Amid all the emotion and intrigue surrounding Christian Eriksen’s arrival at Brentford in January, it was easy to forget that a newly-promoted Premier League side had just signed a genuine world class footballer. In any other circumstances, it would be seen as the deal of the century.
But because Eriksen’s career was shrouded in uncertainty after his cardiac arrest on the pitch for Denmark at the European Championships last summer, the context surrounding the deal was very different. Serie A rules stated that the 30-year-old’s heart monitor, which was fitted after the incident, meant he could not play for Inter, his club, and so he was released. It was a bitter and cruel blow for a player whose life was in danger at one stage, let alone his career.
By the time he signed for the Bees, though, there was an element of risk involved. Nobody could guarantee Eriksen would be okay on a football pitch at the highest level of competition; initially it was assumed he would retire, so even though Brentford were getting a supremely talented player on a six-month contract, they were also giving a human being a second chance at doing what they loved.
It was one of those stories which utterly transcended rivalry. When he first appeared as a substitute in a defeat to Newcastle in late February, he was greeted by applause from all four corners of the Community Stadium. Yet, it took mere moments for the emotion to subside and for Eriksen to prove himself; there was no need to be concerned, he had slipped back into old habits of running football matches and effortlessly demonstrating his ability. Suddenly, the narrative switched; Brentford did indeed have an elite footballer in their ranks, and a trump card to play between then and the end of the season. They needed him, too.
Given the relative ease with which Brentford stayed up in the end, and the incredibly good start they made to their maiden top flight campaign, it is easy to forget how much they were struggling at that point. That loss to Newcastle was their seventh in eight games, having drawn the other one, and they were hurtling towards trouble from a position of relative safety. Momentum is everything in football, especially at the bottom of the Premier League, and such poor form often threatens to be fatal when those below you begin to pick up wins, like Newcastle had at that stage. Thomas Frank’s blend of forthright opinions and eccentricity had won him a lot of admirers well before he took his side up, but that didn’t look like being enough.
Enter Eriksen. Then it all changed; the Dane was a cut above anything in the squad and her drove them on to bigger and better things. Five wins from the next six gave them a base from which to build, and by the end of the season, the threat was long gone. Statistically, his impact may have appeared minimal; he made 11 league appearances, registering four assists and scoring just one goal. But he instilled a calmness and an expertise in the team that simply wasn’t there before. Frank had galvanised his team until then, playing his unique brand of football, but they lacked quality in the right areas, and Eriksen appeared in the perfect moment, to inject that belief again.
The deal was only short, reflecting the perilous nature of his return to the game. Ambitions, trophies and success didn’t matter initially; it was solely about playing. Brentford was the ideal place because Frank, his fellow countryman, knew him having coached him at youth level, and there was a strong Danish contingent in his squad. But his performances changed everything; it isn’t impossible that he re-signs to extend his stay, but Eriksen is a wanted man. Champions League football and potential title challenges are on offer again, with former club Tottenham in the race, reportedly behind Manchester United. Now, he can afford to think in those terms.
While it may feel as though the serenading calls of ‘we want you to stay’ from Brentford fans will count for nothing, they still have everything to thank Eriksen for. It wasn’t all down to him; Ivan Toney’s goals proved crucial and Christian Norgaard shone at the back, but it was looking like a swift return to the Championship at one stage. With or without him, they are building towards a second Premier League season.
That, in itself, comes with trepidation. Second season syndrome is more than a myth, especially for clubs who rely on tactics and momentum because they can’t afford huge upgrades in the transfer market. Add in the fact they were struggling before Eriksen arrived and face going back to life without him now, and it will only make it harder.
There was a time when Brentford were seen as the risk takers in the Christian Eriksen deal. As he prepares to return to the very top of the game, they need to work on replacing his inspiration quickly.