The premier league is back! It’s a new season and it’s time for fans to tune in to the best league in world football. And that’s exactly what I did. It was a bad weekend for me though, my team lost their first match!
You see, I have the unfortunate life of being an arsenal fan and losing like that is becoming rather tiresome and sometimes socially challenging. What caught my eye, however (aside from our abysmal display) was the opposing team, Brentford FC.
As a side that has just achieved promotion, they played really well. They didn’t just sit back, soak the pressure and counterattack as is the characteristic of ‘lower’ teams. Rather they imposed themselves on the game and controlled it from start to finish, like a big team full of confidence. I fully expect them to cause a few upsets this season.
So, like a good football fan, I looked them up on the internet to understand their story. Theirs is a classic football fairy tale: the club was in decline only to be rescued by a visionary owner who through significant financial investment and ingenuity, took them to the top of English Football.
However, what is unique about Brentford’s story is how they did it. The ‘bees’ utilized a combination of smart recruitment and strong team dynamics both powered by a very strong analytics department.
And this was what led me to write this piece. As a tech writer and a football fan, I am always on alert for anything that can connect the two (no matter how slim). Now analytics in football is not a novel concept, I have written a few pieces on this myself.
For Brentford FC, their adoption of analytics has been spearheaded by their ‘nerdy’ owner, Matthew Benham. A man who has made a name for himself in the gambling industry for his knack for numbers.
A Geek Owner
Matthew’s story is unlike most rich club owners we have in the premier league, so-called ‘sugar daddies.’ Rather Benham has been a lifelong supporter of the ‘bees’ who acquired the club in a bid to help it survive financially.
Matthew Benham has always been drawn to numbers and science. After acquiring a physics degree from Oxford University, he worked for Yamaichi International in Europe as a physicist. He soon transitioned to finance, rising to become VP at Bank of America. During this time Matthew would dabble in sports betting where he would be able to pursue two of his great passions, sports and math.
However, it was later in 2001 when Matthew finally decided to quit his job and turn his passion into a career. He took a job at Premier Bet working under Tony Bloom, another gambling legend whose story we will explore later.
After two years the two had a falling out and this is when Mr Benham truly came into his own. He set up his own betting syndicate – SmartOdds. Using his extensive knowledge of statistics and sports analytics to predict match results Matthew Benham has grown SmartOdds to one of the most successful syndicates in the country. Based in London, the company employs around 80 modellers who record, analyse and model statistics for clients from all over the globe.
Matthew Benham has been a lifelong ‘bee’ fan having watched his first match while just 11 years old.
In 2009, he would be able to show his love when his club found itself in financial troubles. With a $700,000 loan, Matthew was able to rescue Brentford from financial ruin. The clause however did include a clause that would allow Matthew to buy out the club if the fans were unable to pay the loan. Long story short, Matthew found himself as the owner of his hometown football club in 2012.
This would mark the beginning of a journey that would see Matthew use some of his extensive knowledge in sports betting to real-life football. As a punter, he knew which numbers really mattered and he was going to put them to good use.
In an interview with the Guardian, for instance, he explains that while a striker may rack up a huge number of goals, it is not necessarily proof of talent. One has to factor in the chances he took and how many of these he scored, the so-called ‘conversion rate.’ Another lower-scoring striker may have fewer goals but scored from even fewer and ‘harder’ to convert chances.
This data-driven thinking has been the backbone on which Matthew has guided a team from the 4th tier of English Football to the elite English Premier League. The journey has however not been all rosy and even he himself admits to making numerous errors. He for instance regrets hiring a few coaches, who at the time seemed to be no-brainers but later cost them valuable points.
What is different with this owner however is his ability to test out models and sort out what works and which should be discarded. Another example of this kind of revolutionary thinking in action is his ditching of the youth team in favour of a B team. The B team would act as a testing and development site. The team would be able to develop players while also testing out theories before using them in the real game.
The result has been a fine-tuned machine that despite having sold some of its best players to ‘bigger’ clubs has been able to sustain constant improvement through the football hierarchy. Today Brentford find themselves among the big boys and judging from the first game, they are going to give most of them a run for their money.