Brentford like to do things differently. The west London club face Swansea City in the Championship playoff final tomorrow and would make an interesting addition to the Premier League. Matthew Benham is not a typical top-flight owner.
The boyhood fan took control of the club nine years ago and brought his own quirky vision to English football. One former manager tells a story of his side being 2-0 up at half-time when a text arrived in the dressing room saying, in effect, the statistics showed that the team should be losing and everyone needed to buck up their performances in the second period. It was not well-received.
Benham, whose fortune is built on sports betting companies, is convinced that numbers do not lie. Analytics have become a popular and useful tool in the game but Brentford drill down below the obvious figures in their quest to find underperforming players, underrated academy discards and talents that the scouts may have missed. The club have drawn derision from some for their progressive ideas – hiring sleep and kicking coaches, for example – but the driving idea is to unearth good players who can be acquired cheaply, improved and then sold on. Brentford have a relatively small fanbase and even after last year’s move from Griffith Park to the Brentford Community stadium, need to generate between £15 million and £20 million to remain solvent.
After losing last year’s playoff final 2-1 to Fulham, Brentford sold two of their best performers. Ollie Watkins – picked up from Exeter City for £1.8 million – went to Aston Villa for £28 million. Said Benrahma was loaned and then sold to West Ham United in January for £25 million plus add-ons after being signed from Nice for about one-tenth of that fee. Despite losing two quality players in the early weeks of the season, Brentford finished third in the Championship after paying £5 million to Peterborough United for Ivan Toney, a striker who seemed to have found his level in League One. Toney scored 31 goals, a Championship single-season record. They will have to take a different approach if they reach the Premier League for the first time since 1947 – Brentford’s only spell in the top flight was five years either side of the Second World War – but Benham will have planned for life with the big boys.
Benham is a secretive individual who avoids the glare of publicity and he has an unusual way of operating. He made the decision to part company with Mark Warburton in 2015 even though the manager had brought the team up from League One to the Championship the previous season. The owner wanted to buy players in the January window but Warburton did not want to disrupt team spirit. The episode, and what happened next, illustrates a lot about Benham’s character.
The information was leaked to a newspaper and the Brentford owner was led to believe that he had the identity of the mole. It was the wrong man. His misapprehension could have had a significant impact on the employee’s severance package. The journalist that Benham thought was behind the story passed on a message to the owner informing him that it was a mistake. They spoke on the phone and Benham listened before saying that he believed the writer but could not be certain until he looked him in the eyes.
A few days later the multimillionaire met the journalist in a no-frills pub – travelling on public transport – and, after less than two minutes’ conversation, Benham agreed that he had been given the wrong information and accepted the wrongfully-accused employee was innocent.
The moral of the tale is that Benham is more than the socially awkward number-cruncher that his enemies claim. He has good instincts and reads people well, especially in person. When comfortable he is fluid in conversation.
Warburton took the team to the playoff semi-final that season but the relationship was broken. That was Brentford’s first crack at reaching the Premier League via the post-season knockout tournament. Thomas Frank leads the third attempt.
If the team does reach the top flight, it will be the only club in the Premier League without an academy. Brentford closed theirs five years ago, changing the structure to maintain just two teams: the first XI and a B side. There are only 40 players on staff – many clubs have double the number. The logic is that the tighter squad means fewer players on the margins. They want everyone at the club to envision a reasonable path to the first team. The change was derided as being a mere cost-cutting measure but it has worked.
The other team in Benham’s stable, Midtjylland, have given the owner a taste of action at the highest level. The Danish side are operated with a similar philosophy. They were in Liverpool’s group in the Champions League last year.
Getting Brentford into the Premier League would be an even bigger achievement and, even in the post-Covid financial environment, might attract potential buyers looking to get hold of a top-flight English team at a reasonable price. There have already been inquiries. One came from Foster Gillett, whose father George was co-owner at Anfield with Tom Hicks when the American pair almost drove Liverpool into bankruptcy. It was instantly rejected. Benham, even if he was inclined to sell, would not leave the club in the hands of anyone with such a dubious past. Cold hard decisions and analytics aside, he will always be a supporter at core.
Brentford are on the verge of making their own history. If they do, they will have done it their own way.
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