Leadership & Culture, Performance | Jan 11, 2022
The English Premier League club’s confidence and humility is backed by a team-first attitude.

Brentford Football Club are one of the shrewdest operators in the English Premier League. The west London club are currently enjoying their first season back in the English top tier since 1947 and do not look out of place amongst the elite.

By John Portch

Their ascendency can be traced back to 2007 and Matthew Benham’s first involvement with a club that found itself in League 2, the fourth-tier of the English football pyramid. Not only were the team’s performances indifferent, there was an existential threat posed by Brentford’s precarious financial position at the time.

Over the following 15 years, under Benham’s careful stewardship (he became the Bees’ outright owner in 2012 and also owns Danish Superliga side FC Midtjylland), the club have gradually risen through the leagues to reach the Premier League through a novel approach to recruitment, team building and calibrating their high performance environment – all achieved on a budget far below most of their direct Premier League rivals.

The direction of travel, both in terms of culture and playing style, has been clear throughout Brentford’s rise. The playing group has been continually refreshed and renewed, with each head coach serving as a custodian of the Bees’ data-informed, open-minded approach. Brentford have done things differently and done them with confidence and humility.

Brentford’s current Head Coach is Thomas Frank. “In all kinds of sport, money is a big part of it,” says the Dane when addressing an audience at the 2021 Leaders Sport Performance Summit in London. “We speak a lot in football that money is 70 per cent and then the last 30 per cent is knowledge, culture, those margins. I think we do these 30 per cent and maybe let’s say 35 per cent unbelievably well.”

Support from the top

Frank embodies the aforementioned confidence and humility of Brentford’s progress under Benham’s ownership. He was promoted from Assistant Manager to Manager when Dean Smith departed from Brentford in October 2018.

Frank proceeded to lose eight of his first ten matches in charge, although the support from the Bees’ Sporting Directors, Rasmus Ankersen and Phil Giles, was unwavering, as was the backing of Benham. The club’s key stakeholders never lost sight of their vision and were confident that Frank would maintain the direction of travel.

Their patience has been rewarded. On Frank’s watch, Brentford reached consecutive Championship play-off finals and successfully gained promotion to the Premier League last May. They also moved into a new arena, the Community Stadium, in 2020. It is full week after week.

“I think we have a fantastic owner,” says Frank. He underlines his point by referencing Brentford’s 2-1 defeat to Norwich just three days earlier and the message Benham sent during the aftermath. “When we lost to Norwich on Saturday, one of the clubs we’re competing with to try to stay up – we never say ‘stay up’ by the way, we try to achieve instead of avoid – anyway, we lost to Norwich, we actually played a good game, should’ve won and the only texts he [Benham] is texting: ‘very unlucky, go again, right behind you.’”

Brentford are safely ensconced in mid-table at the time of writing, with no imminent threat of relegation and perhaps a clearer vision and purpose than some of their immediate rivals.

Alignment across football operations

Frank also reserves praise for Ankersen [who has now left the club] and Giles. “[We] are very aligned in the strategy, the way we want to play, the way we want to build the culture, the way we want to do things,” he says.

Giles has described himself and Ankersen as “chief executives of the training ground.” He told ESPN in December: “Outside transfer windows, we are much more focused on building the foundations of the club, making sure the owner’s ideas are integrated into the club and he is happy with the way the football side of it works.

“[The owner] has got some pretty clear concepts and we are the architects of putting that in place. For example, at the start of the season we’ll put together a football strategy document outlining our aims and targets for the coming season. We’ll work with our staff on that to make sure we set the targets appropriately so it is stretching enough for everyone.”

Of the players and staff, Frank adds: “We have this unique togetherness, and a really good group of players that we built over time, and [we are] really strong on the culture. Togetherness, hard work, attitude and performance. And that’s the thing I try to drill into them every single day. Two things I’ve stolen from – I can say that out loud, no problem – I love the All Blacks’ book, Legacy, and that ‘no dickheads’ [concept], a fantastic one-liner.”

Confident but humble

Frank readily admits that Brentford are a ‘selling club’ – “we’re all selling clubs unless you are a top ten club in the world” – and this informs the Bees’ recruitment policy. Ankersen and Giles were both noted for developing the club’s reputation for identifying undervalued talent using mathematical and statistical modelling.

Beyond the ‘moneyball’ aspects of their work – a label Benham has publicly rejected – Brentford scour the lower leagues, looking for talent with a point to prove. One such example is Ivan Toney, who left Newcastle in 2018 having bounced around the lower leagues in a succession of loan spells. He showed his remarkable promise at Peterborough and eventually made it to the Premier League with Brentford at age 25, having excelled in the club’s promotion push last season.

Frank tells moderator Michael Caulfield that he uses the ‘no dickheads’ mantra repeatedly. “We only want good people and I think it’s extremely important,” he says. “People need to express themselves, but they [also] need to think for the team and the club.” He cites the example of Harlequins scrum-half Danny Care, who spoke onstage prior to Frank, and Stuart Worden, the Principal of south London performing arts college the BRIT School, another former Leaders speaker.

“[Worden’s] one-liner is [the right] attitude is when you are confident but humble,” says Frank. “You need to be confident, you need to trust yourself. I need to trust myself, the players need to trust themselves, but if you’re not the humble for the work you need to put in every single day, we can never achieve anything.”

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