“When life gets tough, you either take one step back or one step forward – as a community we took two steps forward.”
Brentford have tasted victory and defeat this season, but it’s a loss away from the pitch that will define 2018/19.
Printed on the walls of the offices, the gym and the canteen, it’s impossible to miss the Club’s values of togetherness, honesty and humility when walking around Jersey Round, but actions speak louder than words and it’s during tough times that people reveal their true colours.
The tragic death of Robert Rowan in November shook the foundations of Brentford Football Club. An infectious character who was popular with staff and players alike, the news of Rob’s passing at the age of just 28 remains difficult to process. Thomas Frank, who had stepped up to the role of Head Coach in October, became the figurehead of a Club engulfed in grief.
We sat down with the Head Coach to discuss his first seven months in charge and the importance of togetherness during the Club’s “ultimate test”.
You were appointed Brentford’s Head Coach in mid-October having held the position of Assistant Head Coach since December 2016. How was the transition period following Dean Smith’s departure?
I believe that I need to be myself, regardless of my role at the Club. You need to behave the same way as a person - I’ve tried to do that but I’m not perfect! As Head Coach you make the final decision when it comes to the team, so you don’t have a different approach to the players but they are aware that I have more impact. I decide if they're going to play, so either I ruin their world or make it complete.
We’ve been told in previous interviews that the players call you Thomas, not ‘gaffer’ or ‘boss’. Was that a conscious decision?
I truly respect the different cultures and nationalities that we have in our squad and staff. The players asked me the question, and I told them that they are more than welcome to call me gaffer, but I’m happy with Thomas. I don’t think it should change anything in terms of respect. As long as they respect me as a person and respect my knowledge and the way I treat other people, I don’t mind how they address me.
Brian Riemer was named Assistant Head Coach in October and Kevin O’Connor joined the First Team staff the following month. Talk us through the dynamic at Jersey Road…
Nicolas Jover and Iñaki Caña Pavón share the same office as the three of us, and we have a big medical staff and Chris Haslam [Brentford’s Head of Athletic Performance]. We have the perfect blend of personalities; we have knowledge, experience and attention to detail. We are on the same page when it comes to the philosophy, about how we feel football should be played. We are building a culture, we want sustainable success in order to go from good to great. The respect we have for each other is strong. We haven’t worked together for very long as a group so pre-season is a good opportunity for us.
How much of a say did you have in Brian’s appointment? You’d convinced him to join you at Hvidovre 15 years earlier…
He’d have never come to Brentford if I wasn’t here, certainly. I spoke to Rasmus [Ankersen] and Phil [Giles] about Brian but we went through a good process and interviewed other candidates as well as him.
Brian and I became good friends after that season at Hvidovre, we kept in contact and always discussed football. We said to each other that we needed to work together again in the future. There was another opportunity for us to work together at Brøndby, but he was too scared to join me back then! I think he made the right decision, really! I’m really pleased he has joined us at Brentford, not only for his knowledge, experience and personality, but it’s a great to have a close friend here as well.
Romaine Sawyers was named skipper in November. How has he dealt with the increased responsibility that comes with the captain’s armband?
I try to use some of the key players in the squad to gain an in-depth understanding of the group. It’s difficult to get around all 25 players, that’s why we have several staff members.
As the main captain, I have a close relationship with Romaine – we often discuss football and the team in general. Both of us love the game and we discuss styles of play in great detail. He’s grown a lot this season, as a leader and as a player. He presses well, he tracks back and goes out to double up – his game is fantastic in many aspects. I’ve been pleased with him this year.
"A close relationship": Thomas delivers a message to skipper Romaine Sawyers
It was a challenging start to life as Head Coach. How much of a toll did those first few months take on you? Does work-life balance exist in football?
I think there are only a few jobs where there is work-life balance and football definitely isn’t one of them! This job can be 24/7 so you have to try and find time to breathe, to not think about football and focus on something else. I like to spend time with my family – my kids and my wife – and I like to run. Of course, it’s more difficult to find balance when things aren’t going well. When things get tough, I get my head down, work harder and do everything I can to come out the other side.
The Club was in a dark place in November following the death of Technical Director Robert Rowan. How are you coping with the loss of a close friend and colleague and how tough was it to be the figurehead during that period?
If I finished at Brentford, I’m certain that Rob was one of the people I would have remained in contact with. He was a warm, welcoming and open person. He had so much energy, he was very funny and never stopped smiling, but he could switch so quickly to become focused on the task at hand. I miss him very much. He was exceptionally good at his job and leaves an amazing legacy; the database of all the players was built by Rob, so we have every player lined up, and we also have a lot of players lined up because of him for the summer.
Losing Rob was the ultimate test for Brentford as a football club. Everyone was affected: staff, board, the owner, the leadership group, fans and players. There was one word I used a lot back then, one value we needed the most: togetherness. When life gets tough, you either take one step back or one step forward – as a community we took two steps forward. We have good people who care - who want to see the Club do well - and that showed during that period.
Tragic loss: With Brentford's late Technical Director Robert Rowan
Is it fair to say that you’d have settled for a midtable finish if it’d been offered to you in November/December? How do you assess this season?
We were three points above the relegation zone before our game against Bolton in December. At that stage of the season - without rhythm and with the circumstances off the pitch – I would have taken it, yes. I had a strong belief in the team that with a good run we could get very close to the top ten and potentially even higher. We were close to getting on a really good run. We had a promising run when we went ten games unbeaten and took 27/28 points from 15 games – that’s the average you need to maintain if you want to be at the top. With the context in mind I think we’ve done fairly well, but we always want to improve. The things we’ve learned, we need to use next season.
Our home record has been excellent this season. We won 14 league games at Griffin Park and earned eight more points at home than we did last year [2017/18: 38pts, 2018/19: 46pts]. The supporters have been vital in making our home a fortress; we are in a good place when the players are able to feed off the energy of the fans. It smells of football at Griffin Park – it’s a proper stadium with a proper atmosphere.
Do you feel there is a lack of experience in the squad and is that something the Club is looking to address in the summer?
It’s not only down to experience; it’s important that we have enough players who possess the right mindset. Every club has to cope with injuries but, with a smaller budget and a smaller squad, injuries can hit harder. It’s part of the strategy to have a smaller group - I have no complaints - but it’s a fact that injuries can take their toll. We been working hard on our defensive mentality and our culture. Hopefully we can continue to develop that ahead of next season.
Ahead of the Leeds United game, Brian spoke to us about the need to work within the Club’s playing style and philosophy - you must work the Brentford way, not Brian’s way or Thomas’ way. As a club we have a clear identity; from the average fan’s perspective it appears that we adopt the same style week in, week out, regardless of opposition. Have you always worked to such a brief? In previous roles have you tailored your tactics to the opposition?
I have always worked with a philosophy, with the Danish national team, with Brøndby and now with Brentford. I have been a big part of building the style of play here, that’s what I believe will win us games. It’s not only about playing attractive, attacking football, I believe that sticking to our philosophy is the most effective way of getting positive results.
It may look like we set up the same way every week, but we always tweak our tactics to try and hurt our opponents. Do we want to go on the inside or the outside? How can we press them? In general, we want to press high and dominate the ball. There’s certain behaviours we must change during different phases of a game – we have to be adaptable - and that’s a topic we want to improve upon next season.
Lars Friis will depart Jersey Road at the end of the season. How much of an impact has he made during his 18 months in West London?
He’s taken on the roles of Individual Development Coach, Assistant Head Coach and B Team Head Coach in a short space of time. Lars has made a big impact - his knowledge, his experience as a coach and his personality have been valuable to us.
Lars has been the B Team Head Coach since December. What have you made of Brentford B’s season?
I try to see as many of the games as possible. The cup runs have been important in giving our young players competitive experience against senior teams. The B Team is a massive part of our strategy, last season we promoted Marcus Forss and Mads Bech Sørensen. You can see Luka Racic coming on, Jaakko [Oksanen] is around the First Team squad and Nikolaj Kirk and Jan Žambůrek made senior debuts this season.
Which performances stand out for you this season?
There’s been a few, but at the top must be Stoke at home; we dominated massively and should have scored more than three goals. They had two shots in total – one went into the top corner and the other was blocked - and they touched the ball in our 18-yard box once. It was the complete performance.
The home games against Hull [5-1] and Blackburn [5-2] were also top performances where we completely turned things around after conceding first. Leeds recently was good, and Villa at home was a top performance, too.
Which game do you look back upon with most disappointment?
Sheffield United at Griffin Park. We were in a bad spell and that was the turning point; it became clear that we needed to step up as a group and make some changes. There wasn’t enough recovery runs during that game, we didn’t defend well enough.
The summer is nearly upon us. What are your plans for the close season and what do you hope to achieve next term?
I plan to rest and take some time with the family. Once the batteries are recharged, we need to take everything we have learned this season and use that knowledge to strengthen us. We must develop in the crucial areas and make sure we are a better side going into next season. Consistency is key, and we must have big dreams. Some players will leave and some will come in, that’s a fact. We must recruit the right characters.
This interview was first published in BEES matchday programme.
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