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Betting Stories: How a professional gambler turned a £500k loan into a £200m asset when taking Brentford to the Premier League

Betting Stories: What a journey it has been for the Bees
Betting Stories: What a journey it has been for the Bees

The Championship play-off final has long been known as the most lucrative fixture in world football, with the riches of the Premier League’s promised land supplying the winner of it with millions of pounds each year. 

One season in the top-flight will yield a club approximately £200m in revenue, while a two-year stay in England’s top division will make them upwards of £300m. The longer they remain in the League, the more they will make thanks to the lucrative TV contracts offered up by the likes of Sky and BT Sport.

Brentford’s promotion last Saturday, when they beat Swansea at Wembley to finally secure their status as a Premier League outfit following years of unsuccessful attempts, was the fairytale ending to a decade-long journey for the west London club. 

In 2007, the Bees almost went bust and had to be bailed out by Matthew Benham - an Oxford University graduate who had made his money in finance in the US before turning into a professional sports gambler.

Benham had previously worked for the Bank of America in 2001 before joining sports gambling company Premier Bet, where his job was to help develop predictive gambling models based on analytics. 

He was taught by one of the most successful gamblers in the world - Tony Bloom, the current owner of Brighton & Hove Albion, but after a falling out in 2003 the pair parted ways and Benham instead turned his attention to sports gambling full-time, where he would go on to win millions. 

In 2004, he set up a betting syndicate called Smartodds, which he continues to own alongside sports betting exchange site Matchbook.

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Benham’s main passion in life is football, though, and he grew up supporting Brentford, so once he saw that his beloved club were struggling financially, he stepped in to provide a £500,000 bank loan so that fellow supporters could purchase the club.

The catch was that he would have the option to buy the club outright should the fans choose not to repay him and, five years later in 2012, they declined, leaving the former physics student as the sole owner of his childhood team. 

Moneyball

Now, you may or may not have heard about Brentford’s unorthodox way of scouting prospective players. Unlike the majority of clubs across the globe, the Bees play “Moneyball” and sign players based on their analytics as opposed to how many goals they score or assists they provide. 

The club effectively stopped looking into wins and losses and instead developed a set of key performance indicators that determined if they were making progress or not, such as expected goals (xG); the formula which measures the likelihood of a team scoring a goal based on their positioning on the pitch throughout a match. 

This has now become an integral part of the modern game and is used by professional clubs across Europe as a key metric to develop their attacking capabilities and tactical performance. In 2012, however, it was practically unheard of. 

Brentford’s theory was that in a low-scoring sport that is skewed by randomness and luck, the quality and quantity of chances created during a match mattered more. 

The club drastically abolished their academy system whilst everyone else was pumping millions into theirs. Instead, they introduced a “B Team”, made up of 17 to 20-year-olds that had been released and deemed not good enough by other clubs.

Benham and his staff believe that a young player needs at least 35 games to determine his true value, and while the biggest and richest clubs did not have the time or patience to allow those players that, it was a key part of Brentford’s infrastructure. 

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Buy low, sell high

It's paid dividends, too. The club have seen Ollie Watkins, Said Benrahama and Neal Maupay all come through their doors in recent years - each of whom were bought low and sold high. 

Benrahama cost £1.5m from Nice in 2018 and was sold to West Ham in January 2021 for £25m, plus a further £5m in add-ons. Watkins cost the club £1.6m from League Two side Exeter City in 2017 and was sold to Aston Villa for £28m last summer - a record fee for the Midlands side. Maupay joined Brighton for £20m in 2019 after Brentford had bought him for just £1.6m two years prior. 

The process worked, and is continuing to do so. Last summer the club bought Ivan Toney from Peterborough for £5m - plus a further £5m in add-ons - and he has already repaid them, scoring an astonishing 33 league goals in 2020/21 to help fire them into the Premier League, including a penalty in last weekend’s play-off final. 

Brentford are now in the big time and have paved the way for many other clubs to follow in their footsteps. Their methods are different to the norm but many believe that it is the future for football and indeed sport in general; it’s hard to disagree when you look at the results. 

Benham’s shrewd investment 14 years ago, partnered with his patience and trust in the process has finally been rewarded. He saved his boyhood club from going bust, has watched them rise through the lower English divisions and into the Premier League, all the while turning a £500,000 bank loan into a £200m asset.

Not bad going, that. 

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