It’s been another successful year for Brentford’s B team.
After losing out in the final of the Middlesex Senior Cup with a defeat against a strong Barnet team on penalties, Neil MacFarlane’s side bounced back a week later in fitting circumstances – making amends for their previous penalty woes by edging out Hendon in a shootout to lift the London Senior Cup.
It was the culmination of what has been another year of progression for a project first started back in 2016, when the Bees announced they were to scrap their youth academy and instead focus exclusively on players in the Under-23 age group.
The club had just lost Ian Poveda – now at Leeds – to Manchester City and Josh Bohui to Manchester United for next to nothing. Current rules are skewed towards the bigger clubs, which are often able to sign academy prospects from other teams for minimal compensation.
It means the likes of Brentford could spend years developing players who will end up providing no benefit whatsoever to the club apart from a few thousand pounds’ worth of compensation. But the B team instead provides a change in direction to the conventional academy set-up.
And with another crop of young talent coming through to make their first-team debuts this season, such as Nathan Young-Coombes and Fin Stevens, Brentford are continuing to reap the rewards of that bold change in strategy eight years ago.
Robert Rowan’s inspiration
Much of the direction and leadership during the B team’s early days came from the club’s former technical director Robert Rowan, who died in 2018 at the age of 28 after suffering a fatal cardiomyopathy episode.
One of those who now helps to oversee the B team is technical lead and assistant coach Allan Steele, who has been with the B team since its formation and whose roles include arranging the games programme, the strategy, planning and organisation of the team, and managing the loan players.
“A huge inspiration for me and for the whole club came from Rob and his work,” Steele said.
“It’s my responsibility to think about what his dreams and aspirations were and try and get close to them.
“I’ll never reach them but I’ve got to try my best to get close to what he would have expected and what he would have wanted out of this programme. He was a great man and has left us and the club a tremendous legacy.”
Steele is also keen to stress the teamwork that goes on behind the scenes as a key reason for the B team’s success, and not just the performances from the players on it.
“The success and responsibility of Rob’s legacy at Brentford is down to the people he has influenced,” he added.
“We are very lucky to have some remarkable people here, and all are motivated and driven to help create that most effective pathway.”
And as the team’s communication manager Ben Strange – whose key role is to make sure the players are ready for the media duties that come with making the first-team – explains, there is plenty of attention placed on other areas of development away from football.
“The whole point of the B team is to try and transition them into the first team. That’s not just on the pitch, that’s off the pitch as well.”
The narrowed focus of a B team as opposed to an all age-group academy means Brentford have been able to hone in on those prospects who have not managed to make it at some of the bigger clubs. Players which might well have been snapped up from teams like Brentford at an earlier age before being let go.
Defender Daniel Oyegoke, for example, joined in July last year after leaving Arsenal. Ben Hockenhull joined from Manchester United in 2020, as did Max Haygarth a year later. Paris Maghoma was signed from Tottenham. The list goes on.
But there’s also an emphasis on other markets too. The club’s Danish connection is well known and first-team players Mads Roerslev and Mads Bech Sorensen both came through the B team after arriving from FC Copenhagen and AC Horsens respectively.
There’s also other European players like Jaakko Oksanen, who signed from HJK Helsinki in 2018, and Tristan Cram,a who joined from French club Béziers, among others.
And as the B team has developed, it has become a more appealing prospect for in-demand youngsters.
Young-Coombes (pictured), who made his first-team debut in the 3-0 win over Southampton, was signed from Scottish giants Rangers last year. The forward has gone on to score more than 30 goals for the B team this season which, to no surprise, has piqued the interest of other clubs.
Because Brentford B sit outside the Elite Player Performance Plan and Professional Development League system, it means they are free to arrange their own fixtures against some of the best academies in the UK and the world as well as more senior men’s teams to give the players a taste of the different challenges they may face in the future.
It is this, Steele says, which is the primary focus of having a B team. To provide the most effective pathway into the first team that they possibly can.
“It’s really clear that the club want to promote players from within. You’ve seen the number of players that have not only made debuts for the club but have been promoted permanently,” he said.
“Take the game against Tottenham the other day and have a look at Mads Roerselev, Mads Bech Sorensen, those players on the bench like Myles Peart-Harris, Nathan Young-Coombes, Fin Stevens. There are players there that have benefitted from the B-team project.
“What we’ve got to try and do is make sure that we keep working as a group to support those players to achieve their goals which are to play for the first-team, with the understanding that we need to support them when that doesn’t happen as well.
“A great question is, have we done everything possible to get them to that point and have they?”
‘At some point you’re going to leave, unless you’re very lucky’
The B team has served a key role in the development of players for Brentford’s own first team, but Steele also acknowledges that he and the rest of the staff have a duty to help the players to exit the club in the best way possible when the time comes – whether that be after a year or 10 years.
Chris Mepham, for example, was originally brought through Brentford’s B team setup after joining from Chelsea, before he was sold to Bournemouth.
“Unfortunately there’s too many people that will leave this football club. At various different times, they just will,” he said.
“What we have to try and do is find the best way for that to happen and how to best support them. No matter what, if you walk into an academy as an Under-8 player or an Under-9 player and you stay all the way through, play at every age group through the 23s and through the first-team, at some point you’re going to leave unless you’re very lucky, you stay until you’re 35, you retire and become a coach or manager.
“Actually, it’s more likely that the player is going to leave this club. So what we have to do is find, as best as possible working with their support staff and their agent as well, a positive exit from the club.
“There are many different ways someone can leave a football club and it’s almost as though you accept the fact that they’re going to at some point. We have a plan for the player and that becomes part of the thinking that if they’re going to exit, then let’s make that transition as good as possible.”