I had roused myself from my torpor and lethargy and almost finished writing a long and analytical review of the first couple of months of the new season when news broke of Dean Smith’s departure to Aston Villa.
So I have scrapped all of my previous observations, gone back to square one and tried to assess his impact upon the club and then I consulted my crystal ball to see how we might do without him.
It would be entirely wrong not to start by thanking and paying tribute to Dean and his long term assistant, Richard O’Kelly who is also accompanying him to Villa, for all their efforts, skill and hard work over a near three year period – a lifetime in Championship terms where the average lifespan of a manager is around ten months.
Smith was not the club’s first choice to succeed Marinus Dijkhuizen and caretaker Lee Carsley but terms could not be agreed with Pep Clotet, and judging by his subsequent failure at Oxford United perhaps we had a lucky escape.
Carsley had done an excellent job of restoring confidence, fitness and morale amongst a group of players who had been dismayed and confused by the chaotic disorganisation of the short and ill fated Dijkhuizen era.
Smith proved to be an exceptional choice. Calm, measured and intelligent he soon got the squad onside by showing that he would treat them as individuals and grown ups and always be available to speak to them on a one to one basis.
He ensured that standards would be maintained both on and off the pitch and ensured that the squad joined in the club’s outstanding work in the local community.
From his previous spell at Walsall under the parsimonious Jim Bonser, he was used to making bricks without straw and he totally bought into the Brentford philosophy.
He understood that he was there to motivate, teach, improve and develop a group of outstandingly talented young players, knowing full well that the best of them would at the right time be sold from under his feet once a club further up the food chain met or even surpassed their value.
This has to be the Brentford way of doing business for the time being, allowing them to compete with, outthink and outperform clubs with far greater resources but more stereotyped and outmoded ways of thinking and doing business.
Smith never – publically at least – bitched and moaned about losing star players such as Scott Hogan, Jota and Ryan Woods as he realised that the club could not match the bloated salaries on offer elsewhere and he knew that they would be replaced with another influx of untried but talented youngsters.
Teacher that he is, he simply got on with the job of improving the players under his control and Neal Maupay might well be the most striking example of how a young striker who was struggling to find his feet last season, missing open goals, not anticipating chances, with the ball clanging away from his imperfect first touch has under Smith’s guidance now developed into a predatory marksman, currently the top scorer in the country, but – unlike Hogan – someone who also plays a full part in holding the ball up and setting up play.
Maupay is not alone and the improvement of others such as Chris Mepham – a Premier League star of the near future – Ollie Watkins and Josh McEachran has been startling, testament indeed to the quality of Smith’s coaching and development ability.
This to me has been his greatest strength and is not surprising given that he made his bones as a youth team coach at Orient and Walsall.
He would not be human if he did not bemoan the lack of more experienced recruits either up front or in a defensive midfield role but that is not the Brentford way of doing things and he fully understood why massive sums could not be invested in such players or even in bringing in loanees who could potentially provide a short term impetus. Why should we pay to improve someone else’s players?
January was a case in point as Maupay was stuttering and Lasse Vibe had finally recovered his potency in front of goal, scoring six times against the likes of QPR, Norwich and Aston Villa as well as a predatory and crucial late winner in a tight game at Reading.
Given that he was out of contract at the end of the season and likely to leave on a Bosman free transfer the Brentford business model dictated his sale, admittedly for an eye watering sum to China.
All fine so far but the view from the top of the club was perhaps that our chances of reaching the Playoffs – themselves a one in four lottery – were too low to merit an investment in a new striker. Perhaps in retrospect a mistake?
Even with this handicap the Bees came within a whisker of gatecrashing the top six and one can only conjecture whether Dean Smith felt that he was managing with one hand tied behind his back?
To lead his team to three consecutive top ten finishes was undoubtedly a magnificent achievement given Brentford’s miniscule budget compared to so many of their rivals, buttressed as they are with ineffable parachute payments, ostensibly rewarding them for their failure in relegation from the Premier League.
The football too was often sublime with every player confident on the ball and their game was based on initially playing the ball out patiently from the back, switching it from side to side probing for weaknesses and then fast flowing attacking football featuring an alluring combination of pace, short passing, dribbling and astute switching of play.
At their best the Bees were almost unstoppable and the likes of Fulham, Derby and Aston Villa were sent packing with their tail between their legs.
And yet…. and yet….. despite the quality on offer and our delight and gratitude at having such wonderful fare to feast upon, the feeling lingered that possibly, just possibly we should have done even better and got over the line certainly to reaching the Playoffs.
Perhaps such thoughts are patently unfair and Smith was indeed overperforming, but given the quality that we possessed I feel that even more could have been accomplished.
We travelled away to the so-called bigger teams without fear and apart from at Newcastle and recently at Derby we invariably put on a performance, stifled the opposition and dominated chances and possession. But we could never quite get over the line and win such games and with the exception of Brighton we have never won at the ground of a promoted team although often going close.
Credit has to be given to the opposition of course but last season we drew at Middlesbrough and Fulham, both games we dominated and should have won, and this season the pattern has already been repeated at Stoke, Aston Villa, Ipswich and Leeds. Four drawn matches when the performances fully merited twelve points and eight points have been thrown away – perhaps the difference between promotion and being an also-ran.
Smith’s team was the youngest in the Championship and perhaps understandably they made the naive mistakes of the inexperienced. They had a soft underbelly and rarely seemed able to close out a tight away game. All too often an individual mistake, a lack of clinical finishing, a set piece, careless and catastrophic defending and it has to be said refereeing errors would ensure a late goal against (or two at Loftus Road last season) that would cost us dear.
Smith would correctly protect his players in public and perhaps he castigated them when necessary behind closed doors, but little seemed to change and the same errors and shortcomings were repeated.
Tactically he could be very astute as he was in his final game in charge at Elland Road when he learned from what happened at Villa Park when his ball playing midfielders were totally overrun. He left out McEachran and Macleod and their more energetic replacements Mokotjo and Yennaris wrested control of the congested midfield.
For the last couple of years he has also been assisted by Thomas Frank, a former manager of Brondby and he has appeared to have played an important part on the touch line. The team’s pressing has also improved immeasurably. Frank made his name coaching young players in his native Denmark and he was originally brought in to help players make the step up from the B team to the first team squad.
Frank is understandably seen as the new head coach in waiting and as we are waiting impatiently for the white puff of smoke that announces the appointment of Smith’s replacement the question remains, how much of the team’s success was down to him?
More importantly, would the players, used to the demeanour and approach of Dean Smith, respond well to the ministrations of Frank?
Given his two years of service it would be strange indeed if Frank was not given the opportunity of becoming head coach, but this is Brentford we are talking about and the club has never been averse to producing a rabbit from the hat and making a left field appointment.
Director of Football Phil Giles did intimate that no decision had yet been made and that some potential candidates would be approached and spoken to.
Nathan Jones and Danny Cowley are two highly promising managers whose names have been mentioned and who knows, perhaps they and others will come under consideration.
Brentford’s motto has never been “if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it.” It’s been more “let’s try and improve it,” so maybe someone new will arrive.
Whoever takes charge will inherit a fantastic squad bursting with ability and potential. Players are also returning from injury and it is likely that Matthew Benham will authorise squad strengthening in January and just as importantly refrain from selling any star players if the Bees remain in the running for promotion.
Dean Smith did an incredible job. He steadied the ship, improved individual players, totally bought into the Brentford approach and has more than laid the foundations for success.
The system at the club is far more important than any one individual and the new man need do no more than tinker with what has already been done (although perhaps a return to man to man marking rather than zonal defence would be welcomed).
Normally a new manager or head coach has to sort out the mess of his predecessor but this is a totally different situation. Very little has to change for Brentford to make the slight improvement needed to gain promotion. Hopefully Frank or whoever else is chosen can organise and motivate them to eradicate the slight errors that are costing them so dear at both ends of the pitch.
As for Dean Smith, he leaves with our thanks and gratitude for a job exceptionally well done. Just as our players harbour ambitions why shouldn’t our management staff? The Aston Villa job is a dream come true for him and given time and support he could well bring them the success they crave. I’m not well enough informed to have a educated view as to whether he’s inherited a poison chalice. For his sake I hope not as he deserves far better.