Last Thursday evening Thomas Frank was at home in south-west London, watching Denmark’s Under-21s on his laptop when, a few miles away, Ollie Watkins was brought on for his England debut at Wembley. It was the cue for the Brentford head coach to fetch the remote. “I turned on the telly and saw Ollie score,” says Frank, who worked with the striker for three seasons. “The story of Ollie is remarkable, from League Two to the Championship and now the Premier League and the national team. He is humble but worked very hard. With that you can get very far.”
Frank is hoping to guide Brentford to the top flight after coming within one game of promotion last season. The international break allowed him to recharge the batteries, a little respite from a gruelling campaign that began only 33 days after losing the play-off final. Getting off of the hamster wheel, as Frank puts it, is tricky but the change of pace and spending a few hours with family, exploring Netflix or walking through the woods with Torben, a cross between a shar pei and an English bulldog from Battersea, was much needed. “I watched After Life. I tried to find something where I can laugh and cry a bit, and I did both.”
With nine games to play Brentford are hoping tears of joy lie ahead. Before visiting Huddersfield on Saturday they are fourth in the Championship, in the midst of what, ostensibly, is a three-way fight with Watford, whom they face in their penultimate game, and Swansea for the second automatic promotion place. “We are definitely getting into the last part of the race, so maybe we are not sprinting yet but we are definitely increasing the tempo, or trying to.
“I think the fans should have massive hope. After we went 21 games unbeaten, which is unbelievable in this league, you suddenly have even more hope. Then we had a little setback. The fact is if you said, ‘OK, Thomas,’ or to any Bees fan after 37 games, ‘you will have eight points more than at this stage last season, you would have said: Yes, of course.’ We will definitely attack this run-in. It’s the only way. I think it will go right till the end, who will get in top two.”
Hope, he knows, is a funny thing in this game. “We are selling hope in football because every game there is new hope. ‘Maybe this year, maybe this game, maybe we can come back even though we lost the last three.’ It is all about hoping. And within that hope, there are lots of ups and downs. It is about trying to stay as calm as possible. I try to stay calm, calm, calm, calm … and then suddenly I explode, because I can have a lot of emotions pent-up inside me.”
That Brentford are firmly in the mix for promotion despite selling Watkins and Saïd Benrahma, arguably the two best forwards in the division last season, is both remarkable and unsurprising given their sound recruitment record, particularly with strikers. Ivan Toney, on 28 goals, will almost certainly add another golden boot to the mantelpiece after replicating the prolific form he showed with Peterborough in League One since a £6m move, plus add-ons, last summer. Frank believes Toney, after namechecking the midfielder Josh Dasilva and the full-back Rico Henry, could be the next player with Brentford blood to pull on an England shirt. “We have produced a striker three years in row that has scored 25 league goals,” he says, referring also to Neal Maupay and Watkins. “It is fantastic. We must be doing something right.”
In February Brentford became the latest club to announce they would no longer take the knee, stating the gesture has lost its impact as discrimination has festered online. “These keyboard warriors have way, way too much power and for me there needs to be bigger punishments and restrictions if people go overboard because they can abuse every footballer for ‘free’,” Frank says. “You need to be unbelievably mentally strong for it not to bite just a tiny bit, just like a mosquito bite. It is very little but you feel it a tiny bit. If you get a lot of mosquito bites then it’s really going to be itchy.”
Frank has concerns about how social media can impact his squad. “It is nice with the praise when you score a hat-trick … but you don’t score a hat-trick every week. I’ve been speaking to them about social media, especially if some of the players have not been performing that well. I don’t read anything about it but I just know how it works and the mechanism. After I’ve spoken for 30 seconds [after a game], they are on to their phones and I’m thinking: ‘Should I make a rule that they can’t do that before they leave the dressing room?’ I don’t know.”
He acknowledges shutting out the noise and retaining laser-sharp focus will be pivotal to Brentford’s prospects. As for Frank, compared with when he was in charge at Brøndby, one of Denmark’s biggest clubs, he says it is easy to walk London’s streets unnoticed or jog around Richmond Park three times a week without being spotted. That would surely change if Frank led the Bees to the Premier League. “Maybe, maybe. Let’s see,” he says, smiling.