This weekend’s trip to the Midlands sees Brentford come up against former boss Dean Smith for only the second time since he left Griffin Park to take up the reins at Villa Park. Beesotted’s Tim Street looks back at his time with the Bees and our chances this Saturday in Birmingham.
The Bees will be hoping for a similar result to the three points gained from a last-minute Neal Maupay winner in February 2019 – four months after Smith had departed TW8, and three months before he led the Villans into the Premier League via the play-offs.
Since then – with a side including former Bees Ollie Watkins, Ezri Konza and (for a time) Jota – Smith has established Villa in the top flight once more, and I’m sure most Bees fans will have taken some pride in how well a man who became ‘one of our own’ has done since packing his bags at Jersey Road for the last time.
He is a man whose easy going, down-to-earth charm will always make him welcome at Brentford, but the relationship between Smith and the Griffin Park crowd – as it still was when he arrived from Walsall back in November 2015 – was not always such a happy one.
Bees fans don’t need reminding how much of a mess things were in TW8 at that point. The fallout from Mark Warburton’s acrimonious departure was still hanging over the club as Marinus Dijkhuizen tried and failed to turn things around, the Dutchman departing just nine games into the new campaign.
Lee Carsley stepped up from the development squad and steadied the ship with a run of five wins out of ten – one of them a first victory over West London rivals QPR in 50 years – and was many fans’ favourite for the job.
However, it was a job Carsley had made clear all along that he wasn’t interested in, and so the Bees turned their attention elsewhere. Pep Clotet was widely tipped to take the reins, but in the end the Bees plumped for Smith, who had forged a reputation for producing good football and getting results on a shoestring at Walsall.
The response from the Bees faithful, some of whom were still pining for Warburton and many of whom were disappointed Carsley couldn’t be persuaded to change his mind, was mixed. But he got off to a good start with a win over MK Dons and a draw at another West London rival Fulham, and even a first defeat under Smith, at Cardiff City was followed by a successful festive period of seven points from nine.
The first cracks in the relationship started to appear in the New Year, not helped by James Tarkowski’s refusal to play against Burnley as he looked to force through a move to the Lancashire side. Runs of three, four and four (again) defeats in a row – including a drab FA Cup exit to former club Walsall in which Smith was pelted with abuse from the visiting fans, and a 3-0 reverse in the return fixture at QPR – meant the Bees had lost 11 games from 14, and the knives were out.
But a superb 3-0 win at Nottingham Forest turned things around and the Bees saw out the season with seven wins from nine, including a 3-0 drubbing of Fulham and a 5-1 away win at Huddersfield. Walsall fans had warned that it was either feast or famine under Smith, and it was certainly looking that way.
Summer signings included a raid on Smith’s former club for Rico Henry and Romaine Sawyers, but his first full season in charge was riddled with inconsistency as the Bees failed to put together any sort of runs of form to finish 10th. However, there was at least an end to the long losing runs, the only one being a worrying four straight defeats before Christmas, including a 5-0 drubbing by Norwich City.
Highlights included doing the double over QPR and hammering Smith’s future employers Aston Villa 3-0 on the night when Scott Hogan’s move to the Villains was confirmed. But the two sides of the Bees – brilliant one minute, terrible the next – was no more evident than when they found themselves 3-1 down after an insipid first half at Burton Albion, before a Jota and Canos-inspired scintillating second half saw Smith’s men come back to win 5-3.
The summer of 2017 saw the squad which would eventually challenge for promotion start to take shape with the arrival of Watkins and Henrik Dalsgaard alongside that of Neal Maupay, and Smith’s side improved on the previous campaign’s 10th-place finish by one place after recovering from a nightmare start.
Smith’s position was questioned in some quarters as the Bees failed to win any of their opening eight games, with the mood on the terraces not being improved as the trio of Harlee Dean, Maxime Colin and Jota were all sold to Championship rivals Birmingham City in a dramatic transfer deadline day swoop by the Blues.
What followed was a run of just two defeats in 13 up to the new year – including a 2-0 win at the new home of Dean, Colin and Jota, plus impressive victories over Fulham, Leeds, Norwich and Aston Villa – it seemed that feast and famine were back. However, despite a thrilling win at Sunderland and QPR being put to the sword once more, an inconsistent second half of the season prevented a push for the play-offs once more.
Another key moment that season was the 2-2 draw with the aforementioned men in blue and white hoops at Loftus Road in late November, when the Bees conceded twice in injury time to throw away what looked a certain win. Their soft underbelly had been exposed in the worst possible way, something which the club had been criticised for alongside the praise for their sometimes stunning football over the past few years. Smith and his players vowed to develop a more steely spine, which proved to be one of the main missing ingredients before they could finally challenge for promotion.
The summer of 2018 saw the arrival of one Said Benrahma, but it was Maupay who was at the fore as Brentford started what proved to be Smith’s final season in fine fettle, winning four of their opening seven games. But the skids were put on that good start with a subsequent run of five games without a win before, in mid-October, Smith’s departure was announced as he took over from Steve Bruce in the Villa Park hot seat.
Into the Griffin Park one came Smith’s assistant Thomas Frank, who endured a difficult start to his tenure with eight defeats from ten. He then won six of his next ten, including handing Smith a 1-0 defeat on his return to Griffin Park. It seemed feast or famine would continue as Brentford stuttered to an 11th-place finish – but the following two seasons under Frank would see the Bees challenge for, and finally win, promotion to the promised land.
Would Smith have taken Brentford there had he stayed? It’s hard to say. The following summer saw the spine of the promotion-challenging/winning side arrive in the shape of Jansson, Jensen, Pinnock, Raya, Norgaard and Mbeumo – and knowing Brentford’s recruitment policy as we do, one assumes those players would still have arrived whoever was in charge of them. But again, would Smith have moulded them into a top three side?
Could it be argued that Frank got lucky by being backed with the best Brentford squad ever assembled? Maybe so, but many a talented squad have failed in the Championship, and the part the head coach plays cannot be underestimated. That’s not to denigrate Smith’s achievements in his three years with the Bees, but I had the nagging feeling throughout his rein that he wouldn’t be the man to take Brentford to the next level. Then again, he took Villa up and has kept them in the top flight ever since, even thriving last season after a difficult first one back.
What is certain, however, is he was the right man for the job at the time. Warburton was gone, the Dijkhuizen experiment had failed and Carsley didn’t want the job. A steady hand was needed, and while it took some time for Smith’s squad to develop the necessary backbone for life in the Championship, there was some great football along the way, in keeping with the new Brentford way.
Smith’s warm, friendly and approachable manner was also in keeping with Brentford’s community traditions, but at the same time, he was nobody’s mug either. However, it was the on-pitch inconsistencies which will see Smith go down as a very good Brentford manager who played a big part in the journey rather than an all-time great.
It could be argued that, given the squads we have since had enjoyed, that consistency would have come – how much of the last two years has been Frank and how much the players he’s had at his disposal (Frank must take a lot of credit in my view)? That’s something we’ll never know, but it could be said that going to his boyhood club was both a dream come true for Smith, and a necessary move for Brentford to take the next step.