Ten years ago, Brentford fans basked in the northeastern sun when a 2-0 win over Darlington sealed the West Londoners’ promotion to League Two.
“We’re too big for this league… we’re the Barcelona of the lower leagues” was one of the many songs sung that day. Fast forward 12 years and they are no longer the big fish in the small pond – quite the contrary.
The Bees secured promotion to the top league by beating Swansea in the Championship Play-Off final on Saturday. Not only did they become the 50th team to ever play in the Premier League, but they also became one of the smallest teams in size to ever do so.
Brentford achieve Premier League promotion after win over Swansea in final Play-Off
Just 12 years ago the Bees played League Two football – two years after its financial ruin
Tucked away in the suburbs of London, Brentford is overshadowed by West London rivals Chelsea, Fulham and Queen’s Park Rangers. Saturday’s events in the football world were a case in point: Chelsea won the Champions League title just hours after Brentford’s best hour in the Wembley sun.
But the Bees have their own unique story of how they got into the Premier League: no dramatic foreign investment or one-off miracles to get them out of the championship. Only one owner – a fan of the club – and some successful math formulas.
It took Brentford five seasons to get out of League One after their promotion from the fourth tier in 2009, but the ambition to move beyond that stage started halfway through that period.
Matthew Benham (center) is behind their rapid rise
In 2012, Brentford fan Matthew Benham became the majority shareholder of the club, having grown up in the deep west of London. The Bees nearly went into financial ruin in 2007, coinciding with their relegation to the fourth tier.
Businessman Benham came to the rescue of the club after making his money with gambling and data analytics company SmartOdds, then kick-starting his mathematical recruiting philosophy at the club.
Two years after taking over the West Londoners, Benham also took over Denmark’s Midtjylland and tried his hand at data analytics there. The club would use data and mathematical software to analyze which players would help the Danish club win more matches. Therefore, when those players were signed, the results would improve.
Rather, it’s a unique way to achieve success, more commonly used by clubs looking to outperform against higher-reputed rivals. Tony Bloom’s Brighton is operating on a similar strategy, as is Swedish side Ostersunds – the former club of current Albion boss Graham Potter.
Benham tested his data recruitment philosophy at Midtjylland, who are now multiple Danish competition winners
Within one season of Benham’s blueprint, Midtjylland was the Danish national champion. It ultimately affected Brentford, who was already high in the championship in 2015.
Chasing promotion in the Premier League under now-QPR boss Mark Warburton in 2015, the Bees were poised for their highest-ever league finish in half a century. But Benham had seen his plan work in Denmark and copied it to Brentford, regardless of their existing success on the field.
When Warburton refused to cooperate with the plan, he was fired, even though he had taken them off the top flight within two wins.
Benham has fired Mark Warburton (right) who refused to join the data philosophy
It was a gamble on the part of the Brentford owner, but that’s how he made his money. Benham appointed Midtjylland chairman Rasmus Ankersen as director of football, while data guru Phil Giles later joined to help analyze the mathematical equations.
Still, things didn’t go to plan initially: their first mathematically-influenced manager appointment Marinus Dijhuizen lasted just three months, with interim Lee Carsley helping keep the ship stable against a return to League One.
Benham then turned to Dean Smith as the Bees’ next manager, who, by leaving League One’s Walsall in fourth place, showed that he was deeply rooted in the over-the-top philosophy the Brentford owner was trying to emulate .
After a few false starts, star Dean Smith was considered a success story at Brentford
The development of the West Londoners under Smith was slow and steady, in part because of Brentford’s player recruitment philosophy. The data brought Brentford to the table, according to Benham’s predictions, but the rise of the Bees meant bigger clubs would squeeze their best players.
But the mathematical planning meant that Brentford had data-driven backup options when the bigger clubs came along. For example, John Egan left for Sheffield United in 2018 and Ezri Konsa was signed up with the money raised by the transfer with the Blades.
When Aston Villa won Konsa for five times the amount Brentford had signed him for the year before, Ethan Pinnock came in for £3million, who just sacked them to the Premier League.
The most notable example of this strategy is up front, when Brentford lost Ollie Watkins to Aston Villa for £33 million last summer after scoring just 26 goals for the Championship Play-Off finalists.
The data shows that Neal Maupay and Ollie Watkins (left and right) helped the bees grow up front
BRENTFORD’S DATA-DRIVEN MASTERCLASS TRANSFER
Ollie Watkins: Signed for £1.8m, sold to Aston Villa for £30m
Said Benrahma: Signed for £2.7million, sold to West Ham for £25million
Neal Maupay: signed for £ 1.6 million, sold to Brighton for £ 20 million
Ezri Konsa: Signed for £2.5m, sold to Aston Villa for £12m
Chris Mepham: academy player, sold for £ 12m
Scott Hogan: Signed for £ 750,000, sold to Aston Villa for £ 10 million
Andre Gray: signed for £ 500,000, sold to Burnley for £ 13 million
Fresh off the back of a Wembley defeat by Scott Parker’s Fulham and without their main man on top, the Bees’ records showed that Peterborough’s Ivan Toney was the man to get in.
The striker scored 33 goals in their successful Championship campaign and cost a fifth of the money the Bees received for Watkins. Take a look at Brentford’s lineup against Swansea and you’ll see players signed to replace significant spending.
Mathias Jensen came in when Romaine Sawyers went to West Brom, Henrik Dalsgaard was signed when Maxime Colin left for Birmingham. Goalkeeper David Raya arrived as Daniel Bentley chose Bristol City when it looked like the Robins were moving up before Brentford did.
The second part of the unique recruitment phase surrounds the academy. When Brentford closed their academy in 2016, many believed it had collapsed for financial reasons.
However, it was the opposite, with Brentford choosing to have a lone B team that would play friendly matches with other academies. It would consist of a mix of young players to suit the model – usually players who have been let go by larger clubs at a young age.
Players who made it through include Finland’s semi-final hero Marcus Forss, Bournemouth defender Chris Mepham and Leeds midfielder Ian Poveda. Within the current set-up, ex-Manchester United midfielder Max Haygarth is considered a future star in the making.
Brentford’s B team got them on the field through striker Marcus Forss (above)
A recent stumbling block is the new Brexit rules for attracting young players, meaning that foreigners like Forss would be more difficult or possibly impossible to sign due to the criteria that must be met by the work permit rules.
But with Brentford’s recent promotion and the £180m prize money that will accompany Premier League football through the play-offs, they can now target more experienced young players who would need transfer fees.
In addition, it appears that Brentford’s unique recruitment policy works well for both managers and players.
Former Brondby manager Thomas Frank was brought in as assistant manager in early 2016 when results were too unpredictable for Brentford’s liking. When Smith was poached by Aston Villa in the 2018-19 season, Frank was installed as the main man.
The transition from the Danish manager to life at Brentford has been seamless. Frank’s two full seasons at the head of Brentford have led to top-six finishes – now he has his side a chance in the big time.
Thomas Frank (right) was promoted to Smith’s (middle) successor when he left for Aston Villa
Frank led the Bees to a first-ever Premier League campaign after two and a half years
Brentford has finally reached Benham’s final game of Premier League football – the task he aspired to when he first took over the club nearly a decade ago.
But the analysis doesn’t stop for the bees, especially this summer. Top scorer Ivan Toney is a wanted man regardless of his promotion and Watkins’ success at Villa this season shows that the 25-year-old can be a worthwhile investment.
Meanwhile, it looks like Emiliano Marcondes, the championship play-off final, will be leaving the club on a free transfer, while Raya is Arsenal’s long-term goal in the goalkeeping division.
If those players leave, they must be replaced. However, recent history shows that Brentford will have no problem with that.