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29 April 2024

The football club that data built

Brentford FC couldn’t outspend its Premier League rivals, so it decided to out-think them.

By Barney Horner

Every football club is a Ship of Theseus. If it changes players and coaches, owners and administrative staff, swaps colours, training facilities and stadiums, is it still the same club? Football teams are vessels of collective memory, points of connection with communities. They are maintained by supporters who load younger generations with their emotive history, both thrilling and desolate.

Brentford, like many teams, emerged from the late-19th-century middle class’s passion for codifying pastimes. Now a west London suburb, the town was then a busy industrial centre, built around its docks on the confluence of the Thames and Grand Junction Canal. But as the waterways were replaced by newer technologies, both the area and the club’s fortunes ebbed. Brentford FC reached a nadir in the 1970s and 1980s, in spite of mercurial talents such as Stan Bowles, who would warm up for games by sinking pints in one of the pubs close to the club’s home at Griffin Park.

Smart Money, Alex Duff’s history of the club, ranges nimbly from the town’s sulphurous, Victorian peak, to bookmaker dens in Bangkok, to Sam Allardyce gulping down energy drinks in sweltering Florida. But his real star is Matthew Benham, the man who, after making his fortune in the City, and then through professional gambling, acquired a controlling share of the club in 2012. By instilling a reverence for data analysis and other statistical wonkery, Benham took Brentford from the muddy lowlands of the Football League to the shiny echelons of the Premier League.

Benham was born in 1968 and graduated from Oxford. He became “a star derivatives trader”, according to Duff, by using mathematical modelling to take advantage of market volatility. He then moved into professional gambling, creating a betting research company called Smartodds in 2004. The company raked in millions from undervalued bets on loosely regulated Asian gambling markets. Benham realised that the wealth of data informing Smartodds’ bets might also help a football club. Used in the right way, it could be mined by Brentford to find value that no one else could see in new players and tactical approaches.

Statisticians across the world had already started working on the intellectual conundrum of how to measure football – in the 2010s there were “scores of academic papers on football to dissect”. Most recently, the quest to improve performance has led to “advanced player-tracking software” and machine learning that spots patterns that coaches can’t see. Last season, despite having smaller budgets than Premier League rivals, England’s most data-curious clubs, Brentford and Brighton, finished ninth and sixth, respectively.

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Yet gambling also has its losers. Duff neatly confronts this in his epilogue, about Brentford’s star striker Ivan Toney, who was fined £50,000 and banned from playing for eight months after breaking FA rules by placing 232 bets on football. The prevalence of gambling in football is astonishing. Over the Christmas period in 2017, the Daily Mail counted 322 ads from gambling companies during TV coverage of 26 Premier League games. Marketed “at young men with disposable cash”, as Duff morosely notes, “betting culture was more intertwined than ever with British football”.

Under their charismatic Danish manager, Thomas Frank, Brentford were promoted to the Premier League in 2021; it was the first time they had played in the top division since 1947. Brentford posted a record £25m profit that season, the first financial return for Benham after putting more than £100m into the club. Yet he was a “relative pauper” compared with the owners of the other 19 Premier League clubs – which include two Gulf state sovereign wealth funds.

In the economic disparities that now characterise the highest level of football, less wealthy clubs need to be creative to compete. The motto was, according to one Brentford director, “If we can’t outspend other clubs, we have to out-think them.” Yet as Duff notes, the correlation between higher wage bills and on-pitch performance is almost unbreakable.

The Premier League has become less competitive in the past decade, as the richest clubs get richer and pull away even from middle-ranking top-division teams. Perhaps it is no surprise that, just before Smart Money was published, Benham was reported to be seeking new investment in Brentford. “We must not stand still,” a club spokesperson said. The next planks in the ship of Brentford could be made of foreign investment.

Smart Money: The Fall and Rise of Brentford FC
Alex Duff
Constable, 336pp, £22

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[See also: The rise of the worried well]

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This article appears in the 01 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Forward March