“We have the opportunity to change things without damaging the Brentford way – that’s how we take this club to the next stage.”
An admirer of Brentford’s “fantastic, optimistic way of seeing football,” Brian Riemer’s objective is simple: to get the Club back into the Play-Offs.
Appointed as Assistant Head Coach in October last year, the 40-year-old joined from FC Copenhagen where he had been Head Coach of the Under-19 group. Brian also worked with the First Team during a long association with the 12-time Danish champions.
While Assistant Manager at Copenhagen, he worked alongside Ariël Jacobs and then former Norway boss Ståle Solbakken. Copenhagen won the Danish title in the 2012/13 under Jacobs, Brian’s first season in the role.
From his route into coaching to his objectives for the remainder of the season and beyond, Brian reveals all in an exclusive interview with BEES.
Talk us through your route into coaching…
I started to do some children’s coaching as an assistant coach at a very, very low level. My ambition at that stage was not to become a full-time coach; I was planning to go to medical school. By the end of the year I got more and more into it. Albertslund gave me the opportunity to coach the Under-15s and I took it because I’d seen how things were done and had the feeling that I could do it better.
I moved up to Under-17 level at Albertslund. Thomas [Frank] and I ended up in the same league because he was coaching Hvidovre in the Under-17 league – we actually played each other! Thomas called me and said, “Brian, come to Hvidovre, we can take the team together.” A first I didn’t think it was a good idea, but Hvidovre is a much bigger club than Albertslund so I took the chance.
I remained at Hvidovre for five years – a traditional Danish club who have won two championships. I progressed from the Under-17s, to the Under-19s and then to the First Team as Head Coach. Hvidovre compete in Denmark’s equivalent of the Championship. I then got an offer from FC Copenhagen in 2008 and stayed there for ten years.
What qualities do you need as a youth coach?
I’m really good at looking at each individual player and working out how to develop them – I’m also educated as a school teacher. You can’t use the same methods for everyone; some players need to be guided, whereas others don’t need to be spoken to as much. You can know everything about football, but that doesn’t matter if you don’t understand people because you won’t be able to get your message across – they won’t take anything on board. You are also judged on whether you are able to coach effectively within a playing style – that’s when you can see if someone is a good coach or a very good coach.
There’s a clear philosophy at Brentford with the B Team and First Team playing the same brand of football. Had you worked within a set playing style prior to your arrival at Jersey Road?
It’s exactly the same philosophy at Copenhagen, but with a different football strategy to Brentford. Copenhagen are more focused on a 4-4-2 formation – it’s designed for international football. The style of play is extremely structured, and everything is explained to the last centimetre in perfect detail.
Of course, there are differences in how you work with the playing style with the Under-15s compared to the First Team. At Under-15 level and below you tend to focus more on the offensive side of the game and especially on technique. The belief in Denmark is that you create good football players by focusing on their individual skills and qualities from an early age – you can teach players to defend when they get older. If you teach players to defend too early, they become worse footballers and they will be caught out by that later in their careers. It’s easier at Brentford because the B Team are also grown-ups and can be coached more or less the same way as the First Team.
When you get to First Team level it’s not good enough to be a good defender, you need a good first touch, a good cross and an ability to score goals. You also need to learn how to develop relationships on the pitch; if you only play for yourself you won’t make it. Take Saïd [Benrahma], Neal [Maupay], Ollie [Watkins] and Sergi [Canós] as examples, one of their biggest qualities is that they see each other and play with each other. When you go out and do a possession game, a small-sided game or work with the back four, you need to work the Brentford way or the FC Copenhagen way, not Brian’s way. You have to utilise your coaching skills inside the playing style.
Of all the players you’ve coached, is there a particular case that you look back upon with pride?
I’ll name two players. Andreas Cornelius came up from the academy at FC Copenhagen. I worked with him at youth level for a few years and, at the same time that he was promoted to the First Team, I was also promoted to the First Team as Assistant Coach. I followed him for many years and played a big part in his development. To see him break into the Danish national team at the age of 18 and become the most valuable player in Denmark at the age of 19 [Cornelius moved to Premier League side Cardiff City in June 2013 for £8m] was huge. He was a player I was able to work with for a long time and really put my thoughts into. To see him succeed was a real pleasure for me.
The other player is Thomas Delaney, who is the captain of Borussia Dortmund now. I worked with him during my spell as Assistant Coach at FC Copenhagen. He’s a great character. I saw him go through difficult periods where he struggled to fight his way into Copenhagen’s First Team and had lots of conversations with him about all these small issues. To see where he is now – the captain of one of the best teams in Germany – is a very good feeling.
“A great character”: Borussia Dortmund's Thomas Delaney
On the flip side, and perhaps this will resonate more given your background in education, do you think enough support is given to young players in this country who fail to earn professional contracts? For every player who makes it there’s dozens who fall short…
No – that’s my clear answer. In Denmark, if you sign a player at the age of 15 – which is the earliest you can offer someone a contract – you are obligated to make sure the player is put through college. We’re not talking about one day a week, we’re talking about a full college degree – at least 30 hours a week. The player will then get a diploma that will get him into university. If the player fails to meet that requirement, his contract will automatically be terminated by the Federation. This is done to protect the players.
If a player doesn’t do well in college – if they don’t do their homework or fail an examination – the college will call the academy manager and explain the situation. The academy manager will then have a very serious conversation with the player, potentially threating suspension or being left out of the team on a Saturday for failure at school. It’s important to support the schools like that because if you get two divided systems, football will always win; the parents can see the dream and the boy who is playing has no idea what will hit him in the future. There’s a lot of guys ending up at the harbour – and I’m not looking down on people who work at the harbour – but without an education in today’s society you’re going to struggle.
You played football at youth level in Denmark but didn’t forge a long career as a professional. Has that ever felt like a disadvantage when it comes to coaching?
It’s wrong to make judgements based on someone’s background; it’s about whether you are a good coach. Of course, if you have never played football or have no interest in the game and suddenly decide you want to become a manager, you will lack the necessary skills even if you have some of the personal skills that you could use.
But there are challenges for ex-players, too. If you don’t have the personal skills to control a group and guide other people, you won’t be successful. There’s an assumption that someone who has played 300 games as a professional will be a good coach, but that is not always the case – different skills are involved. It all comes down to the individual.
FC Copenhagen won the Danish title in 2012/13. What was it like to be part of a title-winning campaign and what ingredients do you need for success?
At Copenhagen, finishing second in the table is seen as failure. The only thing you can do is win. We were under big pressure at the start of the season under our new Head Coach Ariël Jacobs, who had won four championships with Anderlecht in Belgium. Our top scorer Dame N’Doye was sold, which didn’t make things easy for us. Andreas Cornelius stepped up; he was one of a number of youngsters who broke through that season. We continued to win and had a spell of winning ten games in a row. Four rounds before the end of the season we became champions at Brøndby’s stadium, who are Copenhagen’s local rivals. It was a crazy atmosphere, everything was just perfect. It was a year with a little bit of everything, finalised by winning the championship.
You worked with Ariël Jacobs and Ståle Solbakken during your time in Denmark. Do you take inspiration from other coaches in order develop your own style?
I’m really privileged on this point. Instead of becoming a First Team manager at an earlier stage at a smaller club, I wanted to work for the biggest clubs alongside the best coaches. The best way to learn is to be around the best.
Ståle Solbakken is the biggest coach ever in Scandinavia. He’s a very, very hard coach, a very intimidating coach who demands an unbelievable amount from those around him. Mistakes and errors are punished hard. That’s a really good learning process to be part of because it hardens you. I have so much to thank him for because he has given me a great view of player management and game management.
Ariël Jacobs is such a calm guy with a totally different view of football. He taught me so many different elements that were very different from Ståle’s approach. Working with him kind of completed me, because I’ve experienced two very different approaches that I can take the best from.
Disciplinarian: Ståle Solbakken
You joined Brentford in late October last year. How have you settled into life at the Club?
I came here for a challenge, to try something completely different. I had ten years at Copenhagen as part of a very structured system, starting from the defence and working up from there. At Brentford we kind of start the other way! Brentford’s style is a fantastic, optimistic way of seeing football. It’s a very entertaining way of seeing football. If there was something I’d missed in my career, it was to be at a club like this. It has been a fantastic opportunity for me to come here, but there is a lot of work that me, Thomas and Kev [O’Connor] must do on the defensive part of our play. I think I have a good background to help change that. It’s not something you can achieve in one or two months, it’s about players, tactics and mentality – a lot of things must come together in order to see improvement. We’re going in the right direction, but it’s something we need to be really aware of. We have the opportunity to change things without damaging the Brentford way – that’s how we take this club to the next stage.
Brentford suffered a poor run of results from late September through to mid-December. How tough was it to join the Club during the midst of such a challenging run? You’d walked away from a very stable job in Denmark…
I was never in doubt about this job. I remember a phone call to Ståle Solbakken when I got the offer from Brentford. He was fantastic, he said “Brian, you have to do this.” The bad spell here was well on its way before I arrived. You don’t feel part of it immediately, you just land there. My first game was at Carrow Road and then we won against Millwall in the next game, so it was actually a good start for me. Of course, it’s been tough at times – particularly at the start when my knowledge of the players and of Brentford wasn’t at a top level – but we worked day and night to fight our way out of that run.
It’s often been the case this season that when one goal is conceded others quickly follow. What do you put that down to?
The biggest issue during that poor spell was a lack of leadership and experience – that’s what you need during a bad period. Here, we have maybe one or two with that level of experience. We have a lot of youngsters who didn’t have the experience to know how to react in those situations. What happened during the game at Queens Park Rangers, for example, was that the players simply didn’t have the experience to get over the situation quickly, refocus and get back on it. They needed some leadership. Last season there was [Andreas] Bjelland, [John] Egan, [Ryan] Woodsy, people who lived and breathed for those situations.
The effort and the willingness to fight was bang on, the players were so unhappy about the situation; they wanted to do better for Thomas, for the Club and for the fans. I know the Brentford model, we’re not going to sign ten 30-year-old players, but it’s about finding the right balance – that can be decided with just one or two players. It doesn’t have to be Paul McGrath! It could be a 26, 27 or 28-year-old guy who can lift the game for some of the youngsters during the bad spells.
What changes have you noticed in Thomas since first working with him at Hvidovre 15 years ago?
He is the same person, the same guy. As a football coach he is a lot better, of course. 15 years’ experience, with Denmark and with Brøndby, has made him a very good coach. I’m not saying he wasn’t good when we first worked together, but that’s where you can see the big development.
The funny thing about me and Thomas is that we coached together for one year, 15 years ago. We kept in touch as good friends but when we met at Jersey Road on 26 October last year it had been 15 years since we’d seen each other train football! Luckily that melted in and we quickly realised that things were perfectly set up.
“A fantastic mix”: on the touchline with Thomas Frank and Kevin O’Connor
Kevin O’Connor was appointed Assistant First Team Coach in December. What’s the dynamic like between you, Kevin and Thomas?
Kevin is a fantastic guy, a team player who has had the player experience. As a coaching team we have a fantastic mix. That might sound like I’m patting us all on the back, but it’s a really good set-up because we have more or less everything. In the wider staff, we have a combination of English, Danish, Spanish and French coaches.
You can be the best football coach in the world, but if you come to a new country and expect everyone to work to your methods from Denmark then you’re gone. This is England, this is Brentford. This is not Copenhagen or Brøndby. To have Kev guide that through and make sure we respect the English values is really important. The combination is really good.
Finally, what are your ambitions for the remainder of the season and beyond?
It’s important that we set up well for next season. Should we fail to break into the Play-Offs – which at the moment is looking very, very difficult – we at least want to finish with a good spell to take into the start of next season.
My goal for next season is to get Brentford back into the Play-Offs. It’s a Club that deserves that, in terms of the way we play and how we take care of good football. Our big goal is not just to be top six on the 'table of justice', but to be top six in the Championship. That is the aim, to get that potential out of Brentford alongside Thomas, Kev, the staff and the players. I think we have it. With our two Directors of Football working day and night to create the squad for next season, I’m seeing some very interesting stuff going on.
This interview was first published in BEES, Brentford FC’s official matchday programme.
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