Matthew Benham Exclusive Interview: Lessons Learned and Signing For The Future
We think it is fair to say – after the heady heights of reaching the play-offs last season, this campaign hasn’t exactly gone to plan.
Yes, we can look back at the fact that most people would have been happy with survival last season, but in the end we did far, far better than that. Shouldn’t we simply be happy competing in the Championship after a lifetime’s failure and disappointments though?
Well, as we know, football fans don’t work like that. The fact is, as hard as you try to remain philosophical, it is almost inevitable that the expectation stakes rise and fans want their team to perform to a similar standard as last season, with some even demanding we go one step further.
We would be lying if we said we haven’t been a little worried over the last few weeks here at Beesotted. But as you are aware, we always try to keep some balance and perspective to our arguments. We know things are rarely only black or white, good or bad, brilliant or awful. We try to look at the long-term, bigger picture, rather than react wildly from result to result, as difficult as that sometimes is.
And instead of threatening to give up supporting the club every time we lose a couple on the bounce, we realise a balanced, pro-active outlook is the best course of action when putting your arguments forward – if you want to be taken seriously at least. We’ve come a long, long way in a fairly short space of time, and that can’t be forgotten. But that’s not to say everything is always rosy in the garden. And the worry beads have certainly been rattling of late.
We were very vocal in how shambolic the club were in dealing with Pitch-gate, when Brentford ended up having to relay another new pitch shortly after the start of the season after a disastrous one was deemed unplayable and a match had to be postponed. As for Marinus, we were excited about him. He was left-field. An unknown. He was a nice guy. And we welcomed him into the fold. We took him out for a few beers and he even signed to play for our Sunday League fans’ team. To be honest, we were quite shocked at how quickly the club got rid of his services. But, after hearing the back-story, we understood why that was. We were surprised that the club made such a huge error in hiring him – but recognise they were also quite brave in remedying the situation so quickly.
After being Brentford fans for as long as we have, we have often had to be understanding of the reasons for selling players. But just like everyone else, we always find it frustrating when a decent player departs for pastures new. But at least not for a pittance these days.
We were confused by the Carsley appointment… then disappointed… then excited… then disappointed again.
Admittedly, we were more cautious when Dean Smith arrived. He started off well before tailing off and, just three months into the job, he already has people calling for his head. Personally, we are still waiting to be convinced. We’re certainly not at the stage of slagging him off as, to be fair, he hasn’t brought his own players on board as yet. But results can be described as being mixed at best to date, and that is is edging towards a generous description. But still, it is very early days. And as long as we get the points to survive, is there really any appetite for yet more upheaval this season?
We were mighty hacked of with Tarkowski. Whatever was going on in his private life, there is a word we use at Beesotted… MANNERS! Unfortunately, for whatever reason, we believe he lacked them and let himself, his teammates, and, more importantly, the fans down.
Toumani, like most of you reading this, we’ve always liked. But we knew he wanted away since before the season started, so his departure to Leeds was not really a surprise – and we hinted that he would be off on more than one podcast months before the actual event.
Then there was the inability to tie up any players in the transfer window… in particular, George Evans. The Manchester City loanee, who played for Dean Smith at Walsall, was apparently a ‘dead cert’ deal, but we didn’t manage to get him over the line… Brentford are a weakened team. They are certainly not stronger after this transfer window. We lost to lowly Rotherham and bottom dogs Charlton … and now we’re looking over our shoulders again.
Surely we’re too good to go down.
With a tricky match at QPR imminent, all of a sudden, there’s plenty of food for thought again. Serious thought at that.
So, with a crescendo of alarm bells going off in our ear’oles, and with the usual social media meltdowns taking place, Beesotted thought that instead of trying to second-guess the answers, or stoking the fires that are burning, we would go straight to the source.
We asked Brentford Football Club owner, Matt Benham, if he would give the lowdown on many of the areas of concern, and ask his thoughts on a host of topics concerning our club moving forwards.
And, fair play to him, Matthew arranged to meet us at the SmartOdds offices for an incredibly rare face to face interview.
Here’s what we discussed.
Dave Lane and Billy Grant
Do you think we have gone backwards in the last 12 months?
Yes we have – simply because we’re lower in the league than we were before. On the pitch, the level of the team isn’t where it was 12 months ago. But off the pitch, we have a much more sustainable structure. The club isn’t operating anywhere near the loss it was operating at 12 months ago. Plus we’re a year nearer to the new stadium, which will gives us an opportunity to compete. But let’s be blunt, we all would have hoped this season would have gone better than it has.
Where do you think it has gone wrong?
It was always going to be difficult. With FFP, we were always going to have to sell players. Even if you replace players, it will always take the new ones time to bed in. It’s not controversial to say that we bought in too many continental players all at once. There needed to be a balance, and the lack of balance didn’t help the players coming in. Jota worked, but he came into a stable side. We hoped we could replicate that last summer. We tried hard to get League One, League Two and Conference players – the type of players that have done well for us in the past. In retrospect, we should have tried harder. But it’s not always that easy.
There was a lot of instability at the club over the summer. It was very, very hard for anyone to negotiate that. In the first couple of months, there we was a combination of issues. We had an insane injury crisis – for one reason or another. Then Marinus and the team just weren’t compatible. It was very difficult for the new players to come into an unstable environment and perform.
To be honest, even if the environment were more stable, it would have been tough for these players. It’s a massive cultural shock to come into the Championship. It’s easier for a foreign player to settle into the Premier League than it is for them to come into the Championship because it is so physical.
Was there always a big chance of this season being less of a success than the season before?
It comes back to budget. Once we went up, and the players became aware that if they were playing for any of our Championship rivals, they would get paid more money, we had a job on our hands keeping certain players happy. Our structure is much more bonus-heavy, which hasn’t helped us.
But, in hindsight, we obviously changed far too many things all at once. Very quickly we realised, for one reason or the other, that Marinus Dijkhuizen wasn’t going to be our guy. But to be fair to Marinus, he was also dealt a bad hand. Even Pep Guardiola would not have coped in that situation. Such a vast turnover of players. Massive upheaval.
Quite simply, we tried to change too much too quickly. Lesson learned.
We didn’t do well with Marinus as manager. Carsley rejuvenated the players – he made the Bees play like last season – he also put passion back in side. What made such a difference in the two management styles?
With Marinus there was a huge cultural divide between him and the players. Let me give you an anecdote. In the 1988 European Championship game between England and Holland, the one when Van Basten scored a hat trick, the England players were in the tunnel (Butcher, Pearce etc) winding themselves up saying “We’re gonna kill them”. They looked at Gullit, Rijykaard, Van Basten. They were just chilled. Sniggering at the English players going mad. The English didn’t understand why they were so relaxed. That’s the classic Dutch way – to stay relaxed. The players don’t get so uptight. Marinus did exactly that. It was the Dutch way. Not saying too much. Not animated. Our players weren’t used to that.
Carsley is more your ‘British-type’ manager. His key selling point was that he was very passionate and able to motivate players. With Marinus, there were lots of disagreements about training intensity. His training intensity was not suited to the Championship. With Lee, we had two horrible performances against Birmingham and Derby, before an International break, that proved to be almost like a pre- season. There was a lot of improvement from then on. The players reacted to that.
Beesotted asked Mathew about the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’… Warburton’s departure and the fall-out that followed.
A lot of people were demanding answers at the time of the Mark Warburton newspaper story leak, and wanted to know exactly what had happened. But it was the middle of the season and it was impossible for me to come out and explain my point of view. That could have only ever have been interpreted as me slagging off a manager who was still there. To be honest, even when a manager has gone, like Marinus, I don’t think it’s really right to discuss everything that went on either. It’s not my style. Other owners may do it, but it doesn’t work for me.
After finishing fifth last season, and being recognised as having a hugely talented squad, was it inevitable that people would come in for our players? But with FFP, and without a bottomless pit of cash, how can we break that cycle as, inevitably, we will always be weaker after being plundered?
It’s not necessarily true you always becoming weaker. Last season – we lost Forshaw and Donaldson and we subsequently brought new players in. You always try to buy in players who are better than the ones you lost. The fact is you don’t get it bang-on correct all of the time.
But you are right in that some of the players who do well for us will inevitably get sold. It’s a fact of life for us. Even for teams like Arsenal it’s true. That doesn’t mean you can’t keep progressing in the football world. Southampton did so after losing a raft of excellent players.
You said Brentford’s recruitment hasn’t been as good as last season?
We underestimated how hard it would be to cope with the Championship. We made assumptions. As I said, we looked at how well Jota did when he came in and assumed the transition would be the same. But he was coming into a stable environment. But also, to a large extent, you don’t know what you are going to get. Over the past five or six years, we’ve had plenty of hits, but there have been plenty of misses as well.
Do you think it is fair that Rasmus and Phil are becoming demonized in some quarters?
No, it’s not fair. It’s a team effort. Whoever the head coach is, he has always been fully involved in player recruitment and always gives input as to what type of player he is looking for. There has not been a single player coming in where the head coach has said, “I don’t fancy him”.
You say Brentford has a mix between traditional scouting and analytics. Are we on our own, or are we similar to other clubs?
Many clubs do the same as we do. It’s about how you acquire and use the data though. We made a decision to mention the fact that we would be using mathematics in our Press Release after the Warburton scenario, however, everyone then came to the conclusion that our methods consisted only of maths and nothing else.
It’s like the story about me picking the team, which isn’t true. No matter how many times we tell people that we also scout players traditionally, that we spend a lot of time watching players, it will come back that we just use maths. It’s become like a zombie that we can’t kill. But what can you do, eh?
You have to remember, our revenue is very low. So we can’t ‘spend, spend, spend’ like other teams do. It’s very easy to pick up players with 200-plus appearances in the Championship and Premier League, who’re on £30k a week. But we can’t do that.
Look at Derby – signing 32-year-olds on huge wages with no resale value. Financially that doesn’t make sense for us. We have to try and be different. Which means we are going to have some misses as well as hits. And the fact that we mentioned analytics in our press release means that people made the assumption that we were going to be perfect. And we get hammered when we make a mistake. More hammered than say a Derby… or a Leeds… or a Reading.
But it all comes back to the same point – it wasn’t sustainable for us to continue making such heavy losses as we were last season, and we have to continue trying to find ways to succeed by doing things differently.
Does having to explain analytics to football people all the time work against you?
Maths has played a role in the past five years. However, there has always been a mix between maths and traditional coaching. Analytics has been responsible for identifying some of our most successful players – Andre Gray, Moses, Jota – these were all driven by the analytics side initially. But analytics are one part of a very big process.
I’m fully aware that it’s a common assumption that every player from last season that didn’t work was down to analytics… and every player that did work was down to having great contacts. That’s not quite the case though. Take the case of Andre Gray, he was going to come to us regardless. We identified him as a great potential player through the system we used and we signed him.
The little black book theory is rubbish. The idea that we wouldn’t have known about players like Andre Gray if it were not for someone’s contact book just isn’t the case. But it is true that Dean Smith has some very good relationships with certain Premier League clubs. So if we were trying to get their players in on loan that could be an advantage. I’m also aware of the rumour that Premier League clubs wouldn’t loan us their players this season. That simply is untrue.
To stay one step ahead of the game, do we not always have to go progressively more left-field, by scouring to the Albanian Third Divisions?
(Smiles) No, in fact we’re looking at more homegrown talent for the summer.
But is it becoming increasingly difficult for Brentford to pull off some of the ‘under the radar’ scoops with other teams now aware of our movements, and with clubs coming in with bigger wage offers at the eleventh hour to scupper deals?
You’re talking about George Evans from Man City, who played for Dean Smith at Walsall. He was a player we would have been trying to sign even if Dean hadn’t come to Brentford. We thought we were looking good to clinch that deal, yes. But it wasn’t a simple case of us being in for the player, then Reading coming in to nab him. Brian McDermott had been tracking Evans for a long time too – he was a real admirer from early on.
Are we also now in the situation that any agent worth his corn will say to a rival club, ‘my player is great, Brentford are in for him… but offer another £5k per week and he’s yours?’
Sometimes. But I’m not too concerned about that.
The try before you buy system – where we brought players in on loan from Premier League clubs on loan before buying them – has worked so well for Brentford over the past four or five years (Forshaw, Bidwell, Dean, Judge etc). Is that a method we are using less these days?
No, that’s not the case at all. We have John Swift and Sergi Canos on trial with us from Chelsea and Liverpool. We’ve tried them, we like them, and perhaps we’ll try to buy them. Both are extremely skilful young players – both are still very much learning – but there’s lots and lots of potential.
Wouldn’t it be easier to alter the wage structure to accommodate the demands of want-away players. Or do you consider that to be risking the long-term stability of the club?
If a player knows he can make three, four or five times the basic wage elsewhere, than he can with us, it is always going to be difficult – but what we can demonstrate to potential new signings is that if they come to Brentford, and excel, then it can be a springboard for their careers. Look at what it did for Andre, Moses and Forshaw. When they come to a team like us, they also have more chance of getting regular first team football. Recruitment is never easy though.
Did you not invest in January because you didn’t think we could go up?
We did try to invest in January, but we were far enough out of the play-offs to mean that it would have been unwise to spend huge sums at that time. The money people were asking for players who were out of contract in a few months was astronomical.
We have to be realistic. We have the lowest revenue in Championship by far. When we go Lionel Road in two or three years time, we will still have low income in Championship terms. Just not as low as we are now. The big myth of last season was the squad was run on a shoestring. In reality, the total first team budget was mid-table. Something had to give. We were several million pounds over FFP. Even selling Andre Gray wasn’t enough to bring us up under FFP. Also, it’s not sustainable to have a club running with £15m losses.
From appointing Marinus, then hearing some of the names linked as potential replacement managers (including candidates from Spain and Germany) some people are saying that you went quite ‘safe’ when appointing Dean Smith. Was that a change in tact from where we had previously been heading?
Maybe… I think we had realised that having a foreign manager, or one without any connection to the English game, could be tricky. With Uwe, he’d played here and he knew the game really well… Marinus not so much so. But Dean isn’t a traditional manager out of the Dave Bassett mould (laughs).
Did you decide that was a time to pull back from taking risks?
No, there’s always a time for risks. But Dean was the right man for the job. He’s fully aware that Brentford is a long-term project, and we are a team in transition at the moment.
Dean Smith hasn’t had the opportunity of bringing in any players as yet. He is playing with someone else’s team, or what’s left of it. How important is it for Dean to put his stamp on the team – does Dean come into the office saying he wants to sign ‘Peter Jones from Hereford’? What input will he have in the next phase of recruitment?
It works both ways. Sometimes he comes to us and says “I really think we should look at this guy” and other times its the other way around. Sometimes it happens at the same time – where we both go to each other. That’s the ideal situation. Essentially, this coming window, Dean will have as much say as your average manager in England at any club.
What if Dean Smith looks at a name on a list of players your filters have identified and says ‘not for me’?
Then it becomes a conversation. You wouldn’t expect a player to be knocked back without knowing why. It is very unlikely that we would buy a player that the head coach really didn’t want.
Dean Smith is coming under a lot of pressure due to the fluctuating form and the level of intensity in some performances.
I’m really, really happy with Dean. He’s come into a pretty difficult situation. When he arrived, various players were disgruntled and were looking to move onto other clubs, with Tarky and Toums eventually leaving. He’s also had to handle various young players who are fairly new to the team. I think he’s done well to keep things together.
Bees used to play without fear, but against Charlton, they looked like a team scared to make a mistake.
Not that I noticed. It was just a bad performance. These things happen. It’s fine margins. If Sergi scores early in the second half it would have been a different game. Players are encouraged to express themselves at all times.
But we are missing that spark now.
Again, these things happen in football. It ebbs and flows. A couple of weeks ago we played absolutely fantastically against Wolves. Its just a very, very young team and we haven’t quite found the way to make the puzzle fit perfectly. Yet.
What does Dean think about the negativity?
He’s been around the block. Team loses a game: fans give the manager a bollocking. Team does well: fans are happy. He’s fully aware that it’s a long-term project and it’s a squad in transition.
Lessons learned and the future
What lessons learned over the past twelve months will help to make the club stronger in your view?
I guess the biggest lesson is to not try and change too much at once at an English football club.
Looking forwards, Brentford have got a very important summer ahead of us, and you say you have learned things that could put the club in better stead?
Obviously we are still some time away from the transfer window opening again. But there will be more of an emphasis on homegrown players coming in during the summer. However, just to be clear, we were looking in the English lower leagues last summer too.
So I would expect two or three players to come in from the lower leagues, plus a similar number from top Premier League teams on loan. And as for the others, who knows at this point?
We must be looking to sign a new striker though?
That’s a difficult one, as I think we’re all hoping that Scott Hogan recovers and becomes the goal-scorer we know he can be. Everyone is fully behind him.
It is also fair to say that none of the current three strikers have ‘made the position their own’. All three have shown in flashes that there is something exciting there, but without enough consistency. It is something we will assess at the end of the season.
But looking back to when Andre Gray had been with us for three months, he was getting slated by many Brentford fans on online forums, with many demanding he was still non-League quality. Also one year after signing Clayton Donaldson, some fans were claiming he was the worst player we had ever signed.
What can Brentford fans expect between now and the first ball of next season being kicked?
Well barring a disaster we’ll be in the Championship, a lot of the young players will get more game time, and I hope we will be in a more stable position at the start of the new season. As I said, we’ve identified quite a few players and potential signings.
You are running several businesses apart from Brentford, you must be looking at that balance between sustainability and a Bolton Wanderers-like bottomless financial pit scenario?
The fact that Lionel Road has been delayed so much has been frustrating. When I first became involved with he club, around ten years ago, we were talking about the new stadium possibly being used as a venue for the 2012 Olympics, but it has drifted further and further away.
In the Championship that stadium could potentially bring in £4.5m a year. But realistically, until then, either we get into the Premier League and things become easier because of the TV deal money… Or we have to cut our cloth accordingly… which unfortunately includes having to accept big bids for our best players from time to time.
So do you feel we could get to the Premier League before going to Lionel Road. In the same way Bournemouth have?
Yes I do. But it would be easier when we are at Lionel Road due to the finances involved. But we will give it everything to go up. As long as it makes financial sense of course.
When you first took over the club, when we were still rattling buckets, if you told people up front: “I’m going to take over the club. I intend to change the structure to allow a sporting director and a coach as well as using a mixture of analytics and traditional scouting methods. Plus I’ll be putting in around £100m over 4-5 years”, so fans knew what to expect, do you think you would be coming in for less flack than you are from some people at the moment?
Look, there’s only so much reassurance you can give some people. Maybe… it was easier to going into FC Midtjylland (the other club that Benham owns) and make changes than it has been at Brentford. But it was the fact that I had not been so directly involved in the foreground at Brentford that has made it tricky. But honestly, it is no big deal. I’m not sitting here thinking ‘Boo-hoo I wish that some people would stop having a go at me.’ I would rather them stop having a go at the players and manager, though, because that’s not going to help anyone.
Has what has happened at Brentford over the past year, for better and for worse, affected your long-term ambitions or aspirations for the club or your involvement?
No, not really. The only time I found it particularly unpleasant was the final three months of last season. But this season has been fine. At certain points it did feel that if anything could go wrong, it did go wrong. The pitch. The injuries. The managerial changes. I have to admit, when I got back home after the Birmingham home defeat and found out that Lee (Carsley) had said he didn’t want the job at the press conference I had to laugh. What else could I do at that point?
But that was simply a case of Lee being hugely principled. He genuinely didn’t want to be a manager and he hated the thought of being seen as one of those coaches that stabs the previous manager in the back.
But it was only the final part of last season that made me feel like staying away from the training ground and the dressing room – that wasn’t a pleasant time for me.
So you’re not currently lying awake at night questioning what the hell you’re doing still involved with Brentford Football Club?
No. This season has been a lot more manageable than last season.
I’m sure you’re only too aware that bad results give fuel to more and more negativity?
I just want some fans to give the team a break. As I’ve said, we have a really young team (average age 24) who are genuinely trying to play good football. I also think Dean Smith deserves a break too. The players will continue to give their all in training and during the matches, but they should be able to do that without the crowd being on their backs. If you want to boo at the end of the game, then go ahead. But it doesn’t help matters when fans boo during the match.
We’re not quite safe yet, but I’m hoping that as soon as that happens, then we will see some of the young players flourish again.
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