Mediano podcast– ‘Brentford Special’ – Episode 1
Host: Rasmus Monnerup – Editor at Mediano and former manager at Roskilde F.C.
Guest: Brian Riemer – Assistant Head Coach at Brentford F.C.
Translated by Tobias Gaarde Neigaard
Monnerup: Welcome to a new series here on Mediano. You have pressed play on the first episode of the series we have chosen to call “Brentford Special”. … We have been given the unique opportunity to get really close to the club at the top of the Championship. We have this opportunity because Brentford’s Assistant Head Coach, Brian Riemer, has agreed to participate in a series over the spring where we will closely follow the club in the fight for promotion to the Premier League. Thank you, Brian Riemer, and welcome to Mediano.
Riemer: Thank you very much, Rasmus.
Monnerup:… I have been so lucky to persuade you into joining me today to give us some insight and input because the Championship is not exactly a league which many Danes follow very closely. However, it seems the interest has grown recently, both because the league has improved, if you ask me, but also because there are so many Danes and a successful manager as well. So, once again, thank you very much for being here. … Anyway, Brian Riemer and I actually know each other, I have previously visited you in Brentford and we also have common acquaintances. … Could you tell us something about your life in England and how it differs from what you’re used to from Denmark?
Riemer: Yes, of course. First of all, I think I am very fortunate. The current pandemic has affected many people and made certain things almost impossible. It has changed routines and how people work in many ways, but my everyday life has, more or less, remained the same, of course, with some restrictions and rules you have to be aware of. But by and large, we still do what we have always done, which is very nice – above all because one’s mental condition doesn’t get affected too much.
We have games all the time. The Championship is a league with 46 games in a season, and in addition to that, we have had a good run in the Carabao Cup as well, which meant we had even more games. We also made it to the third round of the FA Cup which gave us two more games. So, in total, we’re going to exceed 50 games at the end of this season. We also started the season a little later than usual, so we have, strictly speaking, played Saturday – Wednesday – Saturday – Wednesday since the season started back in August. So, in that sense, you could say that my life… Well, there are days that I don’t even know what day of the week it is, I just know we have another game in two days.
Monnerup: .. It must be very special to play games all the time because here in Denmark we like to train and practice a lot and for a long period of time, but as you mentioned, you play all the time, so what does that mean for your approach to being a manager?
Reimer: Well, obviously, where we usually could train and practice more, we now have to adapt and find other ways to do things. Having said that, it doesn’t mean the level of detail has decreased and the necessary steps to prepare the team for a game have not changed, which, all things considered, means that we always have to think differently. There is a large focus on recovery, and we do a lot to get the players fit and ready after a game because it is a physically hard league to play in. For those who do not follow the Championship, I believe it is one of the most intense leagues, not just because of the high amount of games, but also because of how the games are played. It is the type of league where a 2-0 lead 10 minutes before time doesn’t mean you have won. There is high pressure, hard tackles and the referees allow quite a lot in both set-pieces and open play. This means all the games are extremely intense, which requires a lot physically. You have to be ready for a game just three days after the last one. We do not have, like many other clubs may have, a squad of 28 players where each and everyone has experience with fighting for either promotion or relegation to or from the Premier League. We have a small squad, which makes us very dependent on every single player. Not only do we focus on recovery, but we also often have days where the coaches have groups of 10-12 players and they have to make sure that they all run sensible and practical sessions so that when they have to play games, they haven’t only practised possession plays, but they have actually taken the necessary steps to prepare for the next game. So, the many games and the little time for training and practice have forced us to think differently.
Monnerup: What about free time? With such a compact and busy schedule with two games per week, do the players get any days off?
Riemer: Yes. I mean, this season is quite special as the last season ended very late due to the first lockdown here in the UK. Two days after our last game at Wembley, Thomas and I took eleven days off. After that short break, we met up with the squad and started the preparations for this season, which will end – as things are right now – on 8th May. So, for almost two years now, we have only had those eleven days off. And the same goes for the players. To do that, and still demand the players to keep their sanity, you have to find gaps in the schedule to take a day off. In Denmark, we are used to having a more normal schedule with at least five days between the games, which makes it easier to plan recovery, training, as well as days off. However, here we have to constantly look at the calendar and find days where we can send the players home to spend time with their families. Often during international breaks, we give the players 3-4 days off just to give them a break from football. There are not many “natural” breaks here since we barely had a summer break and there is no winter break as we have in Denmark. So, if we play Saturday and Wednesday, we take the Sunday off, wherein in Denmark we would usually show up and have recovery sessions and the players who didn’t play will have a short training session. We take the day off here because we believe it’s better for the players to have a day off, and then have everyone together on Monday and Tuesday to go through the math preparations together, and not divided into groups of who played and who didn’t. In Denmark, people are often “scared” to have training sessions on the second day after a game because they believe a simple run around the pitch will increase the chances of getting injured. However, here we have training sessions on the second day after a game. So, those who played Saturday will also train Monday – with precautions and only to the extent where it makes sense. But everyone is out on the pitch to train and practice tactical elements for the next game, and it’s often more physically demanding than the sessions we have on Tuesdays. Tuesday’s sessions are the classic match preparations where we prepare the team for the upcoming game with low-intensity exercises. However, if we have a game already on a Tuesday, then there is no day off. The players will show up on Sunday for recovery sessions and low-intensity exercises, often in groups. Then on Monday, we have the classic match preparations where Thomas and I go through the tactical elements for the upcoming game, both set-pieces and open play. Those are the two models we use. I can’t remember the last time we had a whole week between two games.
Monnerup: That says a lot about the crazy programme you have had the past two years. Before we continue, I’d like to just ask you if you think you would change something if one day you came back to managing in Denmark? Maybe in terms of this traditional view on training on the second day after a game?
Riemer: Yes, absolutely. When I first came here, after having been at FC Copenhagen for ten years where we did things in a certain way, I kept thinking “We can’t do this” and “What on earth are you lot thinking? You don’t do these things.”, but I soon learned that players are able to do much more than I and many other people think. We haven’t had many injuries at any points, and we haven’t had any players getting injured because of things we did. The idea of having Sunday off makes so much sense to me in terms of getting the players ready to get out on the pitch and train them. And in collaboration with the Sports Science department, we make sure that things are balanced in terms of intensity etc. But there is no doubt that you can push the players a lot without it having an effect on the upcoming games, which was a massive eye-opener and something that I have taken to me. I firmly believe that you get the players to a whole new level if you push them as we do, and I often wonder if we trained way too little back in Denmark. So yes, that is one thing I would definitely change if I came back to Denmark one day.
Monnerup: So, as you mentioned, before coming to Brentford you were at FC Copenhagen for ten years in various roles. You have also been at different clubs in the lower divisions in Denmark, and then there’s something about Norwich, right? Could you tell us about what that is?
Riemer: Yes, I was at Norwich from 2003 and until I started at FC Copenhagen. It was part-time and something I had while I was at Hvidovre in Denmark too. I had different roles there. I often went to England when the time allowed for it and I helped with everything from scouting to training exercises for the first team and the youth teams. That time gave me so much in terms of English football and I was very happy to be there. Funny enough, my very first game as assistant manager at Brentford was at Carrow Road against Norwich, which was obviously very special. It was only 48 hours after I arrived in London. I was standing in the tunnel and I met a few of my former colleagues, and they were looking at me as if they knew me, but they couldn’t quite recognise me. It was such a strange experience. Unfortunately, we lost 1-0, but it was a good way to start my time here.
Monnerup: Could you just briefly talk about what’s in the water in Brentford? How do you just keep winning?
Riemer: Well, belief does a lot. No doubt we’re in a very good period right now, and we strongly believe in everything we do, which obviously helps. Wins breed wins, so to say. To be more specific, I think we have a squad where there are two significant factors. First, it’s an extremely homogenous squad that works towards a common goal and refuses to lose. We have managed to create this strength and this mentality. I think Thomas once said, “We have a squad with no dickheads.” That is what we have created. It’s a group of people who love to train together, to play together and who refuse to not be successful. That means so much, and I think everyone who has ever coached or managed a team knows that having a collective unit and not a group of individuals is essential in football. We call it “togetherness”, and we really use that word to build our success in this club. It’s been a significant factor this season. Of course, we have faced challenges and we have been down, but we have always been able to pull ourselves together, and that just gives us so much. Generally speaking, tactically we have created a foundation where we are one of the best teams defensively. We have conceded a few more goals than we would’ve liked to, but the xGA tells us we have been unlucky. However, we have done really well defensively, and we’re hard to score against. We have only given away 1.9 chances per game and to do that on this level is a massive accomplishment. It’s not just the defenders here, it’s the entire team – we have been solid defensively all way around. Offensively, we struggled a bit at the start of the season. We had many new players who needed to adjust to our style, so the flow was missing. It’s been improving ever since, and now we score a lot of goals. So obviously, in football, if you concede only a few goals and score many, it will result in many wins. Those two elements, the “togetherness” and our tactical approach are the two primary factors behind our current success.
Monnerup: Generally speaking, not many people here in Denmark know too much about the Championship nor Brentford. When I visited you, you had warned me that I shouldn’t expect top facilities similar to those in the Premier League and most teams in the Danish Superliga, but I was still surprised when I got there. I spend the first hour or so just taking it all in because it reminded me of facilities from a National League team. Could you tell us a bit about the facilities and the geographical location of Brentford?
Riemer: Of course. As you said, words almost can’t describe the facilities so that people will understand it. It’s quite strange and I had the exact same experience as you described when I first came here. Brentford is located in West London, which is actually a really nice area. It’s very popular to live here and the surrounding areas, Chiswick, Richmond, Barnes, Twickenham etc. It’s very close to Heathrow Airport and relatively close to downtown London. We are a little further out in an area called Hounslow, which is a little less popular, not that it’s a bad area at all. Our small training ground is there, just ten minutes away from Heathrow, so a plane will fly by every now and then, so we often have to pause our instructions etc. for a few seconds. We have five full-size pitches and all the buildings are what they call portable cabins, which is basically shipping containers. Then there is one tiny “real” house, so to say. In that building, we have our kitchen, which cooks some amazing food for us, and two changing rooms. That’s all we have, but we don’t need anything else though. We have Smart-TVs, touchscreens, equipment for the players. We have it all, but it’s not exactly “state of the art”. Everything is a bit rough, a bit cold and not very nice. However, I honestly think once you get passed that “oh god” period, it’s actually something that strengthens our “togetherness”. No one is here because we have the best facilities and the best pitches in the world, they are here because we’re on a common mission towards a common goal. I think the facilities have a positive effect because when you don’t have the best facilities, everyone will get a little closer to each other on the team bus. So yes, it is a unique place, but we actually like it like this.
Monnerup: One thing I also noted when I visited was this kindness and open environment throughout the club, from the kitchen staff to the players and everyone around the team. It was such an inspiring environment to observe. It almost reminded me of a lower division club where people had fun together and had a nice time, but at the same time, there was a dedicated and determined mentality. So, do you think it’s a part of the plan to move into a new top-modern training ground facility in the near future?
Riemer: No, it’s not the plan to move at all. Just before Covid-19, there were some plans for us to build new facilities that were of a much higher standard. Not necessarily “state of the art”, but at least something that is not portable cabins. Unfortunately, Covid-19 put an end to that project for now, and I don’t think it will happen in the near future. So no, I think both in the short term, and the medium term, this is what we will have. It is a bit comical to think that if we get promoted to the Premier League and we still have these facilities… I mean, people will think it’s a joke. The other teams have everything, and we’re just using portable cabins in what sort of looks like a construction site. It is a small concern, but it’s not something I worry too much about.
Monnerup: Yes, I saw a few videos from Leicester’s training ground, and it was quite different from yours, to say the least. However, as you mentioned, that is one of the things that differentiate you from the other clubs, both in the Championship, Premier League and even in League One.Anyway, you have now spent around two years in the Championship, could you say more about what other things make you different compared to the other teams in the league?
Riemer: I would actually like to tie this question to what we previously talked about. Brentford is owned by Matthew Benham, who basically made his fortune on gambling. He is the sole owner of this club and pays for everything, so to say. Therefore, Brentford also chose to say “What is it that will make Brentford competitive? Is it spending all the money on the best facilities in the UK?” There is a natural limit here, Matthew is not Abramovich. He is wealthy, yes, but he doesn’t have unlimited funds as you see at Chelsea and Manchester City. So, the club decided to spend the money where it really counts, i.e. good players, managers, and staff. The chose a method, with which I completely agree. Today’s Brentford is built by Benham, it’s owned by Benham, and then we have the Directors of Football, Rasmus Ankersen and Phil Giles who, strictly speaking, run the club on a daily basis. Brentford is a club that is incredibly good at scouting. We use this SmartOdds system, which is owned by Benham. It provides us with an immense amount of data and scouting analyses. Scouting has been and still is an essential part of Brentford’s recent success. You know, spending money on the right players and minimising the possibility of buying the wrong players for the team, and most of all, buy cheap – sell expensive. Thomas and I once talked about, since he took over as manager, we have sold players for around £65mil. And probably even more now that Benrahma has been sold. It’s a significant amount of money for players who have all been brought in at around 1-4 million pounds per player. So, the scouting has both contributed to the finances as well as the success on the pitch. Brentford is a club where we all work closely together and where we firmly believe in solid craftsmanship, thorough analyses which include numbers, football knowledge and financial knowledge. So, going back to the facilities, I wouldn’t trade any of the Premier League facilities for how this club is run. This is not a club where the upper management panics and will fire people because of a few bad results. They understand that there are underlying factors, and they know we will face challenges. In short, they are very calm and collected, which not many Premier League, nor Championship clubs can say. I think that’s exactly where Brentford differentiates itself the most. A calm and competent owner with two equally good Directors of Football who work with facts and not feelings. That is a massive strength to have compared to many other clubs.
Monnerup: How much are you and the rest of the team staff governed by the overall football strategy and style of play? Are there certain things that are decided by for example the Directors of Football?
Riemer: Both yes and no. There is a clear style of play. We have developed a long and thorough football strategy down to the smallest detail, which we apply for every game and training session. It was Thomas and I who developed it. So, it’s not exactly a “pressure” from above, but there is a clear style of play here in Brentford. However, we NEVER experience one of the Directors of Football comment on the starting 11, or tactical decisions. Never.
One of the things that characterise Brentford is this “togetherness” I talked about earlier, which we also use as an approach to football. We want an attacking style of play and a positive mentality in games. So, if we are 2-0 and decide to make a defensive substitution, that might be something they would comment on. It is very important to everyone in the club that we have a positive and attacking mentality throughout. We don’t want to defend a lead. Some may ask why, but the answer is quite simple. It’s backed up by data. Matthew and SmartOdds have spent a tremendous amount of time researching whether it makes sense to try and defend a lead and make defensive substitutions, and the data show that the teams who try to do that will end up losing more points than those who keep pressing on for another goal. So once again, it’s not determined by feelings, and when they comment on something it’s because of facts. You can, of course, discuss these facts if you have data that show otherwise, but at Brentford, we believe that a positive and attacking mentality with high intensity, high pressing, winning the ball early will win us more games. They will leave the details of how to do so to us and would never interfere. They will, however, comment if we change the overall style of play.
Monnerup: Looking back at when Thomas took over as manager. It wasn’t exactly the best start, I think you only had one win in 11 games or so, and many people doubted Thomas’ abilities to be a manager at this level. You joined the team a few weeks later, but did you have any hesitations because of the bad run, or did you just pack the suitcase right away and leave for London?
Riemer: Well, in many ways I have always been addicted to feeling secure and comfortable. I’m not very good at getting out of my comfort zone. In my early days when Thomas called me and asked if I wanted to come manage Hvidovre U17 with him, it took me quite some time to say yes, and when I was offered the job at FC Copenhagen it also took me some time. This time, I had been at FC Copenhagen for ten years and I loved it there and I love the club, so I was quite ready to leave the club actually. But when I heard that Dean Smith got the job at Villa and just knew Thomas was going to call me, and I just thought to myself “What on Earth am I going to do?”. I knew I had to say yes though. How many Danish managers have had the opportunity to manage an English team? To me, English football is the dream because of the approach to the game and the attention around the sport. The entire society just loves football here and it is truly something special. So, I always knew that I was going to say yes if I had an offer from England. So, I was never in doubt really. It was now or never. However, I left FC Copenhagen with a tear in my eye and really just prayed that I had made the right decision. But no, I was never in doubt, I had to say yes to an offer like this.
Monnerup: Interestingly enough, during that bad run, you were actually performing really well on xG, xP and all the performance statistics, and your luck turned for the better eventually. When you arrived, how much pressure did you experience? Because soon after you arrived you also changed formation and started playing with three central defenders and two wingbacks.
Riemer: Well, Thomas had two games before I arrived. They lost to Bristol and Preston, then I arrived, and we lost 1-0 at Norwich as I mentioned before. Then we won 2-0 against Millwall and that’s when we all thought “Here we go!”. However, that was not the case, and we hit this awful run with just one win in 11 or 12 games, I think before we beat Bolton in a vital game at Griffin Park. Bolton was rock bottom and we had to win that game, which we, fortunately, did with a goal in the second half by Maupay. But no, there was never any internal pressure from higher up. Rasmus never called us and said we had to do something different. We never experienced any of that. Quite the contrary actually, Phil Giles often came down after a loss and said “We deserved to win. Keep going, it will come eventually”. He was completely calm. It was only Thomas and I who were a little nervous – especially me because I had only just arrived and had rented a house and signed a lease for a car for three years, so I was scared to suddenly live in London for two years without a job. I didn’t know many people in the club but looking back now I know I had nothing to worry about. They are all great people, but I didn’t know that at that time. So, it was only pressure we put on ourselves because we told ourselves that we had win eventually or we would get fired. We obviously knew we couldn’t keep losing without getting fired, but it was never something they told us. They gave us the peace to work that we needed. But to be frank, it was a shit start and not a nice time. I had just arrived in this new country, Thomas managed a big team for the first time, and people outside the club was thinking “what’s going on”.
The change of formation you mentioned, was very much connected to the players we had and the fact that the “spirit” we have in the team now wasn’t there at that time. Our defence was hopeless. We conceded 56 goals in a season, which means you have to score A LOT of goals if you want to win games. On our best days, we’d play fantastic upfront but lose 3-2 anyway because our defence was rubbish. So, we chose to change the formation to get an extra defender to close the gaps.
Monnerup: And did you change the formation back to what you used to, or did to finish the season with a 3-4-3?
Riemer: We kept it. You probably know the feeling as a manager yourself, when you change something and it works you quickly get the feeling that if you change something it will all fall apart. It’s a very natural feeling to have as a manager, and the same goes for the starting line-up, when this line-up has done well you get the feeling that if you change just one player they’ll lose. So, we finish the season with this 3-4-3 formation, and it worked really well. We primarily closed the gaps defensively while we kept playing really well offensively, perhaps even better than we did before. We were more in control of the games because we had an extra player in the central positions. We dominated with the ball, and we played ten games without losing. So, when we started the next season, we both agreed that we would continue using the 3-4-3 formation. So, we started the new season with 3-4-3, but there was no flow in our plays. We were still solid defensively, but we needed more players who were good on the ball. With all due respect to the defenders, there were too many who didn’t have quite what it took on the ball. Benrahma was injured and we really just needed someone who could make a difference on the ball. So, after six games, we went back to our 4-3-3 formation.
Monnerup: So, the first season, you kept the 3-4-3 formation. You finished 11th, which is still decent considering your budget. Some of your players started to perform really well, Ollie Watkins, Maupay, Benrahma. But before we start talking about your first full season, I would like to talk a bit about the transfer window. You lost some significant players. Maupay to Brighton, Konsa to Villa, Sawyers who was your captain went to West Brom. What did these departures do in terms of your considerations for the upcoming season?
Riemer: We scouted new players for the 3-4-3 formation. We knew Maupay was going to be sold, and we knew changes were going to be made. Romaine Sawyers was a bit back and forth, and no one really knew if he was going to leave or stay. We knew there were going to be changes to the team, so it didn’t come as a surprise. Our top priority for the transfer window was a top-quality striker, for which we searched for a very long time. We found two possible targets we went all-in on, and we were so close to closing the deal but they both changed their minds at the very last minute. At that point, we were in Austria on our training camp and thought “What are we going to do now?”. Then Thomas and I decided to use Ollie Watkins as a striker. His actual position is winger, and he had never played as a striker – maybe except a few minutes if we were behind and needed an extra man on top, but other than that he was a winger only. We talked about how he has all the qualifications to play as a striker; he has the physique to play there, he works hard, he is good in the box and has proven he can score goals. We’ll do it!
It’s a huge risk we took then, but I felt it was the right decision. We really worked hard to get him ready to play as a striker, but obviously, none of us knew Ollie would go on to score 20+ goals and be sold for more than £30mil. However, we really felt he was the type of player we wanted and needed upfront. We weighed our options; either we go for our 3rd or 4th choice on the transfer market who don’t really know, or we go with a player we know really well? It was a big decision, and those big decisions were throughout the transfer window actually. Mathias Jensen, Christian Nørgaard and Ryan Mbeumo joined us too and they all became important players to us. Everything in the transfer window was scouted for the 3-4-3 formation, which we then changed after six games.
Monnerup: As most people probably know already, your first full season almost resulted in promotion to the Premier League, but you had a bit of a rough start. When did you and Thomas, and everyone around the team, start thinking this season could actually go on to be something great?
Riemer: It all changed on a Saturday at home against Millwall. Sometimes there are these key situations where you can pinpoint, this is where it started, which probably isn’t entirely true, but sometimes it feels like a specific win was the turning point, and this particular game against Millwall was our turning point. Actually, there were two things. First, Nørgaard didn’t really fit into our 3-4-3 formation, he’s best when he plays as number 6 with two midfielders in front of him. He wasn’t bad the first six games, but he wasn’t at his best and we knew that. Mathias Jensen is a magnificent midfielder, but he too is better when there are three central midfielders. Something wasn’t working with the formation we were using at that time and we didn’t create enough chances. We also knew that Pinnock, Pontus Jansson and Julian Jeanvier were good in a formation with 4 backs. There were so many signals that told us we should go back to 4-3-3 if we wanted to get the most out of every player. So, we played this game against Millwall. If you don’t know much about Millwall, I can tell you that they are a classic hard-working English route-one team. We were down 2-0 at home in front of a sold-out Griffin Park and our start to the season has been quite poor. It wasn’t a catastrophe, but it certainly wasn’t good either. Then in the 84th minute, we score, 1-2. 88th minute, 2-2. And then far into the added time, we score the winning goal, 3-2. Something happened that day. The team just “exploded”, and we got a massive confidence boost and the team sort of realised how good they actually are. Since that day we won more games than we lost, and we suddenly found ourselves in the fight for promotion.
And just one last thing about the change of formation; we obviously spend a lot of time figuring out where each player will be at their best. We want to get the most out of every single player. So, for example, we knew Mbeumo likes to run deep, so we talked about how we could create more space for him to run in. We worked hard to make sure he would be in the right positions at the right times to maximise the space in front of him.
Monnerup: The last few rounds of last season are some of the most insane I have ever seen in a league. You came from behind after a rather poor start, you were in the play-off spots for a long time and even fighting for the automatic promotion spot. In round 43, you beat Derby 1-3 and West Brom drew at Blackburn. In round 44, you beat Preston 1-0 and West Brom only get a draw against Fulham. That meant, prior to round 45, you have 81 points and West Brom have 82. West Brom then loses against Huddersfield on Friday, and you play Stoke the day after. A win will put you in the automatic promotion spot. Did that change anything or affect you prior to the game? Knowing that a win will bring you very close to the Premier League.
Riemer: I get goosebumps just thinking about it. In retrospect, yes it did affect us quite a lot. We get back after the Covid-19 break and we’re placed relatively well at the top of the table, but automatic promotion is still quite far away. We then go on to win 8 games in a row, which in the Championship is quite an achievement, it doesn’t happen that often. We played without looking back and as if we had nothing to lose, which was very beneficial to our team. I would still say, if I could change one thing about last season, it would be that we could play that game against Stoke at the same time as West Brom played their game. When we heard that West Brom lost… I mean, I talked to some of the players after the season and they told me that they couldn’t sleep the night before our game against Stoke because West Brom had lost. It was all suddenly so close – too close almost. We had fought all season, we were the chasing team and now it was ours for the taking, and it couldn’t possibly go wrong. That was the feeling we all had.
Bear in mind, this team is built around young players who haven’t tried a lot yet. So, being in a situation where all focus is on you and you have everything to lose… In retrospect, we were inexperienced, and it was so obvious in the game against Stoke. We were nervous and people didn’t cope well with the fact that we now had everything to lose. It, unfortunately, meant that the entire team performed several levels below standard. In addition to that, Stoke who had had a terrible season, only needed a draw to save themselves from relegation, so they had plenty to fight for as well. They made it really difficult for us while we also underperformed. We previously talked about how the Millwall game was the “positive” turning point early in the season. Well, this was the “negative” turning point and the players suddenly realised the consequences and they started looking back and knew we had everything to lose.
Monnerup: Unfortunately, you lost that game 1-0. However, the race wasn’t lost yet. You still had the chance to secure automatic promotion in the last round if West Brom lost or drew home against QPR, your local rivals. That game was very back and forth. QPR scores first, but West Brom quickly score two goals which bring them in front. QPR then equalises, which means you have the opportunity to overtake them with a win against Barnsley. The games are being played simultaneously, and I’m guessing the news of QPR’s equaliser changed a thing or two. Could you talk us through that?
Riemer: It changed everything. I will just say, to begin with, Barnsley was in a special situation. They had had a terrible season, but they changed manager at one point, they brought in Daniel Stendel who completely revolutionised Barnsley. They went into the last game being one of the best performing teams in the league despite being in the relegation zone. They had played really well after the covid-19 restart and played to avoid relegation. It was high-intensity and high pressure all over the pitch throughout the game, almost Bielsa-style football. We tried to play short passes and play it out of the defence, but they were really good at applying pressure and marking us tightly, which resulted in a bad pass which they converted into a goal. That didn’t exactly help our nervousness. Then we get all these news from West Brom’s game, so we knew if we won, we would be in the Premier League. It just resulted in a horrible game. I remember Thomas and I talking about how “evil” it was that now that we didn’t win, West Brom didn’t win either. Had they won, the disappointment wouldn’t have been as big. Everything worked out to our advantage and it was right there for us to take it, but we couldn’t finish the job by winning just one out of the two games against two teams at the bottom of the table – it hurts like hell. Looking back at those two games, they were different in many ways, but I have never seen a team wanting something that bad. I saw grown men crying after that last game. It was horrible. There was nothing they would rather want than to get Brentford promoted. I remember Ollie Watkins telling me “Brian, I don’t care about where I’m going this transfer window. All I want is to play in the Premier League at Brentford.” That’s how everyone felt. One thing was that the mission had failed – but their careers would go on – another thing was this common goal, dream and journey had come to an end. It was so cruel. And losing to a team that we, on paper, should beat 9/10 times, while our rivals for once help us by drawing at West Brom… It doesn’t make it any better…
Those who follow the Championship will know that Barnsley had actually already been relegated, but Wigan was deducted points because of their financial situation, which meant Barnsley actually had something to play for against us. However, it’s not an excuse. We can only look at ourselves. We should’ve won both against Barnsley and against Stoke. We were the better team.
Monnerup: How did you work with preparing the players mentally after that ending? Because your chances of getting promoted were still there, but you had to go through a few play-off rounds now.
Riemer: Well, at that time, you can say many things and you can do many things, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter. There are things you can’t control as a manager, and that is how players will react to situations like this. Will they crumble, will they rise to the occasion, what will they do? It is so difficult to do anything about. And with only a few days between that ending before we had to play the first play-off game against Swansea, we primarily focused on recovery and saying a few things about refocusing, getting back on track, reminding the players of how well they have performed in the season. You also have to remember that back in the Covid-19 lockdown, we would have been more than happy with a play-off spot, which we tried to tell the players. We told them that they’re better than both Swansea, Cardiff, and Fulham. We felt there was no need to stop now, there are three teams left and we’re better than all of them. We have every chance of finishing what we set out to do.
Monnerup: After losing in Wales, you beat Swansea at home and go through to the final against Fulham. Many people say this is one of the most insane games in the world of football because of how much money and prestige is at stake here. How did you experience that game and how do you prepare for a game like that?
Riemer: Well, bear in mind, there were unfortunately, no fans at Wembley, which obviously makes a huge difference. However, as a manager and football player, you can’t think that way. You can’t think about how much money is at stake and the consequences. If you do that, then theirs is no point in playing at all, because then you have lost before it even starts. So, we tried to the best of our abilities to take it as a regular game where we just had to go out there and do our jobs. Having said that, everyone knows what is at stake and you can easily feel and see that. The game was characterised by nervousness. We beat Fulham both games in the regular season, fully deserved too. However, in the play-off final, they were the better team. They were better on the ball. Scott Parker had definitely learned from his mistakes and had prepared his team well. He managed to hit us where it hurt. He made some tactical adjustments in the midfield where they played with four players in sort of a box. That really hurt our three midfielders and it was really hard for us to apply pressure and close the gaps. With that being said, it was a very close game, which resulted in extra time. You just had the feeling that the game would be decided by the smallest marginals. It all ended in extra time where they score directly from a freekick. It’s a freekick on one side of the pitch, and in 99.9% of the times, it will be a cross towards the tall players in the box. Then suddenly Marcondes has a small brawl with Mitrovic and at the same time as they take the freekick, the ref blows his whistle because he wants to have a talk with Marcondes and Mitrovic. That kick was a cross. But because he blew his whistle, they obviously have to retake the freekick. While the ref gets a talk with Marcondes and Mitrovic, Fulham’s goalkeeping coach calls Joe Bryan, the freekick taker, over to tell him something. Then Thomas and I realise that they are going to do something. So, we start looking for unmarked players or gaps in the defence, but everyone is marked and we are organised properly. But what Fulham had seen was that our goalkeeper, David Raya, who had had a fantastic season, he is standing relatively far out in the box because he anticipates a cross. So, Joe Bryan chooses to shoot from an obscure angle and relatively far out, and unfortunately, it’s on target and Raya can’t reach it because of his initial position. I mean, what are the odds? The ref blows his whistle after their first kick, they retake it and shoot from that angle… It’s the smallest of small marginals that decided the game.
Monnerup: And he actually scores another goal, which seemed like the final nail in the coffin, but Dalsgaard actually brings a little suspense to the game by scoring in the 124th minute, but it was a little too late to change anything. That was an unfortunate ending to a fantastic season. Let’s talk about this season. As you mentioned in the beginning, you had 11 days off before starting the preseason. How did you go into that preseason after such a harsh ending?
Riemer: Well, just to round off that last season; I will never forget that day. After the game, we drove back to Thomas’ house. They have this sort of “split” house, where Thomas and his family lived in one part and I live in the other part. I’m very close to Thomas’ family and his children are almost like family to me. His son loves football and is a big Brentford fan. The feeling we had that evening we came back was awful. We felt as if we had let down people and we had failed those who dared to dream. People cried. It was awful. That brings me to the 11 days I had in Denmark after the season. It was a tough time. I had to detach myself from work and recharge my batteries, and you can’t spend ten days doing so because I had to go back then. I had to put down work and relax relatively quickly before going back, and that wasn’t easy after such an ending.
Monnerup: So, after the game at Wembley. Did you just say goodbye to the players and went on holiday, or did you all meet up the day after to talk things through?
Riemer: Yes, we all met up the day after. We decided to do that because one of our coaches was stopping, and we felt we needed to say a proper goodbye to everyone after that horrible game. When I woke up the day after the game, I felt as if I had the worst hangover I have ever had. And I hadn’t even had a drop of alcohol. People came in with tears in their eyes, looking down and no one knew what to say to each other. It was one of those situations where there are no proper ways to do it. No matter what we had done, everyone would still have the same feeling. Anyway, Thomas said a few words and after some time, people went home. And trust me, people really wanted to go home, also because we only had eleven days before we started again. Thomas and I had to drive all the way back to Denmark because of the flight restrictions.
Monnerup: In a normal season, you would have a holiday and some time to process everything, but you didn’t even have two weeks until you had to start preparing for a new season with games every three days or so. In addition to that, you had sold players and brought new ones in, so you also had to almost rebuild a whole new team. Did you wish you could’ve kept everyone and continued to build on the success from last season?
Riemer: Of course. I think that’s natural to wish for. However, that’s how things work here at Brentford and everyone knows that, myself and Thomas included. Had we been promoted, then I think we could’ve kept the team, but we didn’t and then we sold a few players and brought new ones in. That’s our concept. We had also promised Ollie that he would be sold if we didn’t get promoted. When we talked to him about his new position as a striker, we discussed our plans with him, and we told him that our plans were for him to score 25 goals and sell him for £20+ mil. That was the plan. So, of course we had to keep that promise. Benrahma was also very close to getting sold the season before. There were offers from various Premier League teams, but we chose to keep him because he had only been with us a year. We usually say would like to keep the players for two years before selling them. He was not happy with that decision, but he firmed it and had a fantastic season. So, we obviously also had to let him go when the right offer came. We knew we were going to get a call from Ankersen where he said he had sold Ollie and Saïd. We were prepared. However, the crazy thing is that everything pointed towards a mediocre season at most. The disappointment from the season before, rebuilding a team. I actually didn’t think about that before we were well into the new season. There were just so many factors. You couldn’t just train this, tell the players to do this and expect everything to be well and good. So, I would actually say that what we have already achieved so far in this season, is really impressive.
Monnerup: Do you think maybe it was good to have this change of players? I’m thinking in terms of coming out on top after last season with players who haven’t experienced this massive blow.
Riemer: Exactly. Again, this club is owned and run by Matthew Benham and it is his money that pays the bills and he is a businessman. I think Brentford is one of the only clubs in England that are run with a solid profit every single year, and I respect that. Football has evolved, and many clubs are now owned by multi-billionaires who throw billions away every year and compete in getting the best and most expensive players. I really respect how Matthew runs this club. It must be a healthy business, and according to his model that means buying relatively cheap players with a big potential and selling them at a huge profit, and I firmly believe that had a positive impact after that season.
Monnerup: How does the team you have now differ from the team that was really close to securing promotion last season?
Riemer: I actually think this team is better. We have Rico Henry, a 22-year-old left-back who I think will play for a top 6 team in the Premier League within a few seasons. We have Josh Dasilva, an English U21 national player who scored no less than 10 goals last season. They have both had crucial experience now and they are calmer and more experienced ahead of the big games now. Last season we had a completely inexperienced team. Mbeumo was 19 years old last season and had never tried these things before, which he now has. The players from last season have matured and gained crucial experience. In addition to that, I think we are stronger defensively this season, and to use the classic cliché, “Defence wins championships, offence sells tickets”. No doubt this strength we now have in the back will win us points in those games where things aren’t going too well for us. Perhaps we play a little less spectacularly this season, but we still score many goals. We also have the league’s top scorer, Ivan Toney. I would say that we are better this season because we have gained crucial experience and because our defence seems to be even more solid.
Monnerup: Could you say that this season’s team is more characterised by a strong and collective unit?
Riemer: Yes, I would say so. Again, this is also expressed in our solid defence. It’s not just the defenders who defend well, it’s the entire team. They fight for each other. Even a player with less experience, or a young player, or a less skilful player, will seem good on our team because we have such a strong unity. The players play for each other which helps everyone take their abilities to a new level. The team is a stronger unity this season.
Monnerup: I would like to hear a little more about all the Danish players you have in the squad. How many of them do you think will be selected for the Euros this summer? Or at least, who do you think will be strongly considered?
Riemer: All of them haha. I personally think Nørgaard shows an absolutely fantastic form at the moment. Both here at Brentford but also with the national team in the games he has had. He’s probably our most important player, or at least in the top-3 of the most important players. He has only played three games for us this season because he has been injured. We have played the majority of the season without him and Pontus, our captain. Anyway, I would say Nørgaard deserves to be called up if he can avoid further injuries.
Monnerup: What is the status of his injury?
Riemer: He had a pretty nasty injury with a torn ligament. He came back after that injury in a game against Newcastle in the Carabao Cup quarterfinal, and he played really well. It was so nice to have him back, but then he was tackled by Shelvey which caused a recurrence in the same ligament. He has been out ever since, but he is now training with the team again, so we’re hoping he will be ready to play within 14 days or so. We don’t want to force anything, but he’s close to being back.
Monnerup: Good. Going back to the Danes you believe should get called up for the national team.
Riemer: Yes. I think Mathias Jensen, in many ways, is a very underrated player. He is not the “tackler”, he is the playmaker. He is also an amazing person, but he’s not the type of person nor player who will get the attention of the media or will create big headlines. I think he goes under the radar sometimes, but he is a very talented player. He will tie everything together and he is one of the major reasons we play well. He can make long passes, short passes, no-look passes, he sees everything before anyone else. I think he will play in the Euros. Kasper Hjulmand knows him from their time at FC Nordsjælland, and he played well the last time he got called up. Based on his performances here, but also Denmark’s style of play, I’d say his chances are really good.
Then there’s Henrik Dalsgaard. I would bring him to the Euros if I was the manager. He has played 30+ international games, he has played in various tournaments, he is a solid and experienced right back. Whether he will get any games or not, he is a great man to have in the squad. He will be there for the team, and he has so much experience. So, I would definitely bring him, whether he gets to play or not. Mads Bech Sørensen and Mads Roerslev Rasmussen will probably play for the U21 team and not the senior team.
Monnerup: You play Reading tomorrow. What do you usually do, do you leave the day before or do you leave on the same day?
Riemer: Well, it depends. England is a relatively large country, so if we play for example Middlesbrough, we will fly there the day before and stay at a hotel. We do that very often, unless we play close to London, and depending on how far away it is we will either fly or take the bus. Currently, hotels aren’t exactly a nice experience. You can only be in your rooms. It’s not luxurious in any way. But yes, Reading is only about 40 minutes from London, so we take the bus tomorrow and do all the match preparations here at our own facilities. It’s an extremely important game tomorrow. Reading are only 6 points behind us, but we can sort of create a small gap if we beat them. However, if we lose, they will get really close to us. A win would also mean we move into first place.