As they prepare to battle Swansea in the Championship playoff semifinals (Sunday, 7/26, 1:30 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+), Brentford know they’re just three matches away from making the Premier League. Flashback to 11 years ago, and the tiny west London club was four divisions away.
Over the years, fans have seen them rescued from the brink of extinction on numerous occasions and stave off moves away from their much-loved Griffin Park stadium, where they’ve been since 1904. They’ve seen trips to Accrington Stanley or Gillingham; relegations and promotions; pain and joy in equal measure. But next season they hope to be heading to Anfield or Old Trafford while settling into their new home a mile away: the brand new 18,000 all-seater Brentford Community Stadium.
Previously, those flying over west London would have seen a snug stadium with fading advertising on its roof, red-painted seats, pubs at its four corners. But while it will always stay in the club’s DNA, the 12,300-capacity Griffin Park couldn’t sustain their march into the future. Now people are taking notice and even envy Brentford.
“We were seen as an irrelevant team in London — I’m not having a dig, that’s just how people felt,” Billy Grant, co-editor of the “Beesotted” podcast and blog, tells ESPN. “They saw it that we were up against Chelsea, West Ham, Arsenal and Tottenham! Being unknown has almost been in our favour, to a certain extent, because we’ve able to operate almost below the radar, do things no one’s really bothered us about doing, or the methods that we employed. No one was interested in it because they just thought it was rubbish.”
Brentford’s journey to the brink of the Premier League is unorthodox and confounds those who believe you have to spend big to get promoted. Guided by owner Matthew Benham, a former professional gambler, they had the fourth-lowest wage budget in the Championship last season, and their record signing stands at the £5.85 million they spent on Bryan Mbeumo last summer. Mbeumo, who arrived from Troyes in Ligue 2, embodies the club’s transfer policy: they look for raw talent and underrated players, do background checks on their personality and then watch them thrive.
But there’s more to Brentford’s success than just good scouting. It’s number-crunching and analysis like you wouldn’t believe. It has taken them to the verge of the Premier League. Just, whatever you do, don’t mention “Moneyball.”
Benham brings innovation, via Denmark
“You know Brentford are a small, unfashionable team,” Grant says. “Football used to be the part of the day that ruins a day out. You would have a much better laugh if you could just keep the football side out of the trip to another ground. Football is always about the prematch and postmatch fun.”
He reflects on one such memorable day away at Wrexham in mid-December 2007. The Bees were in League Two back then and had arrived in North Wales later than planned, the trains causing usual havoc with delays. They quickly piled into a thatch-roofed pub for a quick pint before the 3 p.m. kickoff.
“We were chatting away to the locals and having a great time,” he continues. “Anyway, someone in the pub said to us: “You not going to the match then?” And we looked at our watches, it was 4.10 p.m. We prepared to run, but this guy staggered out in front of us, having been in there for a long old time. He walked around the corner, came back riding a horse and off he went down the high street. We followed the horse, legged it to the ground, and ran in singing. And I believe we scored just as we got in …”
– Reporters’ Notebook: Kepa done at Chelsea?
A lot has changed since then, especially in the world of transfers. Grant remembers those afternoons in the early days of the Benham era when unknown players would arrive from all corners of Europe. He tried to learn about the club’s new signings by phoning up fans of the player’s former team. The same went for managers: when they turned to Dutch coach Marinus Dijkhuizen in June 2015, he had to contact Excelsior’s fans via social media to find out what their ex-boss was like.
When Benham, a lifelong Brentford fan, bought the club in 2012, he’d already cracked the football betting market through his own algorithm of looking at statistics and trends underneath other more commonly used lines of numbers and data. It led to him building his own company, SmartOdds, in 2004, which provides statistical research and sports modelling services to pro gamblers. His exact worth is unknown, but the club’s April 2018 accounts detailed he had invested just over £100 million.
Benham wanted Brentford to embrace the method that served him well in his previous career: to achieve sustainable success without breaking the bank. But it took time to implement in England, so he looked to try it out elsewhere, investing in underperforming Danish club FC Midtjylland in July 2014.
With Rasmus Ankersen as chairman — he now serves as co-director of football at Brentford with Phil Giles — they started looking at “football’s inefficiencies,” as Ankersen puts it. They used a model similar to expected goals and assists (xG and xA) and, when scouting for new talents, used their algorithm to focus on undervalued leagues and players. They also brought targeted areas of improvement from the stats they generated, and acted on their own failures; they brought in a specialist kicking coach and would use in-game feedback via text messages from analysts in the stands or at the SmartOdds base in north London. They felt set pieces were undervalued so prioritised that and ended up scoring 25 goals from them in 2014-15, 14 more than the team in second.
They also created “table of justice,” a theory that attempted to look at a team’s true position, having removed luck and misfortune from the equation. Ankersen now uses Newcastle’s fifth-place finish from the 2011-12 Premier League season as a prime example for the “table of justice” theory, arguing the stats dictate they should have finished far lower, but were fortunate — Newcastle finished 16th the following season. He calls it “contextual awareness.”
In his book “The Gold Mine Effect,” Ankersen uses the example of Apple and Microsoft: just because a salesperson at Apple has a higher conversion rate of sales than a counterpart at Microsoft, does that necessarily make them better at their job than someone who might have a harder job of selling a similar product? You need the full picture.
In 2015, the season after Benham took control, Midtjylland won the Danish league for the first time. They’ve won it twice since.
The next step at Brentford: Transfer analysis
Ankersen uses the “David and Goliath” example as a footballing analogy: if you haven’t got as much money or resources as your rivals, then you need to find other ways to beat them. Benham considers Dick Fosbury the archetypal innovator. He won high jump gold at the 1968 Olympics by developing a new way to jump over the bar — headfirst, reverse, with an arched back — which replaced the old front-on hop. The Fosbury Flop was then copied by every high jumper.
When Benham took over Brentford, he wanted them to be football’s equivalent of Fosbury. They couldn’t rely on commercial revenue or hospitality — Griffin Park has just 60 hospitality spaces, compared to 2,900 at their new ground — so they had to generate enough money to survive and hopefully evolve through beating the transfer market. But don’t bracket this as footballing “Moneyball,” the term given to Billy Beane’s recruitment method with Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics, whereby Beane used sabermetrics to assemble a World Series-challenging side on a budget comparatively minuscule to other teams in the majors.
When Benham’s Brentford were introduced as the “Moneyball club” at the Matchbook Traders Conference in October 2015, he responded with: “Thanks for the kind introduction, but I hate it. It’s much misunderstood — people say: ‘Oh, Moneyball, these guys came along and applied stats to baseball’… Moneyball’s idea wasn’t about using any old statistics, but statistics as an academic and scientific exercise to see what stats actually helped predicted things. The Moneyball label can be confusing because people think it is using any stats, rather than trying to use them in a scientific way.”
Some struggled with Benham’s vision — for example, former coach Mark Warburton, who left the club in 2015 having got them promoted to the Championship and then into the playoffs, their highest league finish in 50 years. It later became apparent that Benham and Warburton disagreed over transfer policy. A February 2015 statement announcing Warburton’s departure at the end of the season detailed Brentford’s new direction, adopting the European model of a sporting director and head coach.
“There will also be a new recruitment structure using a mixture of traditional scouting and other tools including mathematical modelling,” the statement read. “As part of the new recruitment structure, the head coach will have a strong input in to the players brought into the club but not an absolute veto.” In other words, the head coach didn’t buy the players, the sporting director did. The supporters were in uproar, and it didn’t help that Warburton’s successor Dijkhuizen lasted just nine games before being replaced by Dean Smith, who ultimately brought stability and helped more fans come round to Benham’s way of thinking.
Controversially, Benham scrapped Brentford’s academy in May 2016. He had grown increasingly frustrated at how the club developed players through their academy only for bigger fish to come along and swallow them up. That summer, prospects Ian Carlo Poveda and Josh Bohui had left for Manchester City and Manchester United respectively, with the club receiving the nominal fee of £30,000 apiece in return. It did not make financial sense, with the academy costing in the region of £1.5m annually, so instead he put that money into a newly formed “B-Team.” This team — which made up its own fixture list — took a chance on players released from other clubs higher up the food chain and gave them a second chance. These players would then either be promoted to the first team or sold on for profit.
Welsh defender Chris Mepham was one example — released by Chelsea aged 14, then picked up by Brentford, developed and sold to Bournemouth for £12.25m in January 2019. Romaine Sawyers, sold to WBA in July 2019, was replaced in the first team by Josh Dasilva, who was signed on a free from Arsenal in August 2018. The bigger clubs were no longer feared, but instead seen as partners.
On top of that, everything the club learned from the Midtjylland experience bore fruit in the search for new stars. When Brentford look to buy a player these days — usually aged 23 or under — they use the statistics and analysis as a means to eliminate unrealistic targets or those not good enough. Then they turn to scouts and databases to profile the player and decide if they’ll work for their system. It’s all done in the name of minimising risk.
Take last season’s transfers: David Raya, from Blackburn, was identified by then-goalkeeper coach Inaki Cana; defender Ethan Pinnock was scouted from Barnsley and answered the need for dominant aerial presence; Pontus Jansson was well known in the Championship and keen to move to Brentford; Christian Norgaard was at Brondby with the club’s new head coach, Thomas Frank; Mathias Jensen arrived from Celta Vigo but was known to Frank and assistant Brian Riemer, while Mbeumo was found by their man in France, Brendan McFarlane.
Over the past decade, Brentford spent £63.2m in the transfer market. They’ve recouped £130m in player sales.
The human side
When Smith left for Aston Villa in October 2018, Brentford replaced him with Frank, a man who had coached Denmark’s youth sides and Brondby. He endured a turbulent start, winning just one of his first 10 games, but the club stuck to their “table of justice” and backed him, a decision that has reaped rewards.
“What people don’t take into account with all of this is the human side,” Grant says. “This is so important.”
The all-conquering All Blacks rugby side of 2008-15 that won back-to-back Rugby World Cups had a policy that the team is always bigger than the individual. Brentford have adopted the same mantra.
“They spend a lot of time ensuring the players they sign are the right type for the dressing room: they wanted to get rid of any dressing room bullies that thought they ran the place,” Grant says. “Manners and professionalism are so important to Brentford.” Grant recalls talking to Giles before the club returned post-lockdown and asking the co-director of football whether the players had stayed fit. “Fit? Of course, they are! They are professionals,” Grant remembers Giles responding.
Brentford want their club to be bigger than mere slogans written on the wall, but one recurring phrase you’ll hear at Jersey Road is “POMO,” or “Position Of Maximum Opportunity.” It was a term coined by World War II pilot and football coach Charles Reep, and later picked up by the Football Association’s head of coaching Charles Hughes in the 1980s. He introduced a system focused on the need to get the ball towards the opponent’s goal in a maximum of five touches. It then became shorthand for ‘long-ball football’ and ultimately discredited. But Brentford’s use of that terminology refers to areas in the penalty area where the most goals are scored.
At their training ground, they used to have a “no shoot ring” drawn on the pitch — that’s more uncommon now. But watch Brentford and you’ll often see them take an extra touch to ensure a better shooting opportunity rather than snatching at a half-chance. They now stand joint top of the Championship on percentage of shots on target (34.8%), third for pass completion in the attacking third (79.4%), third for overall possession (57.8%) and second for XG (75.89) and XA (52.99) — all remarkable improvements on the previous season’s tallies.
This was all despite losing their star forward Neal Maupay to Brighton in the summer for £19.8m. They replaced him from within, moving Ollie Watkins off the wing and playing him as a No. 9 and then putting new signing Mbeumo out on the flank. The front three of Watkins, Mbuemo and the outstanding Saïd Benrahma, collectively known as “BMW,” have 57 goals to their 20 assists — not bad for a total transfer spend of £9m.
Brentford are not shy of addressing their shortcomings, either. Having fared poorly in the Championship for aerial duels last season, they addressed that this term by signing Pinnock and Jansson. They now sit third for aerial battles won on 52.9%. It’s not an infallible plan, but it’s guided Brentford to within touching distance of the Premier League. They were scoffed at when they first started using analytics and data to scout players. No one’s laughing now.
“As a Brentford fan, I’m proud we’ve done things our way,” Grant says. “I love the fact that we have gone against the grain,” Grant says. “We’re definitely one of the top three teams in the division, and where people used to be writing us off, they’re now praising us. As Benham says, if you’re an innovator, you’ve got to keep on innovating. We’ve got to stay ahead of the game and continue to push the boundaries of football.
“But even if we do go up, if you speak to those supporters who have been around for a long old while, they will talk about the journey and will say their favourite days were the trips to Accrington Stanley or Wrexham. Regardless of which division we’re in, we’ll still always remember Wrexham and that horse. You cannot take that stuff away.”