looking ahead. And he predicts that Vitaly Janelt could eventually be the man responsible for looking for ‘the next Vitaly Janelt’…
“I think you will see him as a director of football one day. He has the mind for it and a genuine love for the game.”