Sam Saunders is in his second season with Brentford B having taken the role as Assistant Coach at the beginning of the 2019/20 campaign. Working closely with Head Coach Neil MacFarlane, Sam has been on hand to offer his wealth of experience to the young players to help guide them and continue their development.
The Brentford legend made 206 appearances in all competitions for The Bees, including helping the squad reach the 2011 Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final. After losing out in the 2013 Play-Off Finals, he then played a key role in promotion from the third tier.
Having hung up his boots as a player in June 2019 he returned to Brentford to embark on a coaching career that has so far seen him work with the young Bees as they toured across Europe in the 2019/20 season in the likes of Spain, Portugal, France and Cyprus.
Looking back on his first season with Brentford B, Sam says he was delighted to return to a club close to his heart and is enjoying his development as a Coach at Jersey Road.
“It’s been really good to be back at the Club. Having played here for such a long time, going away, and then the second I get back through the door it felt like coming home,” said Sam. “Being in an environment where there is a continuous strive for improvement within the whole staff, players, coaches, physios, media, everyone involved. We all want to get better and improve and there is a no excuses culture here, and if you don’t improve while you’re here then you’re not pushing yourself.
“I’m a rookie in a coaching aspect, what I did playing and the number of games I played means nothing now, so it’s about proving myself again, to work hard and to listen. I’m very lucky that I’ve got a Head Coach like Thomas Frank, as well as Brian (Riemer) and Kevin (O’Connor) to talk to and ask questions to. They’re always honest and try and help me. I’ve got Neil (MacFarlane) as B Team Head Coach who enables me to put on sessions and to have a real influence in decision making. I was worried about becoming a balls, bibs and cones man coming in to my first coaching role and not knowing Neil, but he’s given me lots of time on the grass with the lads which is only going to improve me as a coach, so I’m really enjoying that responsibility.”
A man who knows what it takes to be successful at Brentford, the Assistant Coach is also enjoying the responsibility away from the football pitch to act as a role model and help to guide the young players in whichever way he can. The Brentford B Team is made of up players from nine different nations, so Sam believes when coaching it’s important to understand that players come from all different backgrounds and it’s his role to adapt his methods to the players to ensure they have the best possible chance to develop.
“I feel like I’ve progressed a lot as a Coach, there’s a long way to go and I don’t think there is ever a complete Coach. It’s different formations in possession, even handling different situations with lads on and off the pitch. Part of it is learning how to treat lads off the pitch in ways which aren’t even to do with football, things that are not in any coaching manuals or A-licenses, sometimes it’s about going through real experiences and learning from them.
“To be a good Coach you have to be a good reader of people, you’ve got to understand when to have a laugh and a joke or when to be serious and push down on discipline. It’s a little bit like parenting, it’s about understanding the individual, and in that family environment its which kid needs to be told and which one needs an arm put around them. It’s about being fluid in treating people differently because our players come to us from completely different backgrounds. We’ve got players that have moved down from the north of the country and some from abroad, even Lachlan (Brook) who has come from Australia, so we’ve got lots of different people, and for me, that’s a learning experience in itself.”
Sam also believes that working with Neil has given him the best chance to develop himself as a Coach as the pair share a positive working relationship. The two can often be found discussing tactics and major decisions on the side of the pitch, and Sam says he’s thankful for that relationship.
“Being a number two and understanding my role as a number two, Neil really asks a lot of his players and demands a lot,” said Sam. “Sometimes I might be the calming influence on the lad, or the Coach who steps back because you don’t need two people giving instructions, that then works vice versa. I’m really complimentary about Neil, I couldn’t have asked for someone better to help me in this role because I feel like my coaching has gone up ten-fold in the 18 months or so that I’ve been in this role, and Neil has to take a lot of credit for that.”
Following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Brentford B’s 2019/20 season was curtailed early, but having suffered that setback, as well as the two-weeks of isolation in September, Sam says the players have been fantastic so far this season and is looking forward to seeing how they kick on in the coming months.
He continued: “It’s been difficult for the boys, going through the time off during the pandemic, and then to come back to pre-season before another two-weeks of quarantine, and then to come back and to have another mini pre-season. We’ve played some good games, some where, for me, we’ve lost, and they were the best games because we learned so much about our players and they learned about themselves.”
Fixtures against the likes of Bromley, Aldershot and Hendon have all been designed to test the players from a physical perspective and let them know what it takes to play regular men’s football. Sam believes the recent experiences will stand the players in good stead to break into men’s football, whether than be on an initial loan, or within the First Team at The Brentford Community Stadium.
“Very rarely do you come through a B Team or an Under-23s team and go straight into a First Team and play 300-400 games and that’s happily ever after,” explained Sam. “Normally, players have to go out on loan and if a player is looking for a loan from a B Team then they’re looking at perhaps the National League as well as Leagues One and Two. You then have to be used to the style of football that they will play, you have to be hardened to it, and you’ve got to go into any loan opportunity with your eyes wide open. These fixtures really do that for the boys, they show what it takes to go and play men’s football, because it’s tough out there. Those games are not all pretty games on the half turn, passing through the thirds and scoring total football goals. It’s a completely different contrast to that so we have to try and widen the eyes of the boys and help them to understand that sometimes in football the games aren’t going to be pretty.”
On the fixture schedule Sam says he and the coaching staff enjoy seeing the improvement of the players as they come up against teams with an average age often around the mid to late 20s, as the 18-19-year-olds are given valuable experience.
He continued: “It’s something we’ve enjoyed as Coaches, to try and find that balance to be working with the ball between the lines and taking the ball and sticking to the Brentford principles, but then also understand that they need to do the basics of defending like winning first balls or second balls. It’s a good balance, that’s what I like about the B Team, the difference in fixtures, the different age groups they play against as well, so I think they get the best kind of infrastructure to step into a men’s team.”
With one debut already this season from the B Team in 17-year-old Fin Stevens, Sam believes its recognition for the talented group, but was quick to point out that the hard work then steps up even more for the players who wish to keep themselves in and around that First Team setup.
“The debuts are great, they’re fantastic. Fin’s debut probably came a little earlier than most people expected,” said Sam. “We’ve made some good signings so we’re hopeful of more debuts in the coming months and seasons, but now we don’t just want debuts, we want 10 games, 20 games, 50 games, because for us now as a coaching staff we want to keep pushing them, and of course debuts are lovely, but we want to see our players in and around the First Team week in, week out.
“When a boy makes his debut we say well done, but then we look at the next objective to get more games and a career in Brentford’s First Team. Fin is a good lad, and we’ve got lots of good lads in this group and they won’t be getting carried away by a debut, they know that’s just the beginning and the real hard work starts right now. The boys want to work hard, and they understand that culture at the Club, and to get a First Team member’s shirt isn’t going to be an easy task, that comes with consistency of working hard every single day and taking on board everything that’s said to you by the coaching department.”