Published on September 12th, 2015 | by Bill
Benham’s Brentford – From Issue 14
This weekend, we thought we’d celebrate a couple of the best articles featured in the current issue of the fanzine. To get your hands on a copy, make sure you check out our stockists here, or you can come direct and pick up a subscription or single copy here. In this article, STAND stalwart, Stephen Walter,having previously helped out on numerous things in the background finally wrote an article for us, … and it’s a good one too. There’s been a lot said about Matthew Benham’s ownership of Brentford recently but here, we hear from a fan in the middle of it all.
In recent years Brentford FC has found itself increasingly in the public eye. The main topic of discussion this year has been the “sacking” of Mark Warburton, the man who led Brentford to promotion from League One for the first time in 21 years, and this season led Brentford to their highest league position since 1947. If you are to believe what has been reported by the media, you may well think that owner Matthew Benham is an impulsive, impatient and delusional individual who has inexplicably curtailed the success created by Warburton, so that he can implement his own “Moneyball” style experiment. But is this the truth?
To put Brentford’s situation in context, you need to go back to 1997. The Bees, under manager David Webb, were playing entertaining football and had started to reduce their large debts. On the surface the situation appeared positive, but that was far from the case. Brentford’s owner Martin Lange had discreetly instructed Webb to slash costs so that Lange’s loans to the club could be repaid. Brentford sold players to raise cash but in doing so blew their chance of automatic promotion.
A week before the 97/98 season started, having reduced the debt completely, David Webb led a consortium to buy the club and switched from being manager to CEO. Unbeknown to Brentford supporters at the time, Webb was contractually entitled to a percentage of the revenue generated from player sales. Immediately after Webb’s consortium had control, the spine of the team was sold for significant sums, and Webb pocketed a fortune. The main custodian of Brentford FC was putting personal profit before the welfare of the club.
Webb’s switch to CEO meant Eddie May was installed as manager; the promise of suitable replacements for the hastily sold players failed to materialise. By November 1997, May had been sacked and David Webb (who had only attended one game that season) had announced his resignation as CEO but remained on the board. By December 1997, the Brentford Independent Association of Supporters was organising protests in an attempt to force Webb out of the club. The supporters wanted to know how, after receiving such large sums from transfer sales, the club could be losing £13,000 per week. May’s successor Micky Adams alluded to the figures “not adding up”. In May 1997 Brentford were one game away from play-off glory. However, by May 1998 Brentford were relegated to the fourth tier for the first time in twenty years.
Webb paid £21,600 for his shareholding in August 1997, but within eleven months he had sold his shares for £750,000 to Altonwood, a company owned by Ron Noades. Noades was the first to explore the idea of franchising Wimbledon to Milton Keynes and he bought a controlling stake in Milton Keynes City FC. Ron also looked into the possibility of merging Wimbledon and Crystal Palace. Altonwood purchased Selhurst Park and benefited from Wimbledon and Charlton’s use of the ground, at the expense of Crystal Palace. Altonwood would later receive a six figure annual sum in rent from Crystal Palace. It is estimated that Altonwood earned £20 million during its ownership of Selhurst Park.
Webb was a chancer who used Brentford’s vulnerability for his own gain: Noades was an expert at using football clubs as a vehicle for personal wealth. Webb was rightly hated by the Brentford supporters and they were desperate to see the back of him. Sadly, this meant they welcomed Noades as “the saviour”, especially after his promises to bankroll the club “sugar daddy” style. An eye-watering outlay of £1.4 million on players, in the summer of 1998, proved enough to distract the Brentford supporters from scrutinising why Noades had sacked Micky Adams, and appointed himself as manager, when he was already owner and chairman. Brentford’s supporters were not aware that despite no previous managerial experience, Ron was paying himself an annual salary of £168,300, while he also had three assistants each on a six-figure salary. On the pitch, Brentford were cruising to the fourth division title, but behind the scenes Ron was working his “magic”.
Following Ron’s death, a feature in the Brentford programme revealed that Noades had moved Brentford’s bank account to Barclays, who authorised a £4.5million overdraft, which Noades used to fund the club. Not quite the generous sugar daddy that Brentford had been promised. An interest earning deposit from Altonwood guaranteed the clubs overdraft. Brentford meanwhile were paying up to £300k per annum in bank charges for the overdraft facility. Noades moved Brentford to a training ground owned by Altonwood and Brentford were charged for the privilege.
Within a few months of the inception of Noades’ tenure, he created a new company to run the club. The original company retained ownership of Griffin Park. This reorganisation was to ensure Altonwood benefitted from group tax relief on the loss making football club. This whole mechanism cost thousands in legal fees (charged to Brentford, not Altonwood) and left Brentford not owning their ground for the first time since the Edwardian era. To add insult to injury, Altonwood also charged thousands in management fees.
By November 2000, Brentford were annually losing seven figure sums and had been dumped out the FA cup by Kingstonian FC. Noades resigned as manager and set about cutting costs. This wasn’t an act of prudence but revenge for having to relinquishing his role as manager. Like Webb, Noades sold players below market value, but he wasn’t finished there. By January 2001 Noades was looking to make Brentford leave Griffin Park, so that he could sell the land. Brentford subsequently paid Woking FC £30,000 for an option to ground share. This sparked protests from supporters and luckily the Football League blocked the move. Undeterred, Noades attempted to purchase Loftus Road where he would lease to both Brentford and QPR. When this didn’t work, Noades looked to arrange a ground share with Kingstonian FC. Brentford paid £60,000 to K’s for this exploratory exercise. This move was resisted by the Brentford supporters trust, Bees United.
By January 2006, with debts around £10million, Brentford were in a dire situation. Thankfully, the Bees supporters had grown tired of having their club preyed on and the threat of extinction had spurred them into action. Bees United had worked tirelessly to gain control of the club to secure it’s the long term future at Griffin Park. With the backing of a “mystery investor” Bees United were able to purchase a 60% stakeholding and wrestle control away from Noades. This “mystery investor” provided £4.5million in interest free loans, which allowed Brentford to refinance its debt. But just who was this “mystery investor”?
Eventually, Oxford graduate, successful businessman and lifelong Brentford supporter Matthew Benham was revealed as the “mystery investor”. Bees United controlled the club, but Benham provided vital funding, attracted sponsorship and liaised closely with the supporters’ groups to find Brentford a new ground.
As mentioned, much has been written about Benham and Brentford, but none have acknowledged Benham’s initial involvement with the club. Even respected journalists such as Daniel Taylor, in his article about the Warburton “sacking” scandal, likened Benham to Vincent Tan and Massimo Cellino. Taylor’s article included a cover photo featuring mug shots of Benham, Cellino, Tan and al-Hasawi. Benham, clearly unimpressed with this character assassination, has used this photo as his twitter header ever since. What Taylor (and virtually all other journalists) failed to acknowledge is that Benham has worked, from the beginning, cooperatively and successfully with Bees United, for the betterment of the club. When was the last time a tyrannical investor funded a supporters’ group to purchase the club, and worked in partnership with them? Never, but of course Benham isn’t the tyrant the media might have you believe.
Bees United did a remarkable job keeping the club alive and in the hands of those who genuinely cared, but the legacy debts they inherited were a heavy burden. An arrangement was made by Bees United and Benham which saw Benham invest annual sums in exchange for preference shares, whilst Bees United retained overall control. However, by 2012, with the club losing £100k per week and requiring a 20,000 attendance at every home game to break even (the capacity of Griffin Park is circa 12,000), a vote by Bees United members decided to sell the majority shareholding to Benham.
Benham has transformed the club from a dysfunctional, debt- ridden organisation, to one that is an innovative and constantly developing. No stone has been left unturned, investment has been made in the youth academy, training facilities, and the operational and football staff. This is proof of Benham’s long term commitment. Brentford are also in the process of finalising matters that will see them start to build their new Lionel Road stadium, a ground that is expected to be the exact opposite of the out-of-town soulless bowls that have recently been built. None of these developments have been cheap and Benham’s investment so far is in the region of £100 million.
Although extremely wealthy, Benham isn’t Sheikh Mansour and he knows that attempting to outspend competitors will prove fruitless. Benham is looking to outsmart, rather than outspend the competition and this is where the Moneyball myth originates. Benham, with his team of highly intellectual statisticians, are taking the statistical analysis they have used in the world of gambling and applying it to football management. The media has patronised, ridiculed and failed to understand Brentford’s strategy, lazily dubbing it a Moneyball experiment, but it is working. The best evidence is in Denmark, where since 2014 Benham has owned FC Midtjylland: a club that amazingly won the league this season, a feat that would have been impossible without the mathematical models employed. Interestingly, Benham chose to invest in Denmark because it is one of the least corrupt countries; FIFA take note.
With the reign of parasites like Webb and Noades still painfully fresh in the memory, Brentford supporters realise just how truly fortunate they are to have Matthew Benham. Losing Warburton was a shock: reports of him being sacked made Benham look a villain, but that is inaccurate. Warburton wasn’t sacked. Things happened that are best left unsaid, but he ultimately didn’t believe in Benham’s statistical revolution. The press and pundits alike believe that, without Warburton, Brentford will sink back to obscurity. Brentford supporters know otherwise, Benham has built this club, not Warburton.
This summer Brentford have continued to employ a rather peculiar collection of backroom and playing staff, which only increases the perception of lunacy reigning at Griffin Park, but most Brentford supporters will tell you that there is certainly method behind the apparent madness. Continued success on the pitch would be great, but having the club in the hands of Benham is a privilege in itself. We often read how unscrupulous owners are destroying football clubs. Fortunately for Brentford, Matthew Benham is the exact opposite. He is an intelligent and ambitious man who is motivated by sporting aspirations and is only looking to enhance the club he supports.