One of football’s feel-good stories in recent years has been the success of one-time minnows Brentford and Danish head coach Thomas Frank. Since being promoted from assistant manager to the hot seat in 2018, Frank has taken Brentford to new heights, and capital side are currently punching way above their weight class in the middle of the Premier League.
Frank himself is already being linked to bigger jobs, including Arsenal, and with his leadership style based on a close connection with his players and an emphasis on developing youngsters and previously under-performing stars, he is an incredibly likeable character who has become popular among football fans all over the world.
However, before Frank moved to London in 2016 to join Brentford’s coaching team, he rarely looked like making it to the world’s biggest league. In fact, failure was the word most associated with his career after a disastrous spell at Danish giants Brøndby.
Thomas Frank joined the yellow-blues as head coach in the summer of 2013 in the midst of a tumultuous time at the club. The job was his first as boss of a senior team, having previously coached youth teams. He did, however, enjoy success at under-16, 17 and 19 level with the national team.
During the 2012/13 season, Brøndby had only avoided relegation during the final set of fixtures, and were saved from bankruptcy at the eleventh hour when new ownership entered the club.
This meant that the club had to rebuild from scratch. Unable to compete with FC København financially, the previously successful youth department were to pave the long road back to the top of Danish football. With his experience as a youth coach and close relationships with several of the younger players, including Riza Durmisi, Frank was deemed the perfect candidate for the job.
In the years leading up to Frank joining the club, Brøndby had lost several promising talents to foreign clubs before they even made it in the first team. Andreas Christensen joined Chelsea, Pierre-Emile Højberg went to Bayern Munich, Patrick Olsen headed to Inter, Markus Bay and Nicolai Boilesen crossed to Ajax and Jannik Vestergaard joined Hoffenheim. This was a trend the board and Frank aimed at breaking.
The youngsters had to go all the way to the first team, partly to allow Brøndby to take advantage of their finest talents but also to ensure maximum profit from their inevitable sales.
And it wasn’t just empty words from Brøndby. Halfway through Frank’s first season, they launched a new and more ambitious academy under the name Brøndby Masterclass. Millions of kroner were invested and the club brought in new, foreign coaches to elevate the staff and knowledge base. The best example of this was the appointment of Albert Capellas, a former coordinator at Barcelona’s La Masia, as assistant coach to Frank, and the ideological cornerstone in the construction of the Masterclass.
Although ambitious, the new Brøndby board were patient. Having learned from the mistakes of the past, where expensive and underperforming signings, as well as frequent managerial changes, caused inconsistency, Frank was given unprecedented levels of trust.
“It [the managerial changes] is over now. Development is our goal and is what we are keeping track of,” chairman Aldo Petersen said shortly after Frank joined the club. “There won’t be changes just because our strategy isn’t going as hoped.”
Petersen even guaranteed that Frank wouldn’t lose his job if the results were underwhelming for as long as he was chairman, and explained that he was ready to take a relegation to the second tier with Frank if he felt that they were still moving forward on the long-term strategy.
The trust was much-needed as Brøndby didn’t get the start to the season they wanted. Seven games into the Superliga campaign they were still without victory, and had been dumped out of the cup by a semi-professional team.
Reinforcements were obviously needed, and the board brought in established talent in club legend Thomas Kahlenberg and former Netherlands World Cup finalist Khalid Bouhlarouz, who strengthened a team that already had talented but inexperienced players such as Riza Durmisi, Kenneth Zohore and Christian Nørgaard.
The addition of the new players improved the level, and with better leadership on the pitch, results improved over the season as Brøndby finished fourth and qualified for European football for the first time in three years.
Halfway through the campaign, Jan Bech Andersen bought a controlling stake in the club and became the new chairman. The ownership also changed the ambition in the boardroom: instead of talking about development, processes and patience, the yellow-blues were now openly talking about titles and how to close the ever-growing gap to arch-rivals København.
Going into his sophomore year at Brøndby, which also happened to be the season that the club would celebrate its 50th anniversary, expectations grew. The young players now had a year under the belt as first-teamers, and Jan Bech Andersen splurged in the transfer window.
Brøndby broke the club’s transfer record when Daniel Agger returned home from Liverpool to finish his career, and with him came club legend Johan Elmander, who was a part of the 2004/05 double-winning squad under Michael Laudrup. Officially, the goal was to finish in the top three, but internally, the expensive, big-name signings meant that the team should challenge for the title.
The significant investment in the squad didn’t help much on the pitch, though. Brøndby were easily dismantled during Europa League qualification by a skilled Club Brugge side that won 5-0 on aggregate. At home, things weren’t much better.
Although Brøndby enjoyed an early-season victory at home against København, inconsistent results were commonplace. The team managed to play three games against newly-promoted Hobro IK, a semi-professional outfit with no prior Superliga experience, without winning. It negated all the good work against their biggest rivals.
Whilst it was clear that Frank wanted to control possession with his 4-2-3-1 formation, Brøndby barely created any chances. Even against the worse teams in the league, it was a fight to score goals, and when it happened, it often seemed like it was more down to the individual class of the players rather than the strategy working as intended.
On the sidelines, Frank often looked helpless, and while he was generally well-liked amongst the fans because of his communication skills and modern leadership style, cracks began appearing in the foundations.
On the Sydsiden Stand, home of the most dedicated and vocal fans, the optimistic and cheerful Brøndby chants were slowly exchanged in favour of more pessimistic and negative tomes from the club’s tumultuous period of fighting relegation a few years earlier. Questions were raised about Frank’s ability to lead a big club like Brøndby and to motivate the experienced stars.
These questions became even louder during the winter break when Brøndby played a friendly against Hoffenheim in Germany. The Danes lost 7-0, while the press revealed that Frank needed advice from Agger on how to handle the embarrassment and punish the team, which damaged his standing among the players.
After Agger retired, he spoke about the discussion he had with Frank on that day in Germany. ‘You know that we have spoken about consequences and those things. So what are you going to do now?’ he asked Frank. “We lost 7-0 and a lot of guys didn’t perform well enough. Maybe we aren’t in shape, but it was also mentally that we were wrong.”
Agger suggested that Frank should call the players back to the training pitch during the upcoming days off. Frank was hesitant to follow the advice, seemingly unsure about demanding too much, to which Agger responded: “Of course you can. It is the only way people will understand. If I was coach, I would tell the players that they should show up in the morning. Only bring running shoes and we’ll go to the Brøndby woods.”
Frank eventually followed the advice from his captain, but his soft style was not well-liked among the players, which Agger later spoke about. “As a person I really liked Thomas Frank, but as a coach, he wasn’t the one I liked the most,” Daniel Agger said in 2017 when asked by Ekstra Bladet. “I am from the old school, where a football team has to be built around discipline and a hierarchy, but it wasn’t like that at all when I returned to Brøndby,” he recalled.
Brøndby went to finish third in the league, officially meeting the goal set out before the season, but it wasn’t in an impressive manor. The proud club finished 16 points behind FC Midtjylland and managed just 43 goals in 33 league games.
During the following season, Brøndby would once again depart the Europa League qualification in embarrassing fashion after a 6-1 defeat to Greek side PAOK.
In the league, things weren’t going much better. After finding themselves in the bottom half of the league, Frank’s troops went into the Christmas break in fifth place with all hopes of the title already washed away.
At this point, the support for Frank was reaching an all-time low. The offensive problems were deeper than ever despite the many big names; millions of kroner had been wasted on players unable to reach their best under Frank. While there were still supporters calling for patience, more and more questions about Frank’s capabilities, or lack thereof, rose among both fans and pundits.
It was at this time, in the dark Danish winter days, a new account appeared on the Brøndby forum Sydsiden Online. Going under the username ‘Oscar’, it heavily criticised Thomas Frank and sporting director Per Rud with messages such as:
- “Per and Thomas took so many insane decisions together because of ignorance and inexperience.”
- “We can’t point at a single signing that has been even close to respectable, and Thomas’ missing ability to integrate new players, which he has 100% picked himself, is lame and unacceptable.”
- “Another coach should be able to get more out of it [the squad], and there is focus on this [from the club]. I’m convinced we’ll see changes very soon.”
- “When we have a head coach who is inexperienced and stubbornly sticking to a system that doesn’t work, we have a recipe for disaster.”
In March, shortly after the spring season had started, it was revealed that the man behind the comments were none other than chairman Jan Bech Andersen himself.
Unsurprisingly, Frank decided to quit shortly after the news broke, leaving the club in fifth in the league following a 3-1 defeat to SønderjyskE.
Andersen himself was also forced to step down as chairman, but later regained his position, which he still holds this to this day.
Frank went nine months without a job following his exit before he joined Brentford as assistant coach in December 2016. While his stay at Brøndby never reached the expected heights, despite huge investment in the squad, there is no doubt that the experiences and chaos taught him about the tough world of professional football at the highest level.
Agger himself mentioned that he noticed how Frank became tougher on his players throughout the stay. Tactically, he also adjusted and clearly became more pragmatic, focusing on his opponents instead of stubbornly sticking to the same system. It’s all evident in his superb work at Brentford today.
By Toke Theilade @TokeTheilade