By Paula Marcus
It has long been established that loyalty in football is dead. Of course the fans are an exception to this rule, but as far as owners, players and managers go, no one is safe. Yet even taking this into account, the decision of Bretford to replace Mark Warburton at the end of the season is still baffling.
This is the man who not only got them promoted to the Championship, but has turned them from one of the relegation favourites into a team that looks capable of claiming a playoff place. There are two sides of course to this story, and a lot going on behind the scenes that has probably led to this decision. But firstly, what of Warburton? In an interview on The Football League show the week after the announcement was made, Warburton made it clear that he had no prior knowledge that his position was unsafe.
This leads onto the big question; had the press not leaked news of Brentford shopping around for managers, would Warburton have been notified before his sacking at the end of the season? The answer, probably not. At a time when loyalty is low on the list of qualities looked for at football clubs, and with managers rarely showing any concern for the clubs they work at, it probably isn’t fair to expect much more from the men who run them.
Deciding to change your manager during a period of success is a huge gamble, but one that owner Matthew Benham thinks is in the best interests of Brentford FC as he looks to remodel the club in a new ‘European’ format. This change in philosophy is apparently the reason for the breakdown between owner and manager that led to the announcement two weeks ago. Warburton was particularly concerned about the switch from a manager to a sporting director and head coach, the latter of which would not have final say on players coming in.
Rumours suggest he was also unwilling to make changes and additions to the squad in January (which must be a first).
Of course, Benham’s decision could backfire. As has already been shown in the league, it is not that easy to find a good manager. A look around at the number of managerial changes and the
situations at clubs like Leeds and Watford (actually almost every team in this division) should make it clear that changes aren’t always for the best). In particular, selecting the right foreign manager can be even more difficult, as prior knowledge and the Football League as a whole, definitely seems to be a prerequisite for success.
The other change Benham wants to bring in is the use of mathematical modelling as a way of selecting players (imagine Moneyball on a football pitch). Players are not only selected based on ‘key performance indicators’ (KPI’s), but data analysis will also be used to determine everything from team plays, half time talks and even conversations with the media. Whilst the idea of being judged based on KPI’s instead of league position may be a nice thought for some managers, it remains to be seen how many will enjoy having almost no say in the players that they sign.
The statistic approach to football is certainly nothing new. Many clubs favour the use of Prozone, which provides detailed measurements of players during games, including distance run, touches and pass success rate. Similarly, scouting reports on prospective players rely far less on gut instinct and far more on careful analysis of players skills and weaknesses.
The use of this model is also not new to Benham. He currently owns Danish side FC Midtjylland, who have already put this technique to good use, and are currently top of their division. But as with so many things, just because it works in one instance, doesn’t mean it can be translated everywhere. As I have mentioned before, the Championship doesn’t necessarily play by the rules. The richest teams don’t go up and the poorest ones don’t always go down.
Whilst skill will always be important, far more weight is put on squad dynamic. Often when players are signed to teams in the Football League, you hear managers discussing how well the player will fit into the dressing room, on top of their actual ability. What players bring off the field and how willing they are to work for the team are the most important qualities in the lower leagues, and these are the traits that help get teams promoted against the odds. These are also the reasons why Warburton was so unwilling to change things up in the last window.
Even though Benham (and Brentford FC) may not have come out of this smelling of roses, at least everything is now out in the open, and the decision has been made. Unlike many of the owners in the division, Benham truly has the best interests of the club he has supported since childhood at heart. Over the past few years he has pumped vast amounts of money into the club, including plans to move to a new stadium. He wants the club to succeed, and not just so he can make money.
With such a large overhaul happening at the club, both on and off the field, promotion to the top flight may well be the last thing they need. Next season will see the start of Benham’s experiment, and I am sure many will be watching with interest.