The Premier League’s Newbies Who Trust The Process

Salesmen with scarfs and flags began setting up on Brentford High Street around 9 am.

The vendors, who’d usually be lining the roads around Wembley Stadium, had decided to target the many additional armchair Brentford FC fans in West London who, due to COVID-19 restrictions, couldn’t be at this year’s playoff final.

Soccer is a hugely important part of the identity in this area of the capital and, when the final whistle confirmed they were promoted to the Premier League, people spilt out onto the streets to celebrate. 

But, even compared what to its rivals on the day Swansea City would have managed back in Wales, the gathering was modest. This is a local team.

Any casual fan, outside of the boroughs of Hounslow and Ealing, is unlikely to be aware of the Bees, whose last top-flight appearance was just after World War Two. 

The entire population of the West London suburb could fit inside the stadiums of Championship rivals; Blackburn Rovers, Birmingham City, Cardiff City, Derby County, Nottingham Forest Middlesborough, Sheffield Wednesday and Stoke City.

Yet the club has outperformed nearly all of these clubs for some time now.

Not only has Brentford achieved better results than these teams with larger fanbases and more storied histories, but they’ve also done it on a fraction of the budget.

More than that they’ve sold their best players every year to keep the finances in a healthy position.

Star striker sales

Having torn up England’s second division and narrowly missed out on promotion last year, firstly in the automatic places and then in the playoff final, the team’s stars were auctioned off.

Top scorer Ollie Watkins and midfield diamond Said Benrahma went to Premier League teams for a combined $70 million.

The transfers might have helped balance the coronavirus-effected finances and pay the mortgage for a new stadium, but most thought they would also substantially reduce the chances of going one better this year.

But the team took it in their stride, they acquired Ivan Toney for a tenth of what they sold their pair of stars for to replace Watkins and asked others to fill the gap left by Benrahma.

The two departing players were of course following a long line of talent, which Brentford has parted company with in recent years.

Watkins’ breakout season, which saw him become a $46 million striker, came after he’d stepped up replace Neal Maupay sold to Brighton for $28 million.

Maupay in turn had been the man who filled Scott Hogan’s shoes when Brentford had sold him to Championship rivals Aston Villa for $13 million.

And Hogan developed into the main striker after previous top scorer Andre Grey made his $16 million switch to Burnley.

It’s not just the leading strikers who’ve let the club, defender’s Ezri Konsa and James Tarkowski, who are now firmly established Premier League players, have been sold over the years for $20 million.

Most teams would struggle with the loss of one top scorer let alone four in succession.

But for Brentford selling is part of the plan. You see, the West Londoners aren’t like other clubs.

Breaking the mould

It was over ten years ago that lifelong fan Matthew Benham took over the club.

The Oxford graduate was armed with two things; a fortune amassed from creating two successful companies in the gambling industry and, more importantly, a long term plan.

Rather than do what most wealthy fans do when they buy their boyhood team and spend a huge amount in the hope it will fire the team up the divisions quickly, he took a different approach.

He decided to harness the power of data to recruit better than anyone else.

Player sales would be part of the strategy, losing individual stars for a profit was factored in, the gains would be made gradually over time.

Benham’s data-centric model scours Europe for talent which has often been discarded, ignored or simply not on the radar of other clubs.

Using the cutting edge statistical research and sports modelling pioneered by his gambling firms, the club has steadily built a reputation for making stars.

But in all honestly, we don’t know the exact details of what powers Brentford’s incredible recruitment.

Benham is notoriously private and Brentford’s strategy is guarded in the same way any business protects its competitive “edge.”

Much of what we know is what has been gleaned from snippets from those lower down the chain, the exact way in which the system works is a secret.

One thing that everyone can see is how effective it is.

Since Benham took over the club has risen from England’s fourth division to the first.

Improvements have often been steady, it took five years to get into the Championship and a further seven to reach the Premier League.

There have been three unsuccessful play-off campaigns in that time, but over a decade later they’ve made it.

Patience: Brentford’s biggest virtue  

Emotion is what makes English soccer beautiful, but when it comes to club strategy it’s incredibly unhelpful.

In a game driven by passion, it’s more common than you might think for owners to get caught up in it and make unwise choices.

You only have to watch the meltdown by former Sunderland owner Stewart Donald in the Netflix

NFLX
series Sunderland ‘Til I Die, when he ends up paying an exorbitant fee for journeyman striker Will Grigg on transfer deadline day, to see how powerful it can be.

Fans hate seeing their favourite players leave and the clamour for clubs to go on unwise spending sprees when they do can be immense.

For an owner, there will always be a temptation to rush out and spend any income they generate from the sales on new talent.

Not only that, in English soccer ambition is frequently measured by the amount a club spends, rather than how well they spend it.

Nottingham Forest, for example, has no shortage of ambition and have splashed the cash to prove it repeatedly. 

The club play in a stadium twice the size of Brentford’s has two European Cups to its name and is based in a city primed for the Premier League.

But their constant push for a quick fix to acquire a star player or crack manager who will propel them into the top division has resulted in chaos.

They’ve burned through five managers in as many years and made 69 transfers in that time.

The conveyer belt of new players meant that at one stage they had a full 11 of Championship level talent ostracised from the first team

Club record $18 million signing João Carvalho purchased from Champions League club Benfica also failed to have the desired impact and was shipped out on loan last year.  

The big bets on high profile talent has produced a team that fluctuates from battling relegation to vying for the play-offs.

The long term trend is not one of consistency.

At Brentford everyone has trusted the process, from the fans to the players it’s always about the bigger picture.

That’s not an easy thing to achieve, Brentford has suffered some heartbreaking near misses in their ascent through the divisions none more so than last season’s playoff final defeat to rivals Fulham.

After a crushing blow, it’s not uncommon for radical change to take place, even when it’s not needed.

But belief in the underlying indicators, the gradual improvement, has produced the goods.

Now we’ll have to see how far it can take them on one of the biggest stages of them all.

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