There are plenty of football clubs that are run poorly.
You only need to look at the huge debts racked up by outfits such as Barcelona to see that all that glitters isn’t always golden. Like many other leading European clubs, they will need to sell players to balance the books in the years to come.
It’s always refreshing when a football club doesn’t take the shortcut to success and instead attempts to run a viable business, by only spending what they can afford, implementing succession planning for when players are sold or managers are sacked, and so on.
Matthew Benham has been the brains behind Brentford’s rise from League One to Premier League debutants – the Bees will enjoy their first season in the English top-flight in the 2021/22 season.
He’s a truly interesting man. Graduating with a physics degree from Oxford University, the lifelong Brentford fan made his money from gambling – think sports betting rather than online casino games.
Benham was not afraid to invest in his first love when they needed some extra financial backing, but this is not a tale of a club spending its way to the top. On the contrary, Brentford has been smarter on the pitch with their preparations and analysis. They’ve also been leaner in the transfer market, having made a serious profit on a number of signings, and have not been afraid to cash in when the money is right.
The Bees will need to upset the odds again to survive their first campaign in the Premier League, but with the brains of Benham overseeing the operation, it’s impossible to know what this club could go on to achieve.
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The Numbers Game
Despite holding down jobs at some rather prestigious institutes, including Bank of America, Benham’s love of football and numbers was always likely to tug on his heartstrings.
He jumped at the chance to work for a British bookmaker early in the 2000s, where he would bump into Tony Bloom – another number-mad football fan who has led Brighton & Hove Albion to the Premier League thanks to his shrewd ownership.
After a few years compiling prices, Benham believed that he had found ways to exploit inefficiencies in the betting markets using his own proprietary data – and so he set up his own company, SmartOdds, to do exactly that.
Before long, professional gamblers all over the world were paying to take advantage of Benham’s game-changing approach to evaluating football matches.
The data he compiled would soon become very useful, as Benham was to take a far more hands-on role in the beautiful game.
The Main Man
The Londoner’s childhood love of Brentford would stop being unrequited in 2009.
At that point, the Bees were doing okay on the pitch but were in financial disarray off the pitch, so Benham agreed to invest his SmartOdds fortune into steadying the ship.
However, rather than taking a background role, Benham wanted to be formally involved with the running of the club, and he set about helping Brentford to operate more intelligently, enabling them to compete with the bigger outfits in League One.
Within a couple of seasons, the Griffin Park side had consolidated, and by 2013/14, they had been promoted to the Championship.
Meanwhile, Benham wanted to purchase a second club to test out his theories of how to run a slick operation, and in the end, he opted for the Danish team FC Midtjylland, acquiring a majority stake in 2014.
As well as being an excellent Scrabble score, FC Midtjylland had just the right amount of potential that Benham was looking for, and he started to implement a number of measures that would also prove successful at Brentford. Benham used data analytics to identify new players, invested in specialist coaches for set pieces, and applied the principles of financial management to football.
FC Midtjylland has since won three Danish Premier League titles and reached the group phase of the Champions League for the first time in their history.
Back in England, Brentford was progressing nicely using Benham’s ethos, and after a series of close shaves in the play-offs, they finally achieved the dream – promotion to the Premier League – in 2020/21.
Invest for Success
If you play games such as Football Manager, the chances are that you spend all of the transfer budget available to you and choose to forget about the consequences.
Many real-life clubs are run like that, it seems, but Benham has instilled a clever way of working at Brentford that is more akin to investing in assets, rather than buying footballers. The ‘buy low, sell high’ credo of Wall Street traders has essentially been the way that Brentford has operated ever since Benham came on board.
In the past decade, Brentford has made substantial profits on a number of their signings, including Ollie Watkins (£24m), Saïd Benrahma (£19.2m), Neal Maupay (£18.2m), and Andre Gray (£10.5m).
Benham has introduced the concept of compounding to the football transfer market, only spending what is made through player sales, a concept that very few other clubs have chosen to adopt.
In the end, you suspect that he – and Brentford and FC Midtjylland – will have the last laugh, and whether the Bees thrive in the top flight this term or not, at least they will be well placed to make an instant return.
Benham’s transfer policy is such that he won’t splash out huge sums on big-name players, and instead will look for inefficiencies in the market that will enable him to profit further down the line. Perhaps the likes of Kristoffer Ajer and Frank Onyeka will be the next low-key gems turned to gold dust in this corner of London.
As most have learned along the way, it wouldn’t be a good idea to ignore Brentford’s chances of success.