Brentford FC’s owner Mathew Benham is one of the most revolutionary figures in English football. And you’ve probably never heard of him.
To explain who Mathew Benham is, and what he’s doing at Brentford you need to first travel just almost 500 miles north-east as the crow flies. Destination? Herning, Denmark – home of FC Midtjylland. ‘The Wolves’ as they are known by supporters are eight points clear at the top of the table with four games to play. Champions-elect it would seem.
Why does this matter? Well, FC Midtjylland are more than just a football club. They are a laboratory. This Danish club has been used to test concepts relating to management structures, player acquisitions and sports psychology, that are likely unheard of anywhere else football. Mathew Benham is the nutty professor with the keys to the lab. FC Midtjylland belongs to him and it is here he is creating a formula he hopes will see Brentford promoted to the Premier League in the near future.
So who is Mathew Benham?
A notoriously private man, Benham is the owner of Brentford and FC Midtjylland. Benham made his money in the business of money. He’s been a Hedge Fund manager and professional gambler. Nowadays along with his football clubs, Mathew Benham owns two companies in the betting industry; Smartodds and Matchbook. Smartodds is a company that provides in-depth statistical analysis to professional gamblers. Matchbook meanwhile is a sports betting exchange.
Not just a money man, Mathew Benham is a football man too. A passionate Brentford fan, he didn’t buy them simply because he wanted a football club, no, he saved them. Amidst the disastrous financial fallout of the Ron Noades era, Brentford supporters banded together to buy the club. As everyone knows, this was successful and the Bees became London’s first professional club owned by the fans.
But what many may not know is that a large chunk of that buy-out was funded by loans from Benham. He was given the opportunity to purchase the club should the supporters trust not wish to repay the loans. In 2012, the after a motion was put to the board, they overwhelmingly voted in favour of selling to Benham, who became sole owner.
What does Benham do differently?
The crudest way to quickly explain the model in place at FC Midtjylland and Brentford is Moneyball. The phrase comes from the book and movie of the same name which depicts the revolutionary approach Major League Baseball GM Billy Beane took to revolutionise his team, the Oakland Athletics.
With a tiny budget Beane recognised if his scouts and coaches copied the methods of the big teams, they would fail. Instead they relied heavily on statistical analysis to identify undervalued players they could acquire cheaply, as well as selling players they thought to be overvalued. (If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, do both after this.)
How does this translate to Denmark and England though? The management teams Benham has put in place are going about football management in a very anti-football manner, and it’s working brilliantly. As mentioned, Denmark is the testing ground. Determined as a country where attaining work permits for players would relatively easy, FC Midtjylland were purchased for £6.2m in July 2014. Rasmus Ankersen is chairman and certainly an unusual character in football. As well as being an ex-player and UEFA A-licensed coach, Ankersen is an author, entrepreneur and TED talk speaker. He’s taken a rather lateral-thinking approach to running the club.
The manger is not judged on their league position. No, instead the club has developed key performance indicators (KPIs) that they find to have a stronger correlation with long-term success. Essentially, they’ve run the club with logic and an overarching strategy underpinning all decisions.
Rasmus Ankersen is executing on the strategy, but it is Mathew Benham who is dictating it. In an interview with the Guardian, Ankersen recalls how analytical his owner is. When asking Benham if he thought Brentford would be promoted, Benham replied;
“There is a 42.3% chance that we will go up”
Having stated the odds, Brentford defied that 57.7% chance of failure and were promoted to the Championship. How did it feel for Mathew Benham?
Brentford have defied expectations this year and are hovering around the play-off spots in England’s second tier, They were in the news last month when it was announced that Bees manager Mark Warburton, who led them to promotion and on the current promotion push will leave this summer.
Why? Benham wants to implement a structure where the manager reports to a sporting director. Warburton also clashed with the owner in January, unwilling to bring in new players that may upset squad harmony. Mathew Benham is relentless in his quest. Warburton and assistant David Weir as well as sporting director Frank McParland will all leave.
The new system will employ a head coach as opposed to a manager. The head coach will have a strong say in player acquisitions and sales but no absolute veto. It’s a brave new world in Brentford.
What should we expect?
If the set-up in Denmark is anything to go by, Brentford will be a unique entity in English football. FC Midtjylland coaches rely heavily on technical analysis to the point that texts are sent to coaches at half-time advising them on what to tell players.
There is perhaps an unease that football can be so well choreographed amongst traditionalists. Teamwork of course trumps all but there is a certain romanticism in the impact a player can have, even a player’s flaws can be perceived as a plus, he likes to go to ground a lot can often be code for his positioning is dreadful and he needs to tackle often. Clubs like Brentford and FC Midtjylland put the system and numbers ahead of all else.
FC Midtjylland and Brentford both employ the work of sports analytics firm ‘e4talent’. The firm works heavily on analysis of shots in ‘the danger zone’ where 77% of Premier League goals are scored.
This preparation for life in the Premier League is not premature, it’s just good strategy. Their preparation has already paid dividends on set-pieces where FC Midtjylland have scored an average of 0.88 set-pieces a game this year. Clinical.
Brentford will begin from the summer onwards to mix traditional scouting with the use of statistics and mathematical modelling. This was outlined in their statement regarding Warburton’s impending departure.
As part of a remodelling of the club’s football management, a Head Coach will be appointed to work alongside a new Sporting Director. There will also be a new recruitment structure using a mixture of traditional scouting and other tools including mathematical modelling. As part of the new recruitment structure, the Head Coach will have a strong input in to the players brought in to the Club but not an absolute veto.
Like Billy Beane in Major League Baseball, the first to break down the walls is often left bloodied. Mark Benham challenges principles ‘football men’ live by. But his ideas have led to results in the testing grounds of Denmark.
His work with Matchbook and SmartOdds provide Brentford with a wealth of statistical knowledge to capitalise on. Will it work? Time will tell and Benham probably knows the exact percentage chance of success.
There’s no doubt, the quiet man from Slough is changing English football from the inside.
Sean Curtin, Pundit Arena.