This article originally appeared in Future Sport magazine. Click here to read the 2021 edition.

Statistics are an increasingly valuable aspect of sport, from spread betting identifying young football talent. For the likes of Championship side Brentford, the method famously employed by owner Matthew Benham, is a closely guarded secret. Future Sport decided to step into the unknown and find out why it could be the model of the future….

The David versus Goliath story is one of the oldest in sport. After all, everybody loves an underdog. But what if you no longer want to be David, yet don’t have the means to become Goliath?

For those in football who don’t have deep pockets, the alternative routes to success are few, and the success stories themselves even fewer. However, Matthew Benham’s purchase of Brentford FC in 2012 may change that. The club’s success over the last decade is well written – promotion to the Championship, a new stadium, new training ground, a seemingly endless supply chain of young talent and a play-off final appearance – but perhaps their biggest success will be if their unique recruitment models catches on.

Owner of SmartOdds, a company that uses a stats-based model to provide advice to bettors and customers alike, Benham and his team have been employing a similar tactic to player recruitment at the West London club ever since. In essence, it’s lots and lots of data crunching to unearth undervalued talent.

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The club crunch the numbers to find under-performing talent with a high ceiling, develop them and then sell on for a high mark-up. Sounds simple, but the club’s numbers go deeper. They look at different teams and different leagues to identify markets they believe to have a higher level than others. Nothing is off the table.

“It’s not that data tells you who to pick, data can tell you where to look,” the club’s director of football Rasmus Ankersen has previously said.

For a club like Brentford, who have one of the smallest playing budgets in the Championship, this model enables them to be highly competitive. Over the last five years the club have sold players for a combined value of £150m, including Ollie Watkins and Said Benrahma in the recent summer transfer window for a combined estimated £50m. The huge profit made on players has helped the club recently open the brand new Brentford Community Stadium, but also reinvest into the team to remain competitive.

Lee Dykes, the club’s head of recruitment, told Future Sport: “Matthew will tell you himself that we never want to be in a position where we have to outspend our competitors – we out think them. That’s why it’s such an innovative club and everything recruitment wise is geared towards that philosophy.”

Fed up with losing their best academy talent to bigger clubs in London, and in response to the Premier League’s elite player performance plan (EPPP), the club controversially scrapped their academy in 2016. Instead, they introduced a ‘B’ team model which hoovered up released academy players from around London and further afield. Like all player recruitment there are varying levels of success, but for a club like Brentford the financial rewards are worth it if a player makes that step-up to the first team.

Brentford left their historic home, Griffin Park, at the end of the 2019/20 season.

Lee, a GIS delegate on the VSI MSc Sports Directorship, added: “The football club wins because the asset value of the player goes up. But as you saw on the pitch last season, we added key experience on the pitch [to the first team] as well and we’re focused heavily on what a successful team looks like. There’s been some good investment to achieve a very strong football team and I believe we were unlucky not be promoted.”

Benham’s model proving a success at Brentford won’t be a surprise to anyone who has followed his career over the years. In 2014 he acquired Danish Superliga side FC Midtjylland – one year later they won the championship for the very first time. The model has been closely followed by a number of people in the game, none more so than Will Daniels at Spreadex.

A senior sports trader and former colleague of Brentford’s other director of football, Phil Giles, Will has been implementing his own methods over the last couple of seasons at League One side AFC Wimbledon as a consultant analyst.

A lifelong Dons fans, Will explained to Future Sport in more detail how that crossover between spread betting and football analysis worked.

He told us: “In the gambling world every decision has to be justifiable and you have to use a rounded selection of knowledge. It’s not just good fortune that guys like Matthew Benham and Tony Bloom [Brighton & Hove Albion chairman] win a lot of money on gambling – that comes from a lot of hard work and a huge number of analytics from a huge number of people. So those skills transfer really nicely into football because you can combine as many different information sources as possible to try and achieve the right answer.”

Will Daniels has been implementing his own analytical methods over the last couple of seasons at League One side AFC Wimbledon as a consultant analyst.

Will, himself a GIS delegate, added: “I feel that the knowledge you get from both analysing football, and the number of contacts and experts you get in studying the game, has given both Brighton and Brentford a huge boost over the years. I don’t think they’d mind me saying that they’re not being geniuses in what they’re doing, they’re just making really informed and justifiable decisions with the hard work behind them.”

That’s what Will is now trying to achieve at AFC Wimbledon, he says. The club recently moved back to their original home at Plough Lane, nearly 30 years after their last game there. For the club now it’s about climbing the leagues in an informed way.

Will said that the club must now think innovatively. “The trading platform is the most viable option for Wimbledon if we’re going to get above League One level,” he says. “It’s about trying to use a lot of creativity in the way that we look at players and the way we buy and sell.”

For Lee and Brentford, they’re convinced they’re on the road to the Premier League and looking at recent evidence it’s hard to argue. The club were just 90 minutes away from the top flight in last season’s delayed campaign, and despite selling two of the feared ‘BMW’ strike force in the summer, they’re expecting to challenge once again for promotion.

Lee added: “Everybody that works for Brentford is very excited at the moment because they’re such a bold club. If you look at the structure of how a football club should look, Matthew, Phil and Rasmus have the club, in my mind, how a lot of clubs should be run.”