RF: Any fears of relegation must be a thing of the past for you now! You’re only eight points off the Play Offs now so how do you see this rest of the season going for Brentford? Reckon you’ll make the top six?
BG: Relegation was never really a fear for Bees fans this season. We’re not resting on our laurels but we have been playing good football and have also come across some pretty poor teams this season so to go down, you would have to end up being worse than them. If you’ve been going to football for years and are a realist you know it. You can smell it. Bees fans knew when Terry Butcher was manager we were in a bad way.
Even when we hadn’t won our first league match until the end of September this season we weren’t worried. Defensive mistakes let us down a lot. Scoring three goals at home but still losing to Forest and drawing to you guys sums up how our season was going.
Since the new year it’s been a bit touch and go. Plus we lost Lasse Vibe to China.
We chat about our playoff hopes quite a bit on this week’s podcast in which we also talk to your very own Connor Bromley about Sunderland. Playoffs are a huge outside shot. Saying that, every year we have had one player pick up in form massively in the New Year. Last season it was Jota and Vibe. The season before it was Hogan and Vibe. If the “turbo-boost” button gets pushed again then anything can happen. Secretly, I think it’s one step beyond. But it only needs one player to really step up.
RF: I heard you on The Totally Football League Show last week speaking about Brentford’s B team and the restructuring of the youth policy, recently. So far, is it looking like a positive move and do you think it should be something other clubs look in to?
BG: To be honest, it depends on the club, how much money you have, the club’s objectives and what your priorities are. The academy system works for some clubs. And the concept of developing a group of kids from a young age is massively important for the development of young talent in this country.
Interestingly, there is an article on this very subject in the I newspaper only published today (Friday) by Tom Wigmore entitled “Why Brentford scrapped their academy and embraced B-team football.”
First thing I would like to point out it we have a specific way of identifying and signing players which was explained at length in this article here.
Our owner Mathew Benham was massively into our academy project and he put a lot of money into it. The problem is more about the EPPP (Premier League Elite Player Performance Plan). It doesn’t work for smaller teams like Brentford where you can develop a player for five and six years. Then a ‘so called bigger’ team can lure him away before you can get him to sign him to a professional contract.
We also had the situation where there wasn’t a properly defined path through to the 1st team from the academy. So we had Alfie Mawson in our academy. But he wasn’t going to usurp the likes of Harlee Dean, Tony Craig, Jack O’Connell and James Tarkowski at the time. So we sent him out on loan instead and ended up ‘selling’ him to Barnsley (he wanted 1st team football but as he was under 24 we were able to negotiate a deal). The rest is history. And we learn from our mistakes.
So with the system in place, our owner decided to close the academy down as it was expensive and wasn’t producing potential first team players at the rate he was expecting it to. And any players it was producing were in danger of being poached at a key moment in their career.
He then set up the B-team which signed players (17-23 years old) on professional contracts - meaning they couldn’t get poached. And if they did, it was on our terms. They were picking up players who had been dropped by academies both in the UK and in Europe as well as players signed to smaller clubs. Meanwhile, they also ensured there was a properly defined path through to the 1st team. So they identified players who would be future 1st team players and started to incorporate them into the 1st team squad. Training with the first team. Travelling up to matches with the first team. Appearing on the bench in 1st team matches and so on.
Instead of playing matches against other Under 23 teams every week in a league, they would arrange matches against other teams which could be a mix of Under 23’s and first team players - or even all first team players. So we have played teams like Inter Milan, AC Milan (we beat them both), Manchester City (we beat them too), Wolverhampton Wanderers, Glasgow Rangers, Swansea City, AFC Bournemouth, Benfica, Hertha Berlin, Legia Warsaw, Chelsea, Everton.
We play the same style of football all the way through the club. The ethos is - define the style of playing. Define what the club is about. Then get the right staff to do it.
So in principle, B-team players should slot into the A team if they’re good enough.
A prime example is Chris Mepham. He was dropped by Chelsea and rejected by QPR - signing for Brentford academy just before it was shut down. He graduated to the B-team (we took on a finite number of academy players and signed them onto full contracts). He was playing for the B team even at the start of the season. But he was being ‘groomed’ for the A-team.
So he traveled with the A team on a number of occasions. And made his debut in the FA Cup last season. However, it was this season where he really made his mark. He found himself starting after John Egan picked up an injury just before Christmas. And hasn’t lost his place since. He’s played a dozen league matches and Eddie Howe came in and bid £8m for him in January.
So you ask if other teams should be doing what we are doing. Yes. And no.
If they can afford to run and academy and their business model allows for them to have a system that may produce one or two players who will graduate to the 1st team - but more to the point can produce players who can be sold on if they don’t, then fine. Brentford only have a finite amount of cash. So the system wasn’t working for us. So the owner has said he would rather divert that money into the first team squad - in a bid for promotion - and invest in a system that develops the next set of young kids coming through from the age of 17 years old.
If we were ever to get promoted, and have £100m a year plus in our bank, then maybe Brentford may go back to the academy system and run it more efficiently after leaning from their mistakes. But at the moment, our focus is getting us to the next level. And the B-team is helping us with this.
RF: Ollie Watkins is still leading the way as top scorer but the goals are shared out amongst the Brentford squad. Who will be the main threat for you on Saturday? Anyone in good form?
BG: We have threats all over the park. Watkins we picked up from Exeter in the summer and has done a great job getting to grips with the Championship.
He’s still learning so you have’t see the best in him. But that’s what we do. Pick up rough young diamonds for relatively little money and polish them up!
Neal Maupay will probably start up front. He’s a rough diamond who is getting a wee bit of stick from a small section of Bees fans who don’t think he’s up to it. Personally, I think it’s really, really early days for him. He’s been thrown in the deep end after being signed from St Etienne in the summer for £1.5m. He misses a fair few chances but he seems to create loads and loads.
Other than him, Ryan Woods is great. The ginger Messi! Romaine Sawyers - on his game - is a very clever player who can pick out a pass.
RF: What about Sunderland - who will you be keeping an eye on during the game?
BG: I’ve said this before but Aiden McGeady scored two great goals against us for Preston last season and he took his chance well at Ashton Gate so I’ll be looking out for him.
RF: How do you think Brentford will approach this game and what do you think Dean Smith’s starting line up will be?
BG: Starting line up, with any luck, will normal service resumed - bar Sergi Canos who is on a three match ban after being sent off at Derby. Chris Mepham (ill) and Ryan Woods (ankle) were out of our last match against Preston. However, I expect them both to be back. So pretty much a first team. The question is - do we play attacking midfielder Emiliano Marcondes and Alan Judge?
Marcondes we signed from Denmark in the summer on a free transfer but left him out there - bringing him over this window instead. By that time, he’s scored 17 goals in 19 making him the top goalscorer in the Danish Superleague when the season closed for its winter break.
RF: Finally, a prediction please?
BG: I think we’re gonna get our first win in four matches. It won’t be easy because we never make things easy. 2-1 to The Bees!