“I’m a better goalkeeper than I was six months ago. I’m not saying it’s been easy to get to that place, but sometimes you have to take one step back to take two steps forward.”
He’d be the first to admit that it’s not always been plain sailing this term, but Daniel Bentley is confidence personified. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is very much the ethos of the former Southend United stopper.
In a revealing interview with BEES matchday programme, Dan discusses the dressing room dynamic, working with Iñaki Caña Pavón and overcoming adversity.
Thanks for talking to us, Dan. Saturday’s victory over Blackburn Rovers extended the current unbeaten run to nine matches. Do you feel the team is firing on all cylinders now?
We’re getting towards our best. We had a long, hard look at ourselves after a period where we didn’t do ourselves any justice – we had to look each other in the eyes and get back to basics. We’ve got an honest group of players who will work hard and fight for each other.
We’ve worked our backsides off on the training ground to put right the things that were going wrong. We’re getting better and better and it’s vitally important that our progression continues - we can’t allow complacency to set in.
Who were the vocal characters in the dressing room during a challenging start to Thomas Frank’s tenure?
We’ve got such a young group so our leaders are not as old as they would be in other dressing rooms. I’m very vocal, Romaine [Sawyers] as the captain is vocal, Henrik [Dalsgaard] is vocal, Josh McEachran is vocal and Luke Daniels can be vocal, too. One of that group tends to be the first to talk if things aren’t going right.
I don’t think we’ve got anyone who would cheat themselves or the rest of the boys. You have to be willing to take criticism on board and put your hands up when you’ve made a mistake.
The beginning of the current unbeaten run coincided with Thomas switching to a 3-4-3 formation. What have you made of the change in system and how has it impacted you?
We’ve been solid, first and foremost – there’s a real solidarity in the way that we defend. Out of possession we can switch to a five at the back, which gives us increased numbers in our own third. From an attacking point of view the system allows our two wing-backs to get forward and support the midfielders and Neal [Maupay] up top.
We still play a very similar way [to the previous system], but we’ve had to adapt at times when teams want to press the life out of us. The Head Coach has been very vocal in encouraging us to up our game and find the spaces when teams try to press us high up the pitch. We’ve had to go longer and slightly earlier at times, but we’ve still got the core principle of wanting to keep the ball and play attractive football. We want to be brave without being reckless.
Is the change in system a sign of Thomas putting his own mark on things?
Without that poor run, I doubt Thomas would have changed the system – you tend not to fix what isn’t broken. The decision for him to change the shape was brave because it was untried and untested, but it’s testament to him for sticking with it and to the players for taking to it and allowing it to work.
You can talk about shape, systems and the way that we play, but the main shift for me has been in our mentality – that’s one of the main things that Thomas and the coaches have focused on at Jersey Road. We were a bit too nice out of possession – we were naïve off the ball – and that’s certainly something that’s been put right. We’ve given ourselves a good platform to build from.
Kevin O’Connor joined the First Team staff in December. Was there a noticeable change in the dynamic following his appointment as Assistant Coach?
We all know what Kev is about: he played more than 500 games as a professional and he’s a cult hero at Brentford Football Club. The group responded really well to his appointment; he held a great deal of respect as the B Team Head Coach and he’s fully deserving of this role. He’s a very young coach but knows Brentford and the English game inside out.
Thomas and Brian [Reimer] are both from Denmark and have had different upbringings in terms of their style of play and coaching methods. As a trio they complement each other very well – they all bring something slightly different to the table in the same way that Dean [Smith], Rich [O’Kelly] and Thomas did. You receive slightly different messages from each coach, but it works because they’re all pulling in the same direction.
Kev is quite laid back, however you know that there’s a standard with him and if you drop below it he’ll be having words. Brian is very strict, very demanding and very intense. Thomas has always been very demanding and energetic in training. If someone isn’t pulling their weight, that will be recognised and rectified straight away.
Talk us through an average training session at Jersey Road…
It’s extremely intense – on days when it’s possible we’ve got lads coming off the training ground knackered. We focus more on individuals and units rather than group sessions. We work on shape and on defending as a team – it’s not just up to the centre-halves and the goalkeeper to keep the ball out of the net, it’s a collective responsibility. We defend as a unit and we attack as a unit, from myself all the way up to Neal. We have a lot of attack versus defence sessions – it gets extremely competitive and that gets people in good habits in preparation for matchday.
Iñaki Caña Pavón was named Brentford’s Goalkeeper Coach in the summer. How have you found working with him?
Sessions with Iñaki are incredibly explosive – we work very, very hard. What he’s trying to achieve will not happen overnight, it takes time because I’m very much a goalkeeper of habits and there’s certain things I’ve done my whole career that have led me to the place I am now. Iñaki believes that if I develop and adjust those things then I can advance to a higher level.
It’s important that I take what he’s saying on board. It’s a challenge because he’s taking me out of my comfort zone and pushing me every day, but it’s definitely beneficial. I’m a better goalkeeper than I was six months ago – I’m in a better place and I’m a level ahead of where I was. I’m more positive when it comes to claiming crosses than I was last year, for example. I’m not saying it’s been easy to get to that place, but sometimes you have to take one step back to take two steps forward.
Chris Mepham joined Premier League side AFC Bournemouth last month. How did the group react to his departure?
Meps came to me on multiple occasions for advice - I think he looked up to me in a way. Although the circumstances are different, I’ve experienced what it’s like to come through as a youngster [at Southend United] and switch clubs. He’s only played 30 or 40 Championship games – he’s still very inexperienced but learned so much in a short space of time. He went from the fringes to being thrown in at the deep end – it was sink or swim and he swam. That’s testament to him - his attitude is spot on.
The entire dressing room is very proud of him, everyone’s happy that he’s been able to further his career but we’re disappointed because the training ground is not going to be as entertaining and we’ll miss his qualities on the pitch. We’ve lost a good player and a good lad.
Meps is one of the nicest lads you’ll ever meet. He’s got absolutely zero common sense but it’s funny because he’s such a lovely lad. You can’t knock him for it because he’s so innocent. I’ve got the perfect story to sum up Chris Mepham. One morning I got to the training ground and Meps called me over to look at his car. “Oh, urm – I’ve got a dent,” he said. “I was listening to my beepers and when there was a continuous beep I forgot to stop.” There are some steps outside one of the offices at Jersey Road and he’d backed straight into them. It’s not the first time he’d backed into something and I’m sure it won’t be the last – typical, typical Meps.
Reflecting on your own performances, you’ve told us in the past that you need “rhino skin” as a goalkeeper. How much of a test has this season been from a psychological point of view?
Everyone has an opinion; I take negative comments like water off a duck’s back. If I listened to every negative comment or was hurt by abuse from opposing fans, then I wouldn’t be able to do what I do for a living. Regardless of whether my form is good, bad or indifferent, it’s important that I stick to the basics and work hard on the training ground – that’s a given. Every player goes through patches when things aren’t quite happening for them; you’ve got to work hard to come out the other side.
How do you cope in the immediate aftermath of a mistake? Is it a struggle to prevent your work life from bleeding into your personal life?
My missus would love to answer this question for me! The first word that springs to mind is grumpy – I can be very grumpy for a little while. One thing I’ve learned to do with experience is to let things go a bit, but I’m the first to analyse my performances. I’m very, very, very self-critical; even when I do things well I look at ways in which I could have done better. I’m my own harshest critic.
I take football so seriously that I almost forget about my life away from the game – I’ve spoken to Thomas about that recently and he empathised. You get caught in a bubble in football; there’s always things to work on or three points to aim for. When the focus is always on the next game it’s easy to forget about what’s happening at home. If we lose on a Saturday and I make a mistake, I’m grumpy at home and my family suffer. You have to be able to distance yourself from what’s happening on the pitch because in the past my family have taken the brunt of my grumpiness. Yes it’s my career and yes it’s vitally important, but I’ve had to learn to switch off and deal with it again on Monday morning.
I’ve learned over the past couple of years that when I’m at home I need to be a slightly different person – I’ve got to be able to enjoy time with family and friends. Life is too short and I want to make reference to Rob Rowan here – he was only three years older than me and his life was unfortunately taken. You have to enjoy life while you’re here. Mistakes happen – you have to get on with it.
We’d like to take you back to October when you were on the bench for Birmingham City’s visit to Griffin Park and for the following week’s trip to Elland Road. What was going through your mind during that spell?
For want of a better phrase, my only focus was to work my nuts off and get my shirt back. I don’t believe I have a divine right to the number one shirt - what’s important for me is that I earn it and I keep it. That shirt is yours until you stop earning it.
That was the first occasion I’d been dropped during my professional career. It was difficult to process, but my core values meant that my immediate focus was to win the shirt back – I don’t like being on the bench, not many footballers do. I knew I had to work hard on the things that lost me the shirt in the first place. I knew I couldn’t sulk – I had to be on it every day in training and support Luke [Daniels] while he was in the team.
As a goalkeeper there’s going to be mistakes and there’s going to be bad times, but you’ve got to make sure you’re a better player and person because of it.
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