Given Brentford had not produced a player for England’s senior side since 1939, it was no surprise that Thomas Frank sought to squeeze every drop of satisfaction from Ivan Toney’s call-up. “I think this is a much bigger moment for Brentford than people understand, especially if you’ve been here for a long time,” he said. “Just 15 years ago we were bottom of League Two, we played MK Dons at home and lost 3-0 in front of 4,000 fans. Now we get our first England international in 83 years and we are playing our second season in the Premier League.”
It is another milestone and the latest evidence that Brentford’s top-flight adventure is no passing fancy. There were eyes on Frank’s team as the season began: it was reasonable to wonder whether, without the wiles of Christian Eriksen, they would revert to the unit that had begun to struggle badly after such a thrilling start to 2021-22. But they look entirely comfortable in their skins and there will be some symbolism on Sunday in the visit of Arsenal, whose humbling on the opening night of last season lit a fire of possibility in west London.
Nobody relishes a visit to Brentford Community Stadium, a tight and angular venue with good acoustics that is relatively rare among newly built stadiums in instilling a strong sense of place. “I think Brentford has given us a lot of arguments in the last year, two years, to really believe that you’re going to go there and have a big battle,” Mikel Arteta said on Friday. “You’re going to suffer if you want to go there and get the three points out of that stadium. I think they are very clear on that and we have many examples.”
There are two in particular from the past five weeks. Perhaps Manchester United’s capitulation in August will come to be written in history as the culmination of nine years’ decline; the nadir from which Erik ten Hag dragged them to a glorious revival. Brentford certainly caught them at a good time but the 5-2 destruction of Leeds, who had guaranteed their survival by winning the same fixture four months previously, in their last outing was similarly emphatic and suggested the hosts’ excellence was the common denominator.
Toney has found the net five times already and, at 26, has developed into a near-complete centre-forward. The burliest of defenders can expect to bounce off him several times a match; he can terrorise most in the air and, as he proved when scoring two outrageous goals from range in his hat-trick against Leeds, he is deceptively deft with his feet. The ferocious, whipped free-kick that left Illan Meslier standing spoke of a striker with the all-round tools to be a worthy deputy for Harry Kane.
The joy for Brentford is that Toney’s moment of arrival at international level has equivalents elsewhere in the ranks. Their goalkeeper David Raya may well receive his second Spain cap against either Switzerland or Portugal over the next fortnight – he has now been called up for three consecutive squads by Luis Enrique. The Bees’ back and front hold realistic chances of appearing at this winter’s World Cup and that would be an even bigger achievement for Frank to wonder at.
It also diminishes the idea that Brentford can be cast as plucky underdogs for much longer. There is a sense they are here to stay now, with the caveat that the league looks so tight that predictions for the relegated three may as well be decided upon by the roll of a dice. Brentford did judicious business in the summer: they were able to spend £45m on Keane Lewis-Potter, Mikkel Damsgaard and Aaron Hickey, none of whom is over 22, with no sizeable fee coming in, and there was room for a cherry on top.
If Shakhtar Donetsk had been happy to accept a bid of over £25m for the scintillating wide man Mykhaylo Mudryk, Frank would have broken Brentford’s transfer record while presumably showing a ruthless streak with one or more of his existing options as a consequence. That is how sides ultimately evolve at this level but it said plenty that the addition of Mudryk would have been a luxury. Brentford struggled when injuries struck last time around but now boast genuine depth in most positions.
Toney’s goals are vital but Bryan Mbeumo has hinted at greater potency with two early strikes while Yoane Wissa and Josh Dasilva, whose fitness is a significant boost, also have a couple each. Ben Mee has steeled the backline and they have not missed last summer’s big signing, Kristoffer Ajer, who is close to a return after hamstring surgery. Sergi Canós, who opened the scoring against Arsenal last August, is also yet to kick a ball but Hickey has been a progressive presence at right-back.
Arsenal will face a more polished, accomplished side than the one that pummelled them into the ground that night with a mixture of brains and brawn; a consequence, of course, is that there will be less of an element of surprise for Arteta’s high flyers. But Brentford believe they have more surprises up their sleeve and the inexorable rise of Toney underlines the point.