CAST member Paul Breen wonders if Charlton should take a leaf out of Brentford's book:
Like Charlton, Brentford have had a nomadic existence at times both on the field and off. Recently though they have found a more settled direction. Just a few days from now, they face Swansea in the Championship play-off final, often considered to be the ‘richest’ game in football. If they win that match, they are destined for the bright lights of the Premier League. Very soon, Brentford’s new Community Stadium could be playing host to England’s sinful six with European Super League ambitions.
If they achieve that, they’ll have done it with a combination of sexy football and excellence between the sheets. Spreadsheets that is, because a large part of Brentford’s success is shaped around data analytics. The Bees of West London have become chief engineers of the idea that maybe football is rocket science after all.
Every major decision made at the club is shaped by a forensic analysis of data. In terms of recruitment for example, they have made a habit of capturing players with seeds of potential who often bloom in their system, before going on to greater things elsewhere. Ezri Konsa plying his trade at Aston Villa is one such example. Just as with Joe Gomez going to Liverpool, Charlton allowed this gifted defender to leave on the cheap. After just a year with Brentford, his value had risen x 4.
Tarique Fosu-Henry is another ex-Charlton star who has blossomed in the Brentford ranks. With us, he seemed to drift across a spectrum of brilliance and indifference. There were times that he was unplayable, such as away at Northampton on a muddy, rainy day in the spring of 2018. Anyone watching that match could have seen a quality player in the making and then inexplicably …. he ended up at Oxford United for a season. Brentford rescued him and now he stands on the verge of having cameos at the very least on the Premier League stage.
Brentford then have found themselves a niche in the field of data analysis, largely influenced by the story of their ownership. Like Tarique Fosu-Henry, Matthew Benham spent time at Oxford. There, he did a degree in Physics and it was this that shaped his scientific approach to life. Firstly, he applied that to the world of sports betting where he made his fortune. Then he did the same with Brentford after his outright purchase of the club in 2012, mixing science with the passion of being a lifelong supporter. Alongside the likes of Rasmus Enkersen, he has turned a football club into a template for a successful data-driven organisation. Such a systemic approach is definitely a rare thing in the chaotic world of football.
Whether or not they beat Swansea on Saturday, Brentford are becoming a Premier League club in waiting. Amazingly too, they are doing this whilst remaining a loading dock for shipping talented players to the bigger clubs. A year ago, they captured Ivan Toney for £5 million from Peterborough. Today, he’s rumoured to be a £35 million target for Chelsea. Regardless of whether or not they get promotion, they won’t turn down that sort of money – just a year after they made the same amount of profit with the sale of another striker, Ollie Watkins to Aston Villa (them again).
So is there anything Charlton can learn from this success? Well, there’s probably quite a lot actually. Although they are very different in many ways such as in the nature of their relationships with the public and with supporters, Charlton and Brentford’s owners have key features in common. Firstly, they are both successful businessmen. Secondly, they each want to give their clubs an identity shaped around their personal visions. Generally, Thomas Sandgaard appears to be much more of a heart-over-head kind of guy than Matthew Berman. However, it is important to remember Charlton’s owner has also made his living out of a combination of science and business. Everything that TS has done so far has been about setting up structures and systems not just for the here and now, but for the future. Behind the rock star CEO image, there is a shrewd business brain. Through having such an approach, we too are playing the part of Premier League team in waiting.
One example of the clubs’ visions mirroring each other is in the way that both owners seem to have similar ambitions of player development being an essential foundation for future success. Although our Academy approach at Charlton is very different to Brentford’s development model, our owners seem to share the same pragmatic ethos. Ideally, we want to develop more players like Joe Gomez and Ezri Konsa capable of starring at the highest echelons of the game. Through developing such players, the club as a whole will rise towards those same echelons. Unfortunately the downside is that the higher we rise, the more noticeable we are to the likes of the super six in the ESL sin bin.
But …. unlike in the dreadful days of Roland Duchâtelet, the idea of being a feeder for the top clubs doesn’t have to be so terrifying a prospect. Brentford are showing that if there are proper systems and practices in place around player development, we can have the best of both worlds. This is why I believe there’s a lot to learn from what they are doing, even if so much of what we do is going to be very different. Another thing we do have in common though is that we are both on the rise, I hope. Brentford’s success this past few years has shown that once a club gets established on a certain trajectory, momentum gathers quickly.
Hopefully we too will soon find ourselves within reach of football’s top table once again and good luck to Brentford at the weekend. They’ll be drinking in a pub on every corner if they beat Swansea, regardless of whether or not their new stadium has the same famous feature as their old one. Maybe we’ll catch a glimpse of them in The Royal Oak or The Rose of Denmark next season in those televised Saturday afternoon early kick-offs as we’re getting back to old routines found in match days. We might not have a pub on every corner of the ground but after years of turmoil we’ve got surety now that we’ve got a club to watch at the weekends.
However, even if we’ve returned to matchday rituals in September, we are hoping not to get into too much of a routine in League One. Although it’s a great competition next season with massive clubs like Sunderland, Portsmouth and Accrington Stanley down there, we’d rather become more of a permanent fixture in the higher divisions. I will miss Rochdale though! Let’s hope before long we’re following the same road as Brentford.
Of course we could also argue that Charlton have been years ahead in many of these things. Unfortunately, that cursed Duchâtelet era and then the ESI debacle has been like a great reset of our fortunes. The list of teams in League One shows how much football has changed in two decades. It’s going to be a slow and scientific road back to the top table. But we’re getting there sure as normal Saturdays are on their way back!
Paul Breen @CharltonMen is author of several books on Charlton and football-related issues.