A profile of Brentford's owner Matthew Benham
The shrewd gambler is about to take the ultimate risk by Daniel Welling
The popular 52-year-old has been with the club for four years, first as the club’s sporting director and then the first team coach at the beginning of last season. After guiding the team to the second tier of English football for the past 21 years, Warburton has unexpectedly manoeuvred the Bees to the cusp of a playoff place with almost three quarters of the season gone.
Despite all of these wonderful achievements and even if Brentford are promoted to the Premier League, Warburton will leave Griffin Park’s dugout come the end of the season whenever that may be. Although it is unclear whether Warburton will move to another position in the Brentford boardroom or leave the club entirely to take up another coaching role, it still seemed incomprehensible to jettison such a talented manager from the frontlines. How could owner Matthew Benham make such a baffling decision?
It is important to emphasise that Benham is not that stereotypical football club owner who uses the side’s finances and heritage as his personal plaything but rather a lifelong fan. Attending his first Brentford game as an 11-year-old in 1979 against Colchester, Benham has shared an affinity with the Bees for 32 years.
After revealing himself as the ‘mystery investor’ that bailed the club out of a £500,000 hole, Benham became the owner of the West London side in 2012 and has so far pumped over £90 million into the first team and the infrastructure of Brentford. These are the actions of a man fully committed to the club, not the whimsical decision we have become so accustomed to seeing from so many other football league owners.
After eight years of procrastination and dithering, Benham bought the land necessary for a new stadium holding up to 20,000 people due to open for the 2016-17 season in one swoop. The youth academy and scouting network has been completely redesigned with more of an emphasis on developing all-round individuals rather than just robotic footballers.
Futsal is played every week at the training ground in order to develop a player’s individual skill in tight spaces. Coaches are rotated between age groups to avoid favouritism and a partnership has been formed between Uxbridge high school and the academy in order to supervise the boys’ academic life.
Unwanted and unheralded gems have been plucked from the soil untrodden by superficial scouts across the Championship. Alex Pritchard and Jon Torel were loaned from the youth academies of Spurs and Arsenal whilst leading striker Andre Gray was playing in the Conference last season with Luton.
The professional gambler inside of Benham does not tolerate the idea of knee jerk decisions. For a man who studied at Oxford and later founded his own betting company after being gloriously successful as a professional gambler, knowledge is not just power it is obligatory.
“It is a phenomenon I see again and again in football. If I want to know how good a player is I want to speak to a person who has seen that player play one hundred times in all conditions. What tends to happen is so many people in football will see that player for forty minutes and decide they are the oracle.”
Benham also hates the idea of a result driving the narrative. Three points is not the only thing that matters. How many goals a striker scores is not the only thing Brentford’s scouts analyse. For Benham and his staff, hitting key performance indicators rather than results are more important.
“I am not just talking about whether a team wins or loses or scores or not because there is a huge amount of what we call noise in that statistic. I want to look at the number and quality of the chances they created. If I am looking at a striker I absolutely do not care about his goalscoring record. For me the only thing that is interesting is how the team do collectively, offensively and defensively within the context of an individual’s performance.”
This idea may seem moronic to the old school as one of the laziest clichés ingrained into football’s fabric is that ‘it’s a result based business.’ For an owner to come out and say that the end result is not the main barometer of performance isn’t refreshing but profanity.
Perhaps that is why he has made the radical decision to move on a successful manager in order to implement a meticulously planned setup. With Warburton rejecting the KPIs, statistics and algorithmic philosophy that Benham resolutely believes in, the parting of ways was inevitable.
Sometimes the worst thing a business can do is stay still. Managerial stability may be the current buzzword amongst Premier League forums and boardrooms but in almost every situation stability leads to complacency if not acted upon quickly enough.
Arsene Wenger’s 19 years in charge of Arsenal have led to a rot in Europe and an awfully cosmetic transfer policy. When Alan Curbishley left Charlton Athletic after 15 years in charge, they were relegated the following year.
The romantic notion of a manager being this omnipotent godfather of football matters does not fit into the grand puzzle of a departmentalised structure which Benham is attempting to build. Warburton has been a wonderful figurehead for Brentford’s promotion and stabilising phases, and maybe Benham was slightly taken aback by the success Warburton achieved in his first season with one of the smallest budgets in the league. But as all great gamblers will tell you, the best never stop planning their next move.
If you want a blueprint of how this focused data driven and statistical framework can work at a football club, take a trip to FC Midtjylland in Denmark where Benham is a majority shareholder. They lead the Danish Superliga by nine points and are course for their first ever Danish Championship title after adopting Benham’s ideals and practises.
Players concentrate on the very easily measured and quantifiable set pieces and as a result now have the second highest average number of set piece goals per game in Europe. Coaches are sent text messages at half time from the analysts in the gantries on how the team is performing on specific KPIs to influence team talks. Data processing has enabled them to unearth untapped potential from regions like London, Russia and Belgium. Does this sound familiar?
Many see Benham’s decision to replace Warburton with a more continental style as a massive risk but given how he made his fortune, you would suggest that this is one gamble you would be foolish not to bet against.Click here to stay up to date with AtTheMatch