Skip to content

Brentford: How Thomas Frank's Bees completed a remarkable rise to the Premier League

As Brentford's gear up for their first top flight season since 1947, we chart their rise from League Two to the Premier League in little more than a decade; Watch Brentford vs Arsenal live on Sky Sports Premier League from 7pm on Friday; Kick off 8pm.

At the conclusion of one of the most unique and challenging of seasons, in May Brentford went one better than the season before and were promoted to the Premier League after beating Swansea 2-0 in the Championship play-off final at Wembley.

Last year was supposed to be the year - the year the Bees would say goodbye to Griffin Park, their home of 116 years, in style. But in August 2020, it was west London neighbours Fulham who pipped them to the top flight, with a 2-1 win in extra time.

Remarkably, there was no real hangover for Thomas Frank's men, despite the manner of the defeat and the gap of just over five weeks between the two campaigns. Still, they did it the hard way and prevailed at the second time of asking after beating the Swans.

Live FNF

Getting to this point has been far from plain sailing, however. From financial hardship around the turn of the millennium to promotion to the promised land, we take a look at how Brentford reached the first Premier League for the first time…

The Benham revolution

After financial struggles in their lower league years, it was 2007 - 60 years after they had last played top-flight football - when things started to change for Brentford after current owner Matthew Benham's involvement in the club began.

Owner Matthew Benham has been a Brentford fan since the 1970s
Image: Owner Matthew Benham has been a Brentford fan since the 1970s

A lifelong fan of the club, Benham eventually took full control of the club in 2012, and his involvement has been key to a gradual but consistent ascent from the doldrums of League Two, a journey that makes the decades of financial trouble and existential threat seem so long ago.

Having suffered a miserable relegation in 2007, Brentford won the League Two title in 2008/09 and began to grow, ever so slightly, in stature. Once Benham's ownership was confirmed, he began to mould the club to fit his vision. They reached the League One play-off final in 2013 with former Man City striker Uwe Rosler at the helm, but it could have been the perfect start.

Also See:

Brentford lifted the League Two title in May 2009
Image: Brentford lifted the League Two title in May 2009

Every Brentford fan will know where they were on April 27, 2013. Doncaster Rovers visited Griffin Park for a winner-takes-all clash: A win for Rovers would secure the title and consign Brentford to the play-offs, while a Bees win would see them promoted to the Championship.

A foul by Dean Furman on Toumani Diagouraga saw Rosler's side awarded a penalty in front of the Ealing Road terrace deep into second-half stoppage time. Fulham loanee Marcello Trotta clutched the ball and prevented club legend Kevin O'Connor from taking the spot-kick.

Then time stood still as the Italian's shot thundered off the crossbar, allowing Rovers to break through Billy Paynter, who squared for James Coppinger to strike beyond helpless goalkeeper Simon Moore.

Marcello Trotta's missed penalty in a final day clash with Doncaster cost Brentford promotion to the Championship in 2013
Image: Marcello Trotta's missed penalty in a final day clash with Doncaster cost Brentford promotion to the Championship in 2013

If anything, it made promotion the following year even sweeter, particularly as the act that secured second-tier football was a penalty, too. This time, as fans waited with bated breath, Alan Judge did the honours, though.

Over the seven seasons since, Brentford have worked tirelessly to become an established Championship club, with a top-half finish in each campaign under their belts. The club's transfer policy has been central to the rise.

A unique approach to transfers

Headed by co-sporting directors Rasmus Ankersen and Phil Giles, the club have developed a reputation for identifying undervalued talent using mathematical and statistical modelling and often developing them in the B Team, which was set up in the summer of 2016 after the controversial closure of their academy.

In its infancy, this was often in untapped leagues or regions where players might command a lower fee, though since Brexit, the talent pool has been greatly condensed.

BRENTFORD, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: Scott Hogan of Brentford celebrates scoring during the Sky Bet Championship match between Brentford and Fulham at Griffin Pa
Image: Scott Hogan was bought for £750,000 in 2014 and sold for around £12m three years later

First put into practice ahead of the 2015/16 season, it was a system former head coach Mark Warburton felt unable to work within, partly given the fact he would be unable to veto incoming transfers.

There were undoubtedly creases to iron out - for example, German pair Akaki Gogia and Philipp Hofmann struggled to settle in west London - yet equally the plan began to work almost immediately as they brought in 13 players permanently, sold seven, finished ninth in the table and still made a significant profit on transfers.

Their policy has often been likened to that of the Oakland Athletics baseball team's 2002 season, which spawned the Brad Pitt film Moneyball. Benham himself, however, has distanced himself from such comparisons. "The label can be confusing because people think it is using any stats rather than trying to use them in a scientific way," he said in 2015.

Two Joe Bryan goals in extra-time dealt Brentford a ninth play-off failure at the end of the 2019/20 campaign
Image: Brentford captain Pontus Jansson signed from Leeds in July 2019

Owing somewhat to the club's ties with Benham's other club, Danish Superliga outfit FC Midtjylland, there is a large Scandinavian presence at the club's Jersey Road training ground. In addition to head coach Frank and his assistant Brian Riemer, there are six Danish players in the first team, as well as Icelandic goalkeeper Patrik Gunnarsson, Finnish striker Marcus Forss and Swedish skipper Pontus Jansson.

Naturally, the policy has had its doubters. Since promotion to the Championship, many believed Brentford were simply a selling club punching above their weight and would not have what it took to make the step up to the next level. For several years there was an air of truth about that as summer after summer the players they had developed departed west London, with the likes of Andre Gray, James Tarkowski and Jota going on to ply their trade in the Premier League.

Aston Villa's Ollie Watkins celebrates scoring his side's fourth goal of the game to complete his hat trick during the Premier League match at Villa Park, Birmingham (PA)
Image: Ollie Watkins joined Aston Villa for an initial fee of £28m last September

But as a club who do things the 'right' way and have future prospects at the forefront of their mind, Brentford played the long game in grafting towards an end goal. Due to meticulously planning two transfer windows ahead, there was always a ready-made replacement, usually signed for a fraction of the incoming fee.

A total of £27.2m generated from player sales helped the club achieve a £23.4m total profit in 2018/19 and though they posted a loss of £9.2m in 2019/20, the £24.9m from outgoing transfers showed just how crucial the policy is to the future of the club.

History is made

Any mention of the play-offs has left Brentford fans wincing over the past 30 years, with each of their nine campaigns ending in failure since the first at the conclusion of the 1990/91 Third Division season. The curse that has followed them has now been banished to the past, though.

Following a steady, if unspectacular, start to last season consisting of three wins, three defeats and one draw, Frank's men were 11th on October 24, having almost completed the comeback of all comebacks in a 3-2 loss to Stoke, having been 3-0 down with 20 minutes to play. It wasn't to be that day, but the fight seemed to ignite something within the squad that led to a 21-game unbeaten run.

Brentford's Ivan Toney celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game
Image: Ivan Toney broke the Championship scoring record with his 31st league goal of the season against Bristol City on the final day

In itself, that still fell five games short of the club's best ever unbeaten run in the EFL - a 26-game streak from February to October 1999 - but in the midst of it, they also managed to reach the Carabao Cup semi-finals for the first time in club history.

What captured the attention of most, however, was Ivan Toney's record-breaking campaign. The 25-year-old striker arrived in west London as Ollie Watkins' replacement - following his initial £28m move to Aston Villa - and, with great expectation upon his shoulders, exceeded every single one set for him.

On the final day of the regular season, he scored his 31st league goal of the season and, in the process, broke Glenn Murray's record of 30, which was set in 2012/13. Just for good measure, he added two further penalties in the play-offs to finish with a tally of 33.

Marcus Forss' goal sent Thomas Frank's men to Wembley
Image: Marcus Forss' goal sent Thomas Frank's men to Wembley for a second year in succession

When the unbeaten run reached its inevitable conclusion in February, days after a brief flirtation with top spot, the blistering form of Watford under Xisco Munoz took Brentford out of automatic promotion contention and they never quite managed to find their way back into the top two.

That brought about a 10th play-off campaign - the joint-most in history - that saw them paired with Bournemouth. Arnaut Danjuma's second half goal saw the Cherries take the first leg plaudits, but a thrilling comeback in west London five days later sent the Bees to Wembley.

And so they returned to Wembley in an attempt to exorcise their demons once again. And this time, they were successful, thanks to first-half goals from Toney and Emiliano Marcondes.

It's been 74 years since Brentford were among the country's elite clubs in the top flight. But that's about to change as the long wait is finally over.

Analysis: What to expect from Thomas Frank's Bees

Sky Sports' Dan Long:

"A little under three-quarters of a century has passed since Brentford last had a seat at the top table of English football - and you can be sure they will approach their return without so much as an ounce of fear.

"Over the last decade, reaching the Premier League has been the aim. Though perhaps not one shouted from the rooftops by the club itself, nor by long-suffering fans, for whom such an eventuality had been a pipe dream for so many decades.

Brentford manager Thomas Frank applauds fans after the Pre-Season Friendly match against Valencia

"Central to their success has been the way they have blazed a trail with a statistical approach both on the pitch and off it. While the modelling is not for the football purists of the world, it has helped the Bees thrive. To paraphrase previous messages from the club: "We can't match other clubs in terms of finances, so we need to find other ways to better them."

"Now promotion has finally been achieved, this has been put on show once more. In the transfer market, players such as Kristoffer Ajer and Frank Onyeka - identified and shortlisted as targets long ago - have made the move to west London; there has been no panic in flooding the squad with those who have been there, done that and got the t-shirt.

"And why should there be any sense of panic? In the historic Carabao Cup run last term, Thomas Frank's men saw off Southampton, West Brom, Fulham and Newcastle. In the semi-finals, they did not disgrace themselves against Tottenham, while in pre-season, they fared well against West Ham and Valencia. All with a fearless, progressive squad that possessed little to no Premier League experience.

Ivan Toney looks set for his first Premier League game since the 2015/16 season when Arsenal visit west London on Friday
Image: Ivan Toney looks set for his first Premier League game since the 2015/16 season when Arsenal visit west London on Friday

"In preparation for the top-flight return, Frank has toyed with both a 4-3-3 and a 3-5-2 formation and recently admitted he wanted his side to be flexible as the season progresses. In defence, though, he will be hard-pressed to leave out one of towering centre-back trio Ajer, Ethan Pinnock and captain Pontus Jansson. According to reports, they remain in the market for a first-choice right-back, with 22-year-old Mads Roerslev having only played 36 games for the club.

"In the middle of the park, the likes of Onyeka, Vitaly Janelt and Christian Norgaard bring steel, while out wide, new signing Yoane Wissa and Bryan Mbeumo - the sole survivor of the BMW front three he was part of alongside Said Benrahma and Ollie Watkins two seasons ago - are likely to cause plenty of headaches for defences.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Thomas Frank admits Brentford have a 'mountain to climb' in their debut Premier League season, but is excited for their first game against Arsenal, live on Sky Sports on Friday.

"Everyone knows who their talisman is, too. Ivan Toney scored for fun in his first full Championship campaign and is eager to get going on his return to the Premier League. With a playful arrogance, he has already laid out his ambitions: "Winning the league is the success we want. It is a crazy ask. But if you don't set crazy targets then you are not doing it right," he told Sky Sports earlier this month.

"Promoted teams often spring surprises when they reach the Premier League for the first time and, after years in the wilderness, Brentford are about to begin making up for lost time. You can be sure they will do everything they can to seize their chance."

The Essential Football Podcast: 21/22 Premier League season preview

The Premier League is back! New signings, new teams, old rivalries resumed and fresh hope, all to the sweet sound of full stadiums. Kate Burlaga is joined by Nick Wright and Gerard Brand to preview another nine months of drama in the top flight.

PART 1: Are City still the side to beat? And who will challenge them? Man Utd, Chelsea, Liverpool assessed

PART 2: Will the north London gloom lift? Leicester in focus and surprise package: Leeds, Aston Villa and Everton tipped

PART 3: How will promoted trio Brentford, Watford and Norwich fare? Plus: New managers assessed, and can West Ham deal with European distraction?

Listen on your provider here

Super 6: Who makes play-offs? Who goes down?
Super 6: Who makes play-offs? Who goes down?

Do not miss your chance to land the £250,000 for a sixth time this season on Wednesday. Play for free, entries by 6pm.


Around Sky