“For me, it was just about having the self-belief that you can eventually make the step up. That was my mindset and it hasn’t changed.”
Every footballer has a story. Ethan Pinnock's is one full of self-belief, determination and ultimately, success.
After being released from Millwall at 15 years of age, Pinnock spent six years playing for Dulwich Hamlet in the Isthmian League. Now he is just one game away from playing in England’s top flight and calling himself a Premier League footballer.
The 27 year old's rise up the footballing ladder is a story to inspire any young footballer with a dream.
His journey began in the Isthmian League which, together with the Southern League and Norther Premier League, forms the seventh and eighth levels of the English football league system. That’s where the defender played his football until 2016, when National League side Forest Green Rovers finally came calling.
“As a player it’s always difficult when you get released and get told you’re not good enough, no matter how old you are,” Pinnock says, speaking exclusively to the EFL ahead of Tuesday’s Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Final.
“For me, having a good support system around me really helped. My family were really encouraging and helped me maintain that self-belief that I could still go on to play professional football.
“Managers and coaches are always going to have different opinions on players, but if you’ve got that self-belief to prove others wrong, it will help you. That was my mindset then and it hasn’t changed now."
Fast forward just four years and, having mastered one of football's most competitive and unpredictable divisions with a special Brentford side who - on their day - have been unstoppable this season, Pinnock is now one game away from the Premier League.
When asked if he can believe what the club has achieved thus far, he smiled, replying with: “I can, you know.”
A seven-match winning streak after the restart saw Brentford come within touching distance of automatic promotion, only for the Bees to miss out by two points on the final day. But their impressive run was enough for Thomas Frank’s side to comfortably - and deservedly - cement their place in the Play-Offs.
“It’s such a huge credit to everyone at the club and all the staff,” Pinnock says, speaking about Brentford’s form since the restart.
"We made sure we did everything we needed to be ready to go again. We knew there would be a lot of games in a short space of time and the way we trained and the intensity of that training was top class. Everyone worked to their absolute maximum, and we knew that if we just took it game by game we could close the gap and give ourselves a chance.
“As the season went on we continued to grow as a team and the restart was a major turning point for us in terms of taking our performances and results to the next level.
“We went into each game with a winning mentality and mindset and didn't try to look too far ahead, we just broke it down game by game."
According to Pontus Jansson, manager Thomas Frank’s message was simple this season: Brentford must have a “desire to defend” - an instruction that has been backed up by his players with the second best defensive record in the Championship. But they’ve been lethal in attack, too, scoring a league-high 80 goals this campaign.
“We had a lot of new players at the start of the season, so it took a few games for us to gel,” Pinnock continues. “But I think we all knew the potential we had together as a squad. Throughout the season we’ve shown that as well with some really good results and passages of play.
“I think we thoroughly deserve to be where we are now."
Having seen off Swansea City in the Semi-Final second leg in style, Brentford deservedly booked their place in the Play-Off Final, and on Tuesday night Pinnock will walk out at Wembley alongside his teammates - a feeling the defender is familiar with, having tasted Play-Off success with Forest Green in 2017.
A debut season in the National League saw Pinnock make 40 appearances for Forest Green, culminating in a special day at Wembley, which ultimately saw the club promoted to the EFL for the first time in its history.
“I played a lot of games that season,” he says, reflecting on his time in non-league.
“It was my first time playing at that standard as well so to finish it with promotion was a really big boost for me personally, but for the club itself as well.
“One of my biggest memories from the day was all the Tranmere Rovers fans compared to the Forest Green fans. We spoke before the game how important it was to start quickly to try and keep their fans as quiet as possible, because we knew that they could have an impact on the game.
“It helps to be familiar with the situation, even more so that my experience in the last Play-Off Final was a positive one too.”
Following promotion with Forest Green, Pinnock signed for Barnsley, where he spent two seasons before making the move back down south.
Three years on from his debut Wembley experience and Pinnock is back at the National Stadium. This time however, the ultimate prize is at stake. Only West London neighbours Fulham stand in the way of Premier League football for the Bees.
“The two Play-Off Semi-Finals had everything,” he says, reflecting on their performances against Swansea.
"Both went right until the end and nothing was decided until the moment the final whistle was blown in the second leg.
"We obviously had to overcome the disappointment of losing the first leg, but we kept the belief and I think we all knew that if we played to our full potential, we had the right ingredients to win the game.
"We had a meeting as a team and talked everything through after the final day of the season, which I think helped give us a new lease of life going into the Play-Offs.
"We went into the games with a really positive mindset knowing that we had nothing to lose and everything to gain. When that’s your mentality, there’s no reason to not go out there and express yourselves on the pitch.
“Tuesday is a one-off game and anything can happen, so it’s important that we control what we can control and play our game, because that’s how you get results in these games.”
The Bees’ showing against Swansea in the Semi-Final second leg was spectacular. Each player left everything out on the Griffin Park pitch, every inch of grass was covered and when they needed it most, Brentford showed character and togetherness - an ethos that runs throughout the entire club and a culture Thomas Frank has proudly created both on and off the pitch.
“Thomas Frank deserves huge credit,” Pinnock says admirably.
"He’s really good with the boys; making sure that we all stay as a collective unit, making sure that even if we’re not in the team we’re involved and striving to be in the team, he shows the right attitude and makes sure that everyone feels important.
“At the end of the day it’s not just about the 11 players on the pitch. There’s so much more to it than that and he epitomises that.
“Everyone works really hard for each other here, we’re like a family. We got ourselves in a great position and we didn’t quite have enough to get over the automatic promotion line, but we’re still in with a great chance.
"The Championship is a really difficult league, but with the players we’ve got and the talent we have on the pitch promotion was always a possibility if we did things the right way."
Within a team of young talent, one player that has been at the heart of Brentford’s performances all season is 24-year-old Ollie Watkins - his journey to the Championship not too dissimilar to Pinnock’s either.
Watkins' rise from non-league winger to one of the Championship’s leading scorers has been a joy to watch this season, and alongside Said Benrahma and French winger Bryan Mbeumo, the former Exeter City striker has lit up the Championship this season with his pace, power and natural ability to find the net.
“He’s a machine!” Pinnock says, laughing.
“His work rate in games is amazing. He makes slide tackles on the edge of our box to help in defence and then next minute he can be down the other end scoring, he’s been so important for us.
"This is his first season playing as a main striker and he’s done exceptionally well. He works so hard on the pitch and off it as well to make sure that his body is ready for games. Just looking at where he’s come from and his journey, he’s an example for any younger player to follow."
The relationship built up by the ‘BMW’ forward line, has been one of the Championship’s biggest talking points this season. Combined they have scored more than 55 goals, and together have been a defender’s worst nightmare. There is a feeling however, that this entire side is destined for top-flight football.
“It’s been really beneficial to play against them in training every week actually,” Pinnock reveals.
"It’s difficult in training against them all, but when you’ve spent the week training against players of that calibre, it can only be beneficial for us as defenders on a Saturday.
“The whole team deserve credit. David Raya in goal has been unbelievable, we’ve been disciplined defensively this seasons, the midfield three in front of us work really hard and the front three have been really impressive. I think that’s all testament to the culture that we’ve built here this season."
With Brentford renowned for their shrewd transfer dealings and unique set up, there’s no doubt that Pinnock has proved an inspired signing for the Bees, taking the Championship's competitiveness and intensity in his stride each week.
There were celebrations at full-time of the Semi-Final second leg as football said farewell to the Bees’ historic stadium Griffin Park, now just one game remains as the club looks to embark on a new and exciting era.
“We know how much this games mean to the fans,” Pinnock concludes.
"They’re a huge part of our club and I think with the final being against Fulham, it’ll mean a little more to them, so it has to mean more to us as players as well.
“Promotion would just mean everything, especially with it being the last season at Griffin Park. It would literally be the perfect send off for everyone at the club.
“We now need to take that one last step to complete an unbelievable season and one that will be remembered for years to come.”