The NextGen Series from 2011 to 2013, was an invitation-only tournament. It was created by Mark Warburton, TV producer Justin Andrews and Matthew Benham, a professional gambler who had his own spread-betting company and who soon became owner of Brentford FC. It was an under-19 tournament which featured some of Europe’s best clubs - and Celtic. Others included, Ajax, Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Barcelona. There was a realisation that for many clubs there was a huge gap between youth football and the top level. Young players needed a transition tournament to help them adjust. It was a successful concept - too successful. UEFA decided to kill it by launching their own ‘UEFA Youth League’.
Compromise was sought but there was no surprise when UEFA decide to go it alone. Writing in an Independent article titled, ‘Brilliant NextGen series sadly sidelined in favour of Uefa Youth Cup’, Ian Herbert noted, “There were hardly gasps of open astonishment when Uefa rejected that plan and opted to reinforce the European status quo with a tournament for which the 32 Champions League competitors will take Under-19 teams along for the ride, regardless of their ability. The inevitability of the outcome stemmed from the fact that NextGen was beginning to ask some searching questions of Uefa. The tournament’s £8 family tickets were enabling fans to see excellent young players in elite stadiums under floodlights. Scheduling around first-team matches was tricky but not insurmountable, Andrews and Warburton found. There were crowds of 20,000 at some NextGen games – more than on some Thursday nights in the Europa League.”
Although it didn’t financially succeed, it was another learning moment from Warburton. He may not have liked the overt discipline of Jock Wallace, but he is still a big believer in a quieter, personal discipline. He was impressed the way Barcelona teach their youth: “Barcelona’s players turned up at Celtic for a NextGen game, got off the coach, no headphones on, and got the kit off the coach. After the game, they asked for a broom and left the changing room swept. When they left the restaurant, it was immaculate.” This chimes with the quiet way Warburton goes about his business. On the outside he is humble and respectful, but there is no doubt there is overwhelming confidence inside. Self-respect comes first. Only then can you do your job properly. He adds that this is not always the case in the UK: “One English team turned up to play Barcelona in the NextGen and three of their players were 10 minutes late to go training. The lady at Barcelona said to me: ‘This would never happen at Barcelona. The coach leaves. If we are leaving at 9am, the coach leaves at 8.59. Don’t care who it is, you have to be there.’ That’s Barcelona. They have so many things right. People say: ‘look at their players, their training drills’. No, look at their manners, respect and code of conduct and then you get what Barcelona is all about.’’
During the NextGen Series Warburton went back to coaching. In February 2011, he was asked to be interim first-team coach. Brentford manager Andy Scott was sacked, and striker Nicky Forster took over as player-manager. Warburton found out by a call from Matthew Benham who he knew from the NextGen project. Benham wanted someone on the coaching staff he could rely on. Warburton recalls, “Andy Scott left the club and I got a call from the owner at 1:30 in the morning asking if I would come in to assist Nicky. I didn't know a lot about Brentford or know any of the players, so I stayed up for the rest of the night looking at player profiles. Nicky was still a player then and hadn't done any coaching, so those five months was me coaching and Nicky managing.”
In June, Warburton became Brentford’s Sporting Director after unsuccessfully applying for manager. His responsibilities included player recruitment and overseeing the Brentford Academy. The main job went to Uwe Rosler, and because both applied for the same job there was an initial awkwardness. Warburton was at a hotel near Wembley, and was asked by Matthew Benham to meet Rosler. The Englishman did his best to reassure the German the decision was made and there would be no issues. Interestingly, Matthew Bentham later said, “When Andy Scott left the club in February 2011 I really wanted someone to be my man on the inside. Mark went in as assistant to a player-coach, Nicky Forster. At the end of the season we wanted to appoint a full-time manager and both applied. There was an awful lot of resistance to Mark from people within the club. There's maybe something Marmite about him. He had an untraditional background for football.”
It was as Sporting Director that Warburton’s professionalism really shone through. While the young Rangers players were mocked as the ‘Nando’s Generation’ for openly tweeting their love of fast food, Warburton was ensuring his young players ate properly. As he said in 2013, “Food was a key one, and [we had] to make sure that was right. You cannot talk of a culture of excellence, if the guys are going off to McDonald’s on the way home.”
When asked why a manager needed a Sporting Director to help them succeed, he responded with, “Agents.” He also added that the total workload for any manager had increased in other areas, especially training. “If you look at what a manager does now compared to a few years ago”, he said, “the workload truly is significantly different. “When I was a young apprentice at Leicester City, I’m sure the coach would write his session on the back of a fag packet two minutes before they stepped out.” Times had changed and every member of a football club had more of a burden than 10 to 20 years before. He added as an example, “This morning I met an agent at Heathrow at 7.30am, another one appeared for a 9.00am meet, I did a report on a young player, and in truth it is the type of work that Uwe [Rosler] simply cannot fit in to what is already a manic schedule. I do not think that you can combine both roles and still be confident if the quality of your work.”
One wonders if he still feels this way as a manager. He was to find out within a few years. His manager, Uwe Rosler, left Brentford to join Wigan. The German offered him the chance to follow him, but Warburton desperately wanted the hot-seat. On 10 December 2013, Mark Warburton, the one-time trader from Enfield, reached his goal in managing a football club in the professional game when he took over at Brentford. He revealed the decision to choose Uwe Rosler as Brentford manager had bothered him: “I was disappointed and annoyed when I didn't get the job, and I don't think I could have taken being rejected again. I was invited to apply, and If I hadn't [got the manager’s job] I would just have stayed as sporting director.” He moved swiftly to get the backroom team he wanted. Close working relationships were important to him, and he had to have his “fingerprint” on the staff rather than working with who was there. That meant former Rangers coach Alan Kernaghan, who was assistant to Rosler, and first-team coach Peter Farrell were let go. Warburton brought in former Rangers captain David Weir as his new assistant manager. Former Liverpool academy boss Frank McParland became his Sporting Director.
Warburton soon won his first ‘Manager of the Month’ for December, and it took to the 22 February the next year for him to lose in a 3-0 defeat at home to Wolves. It was a close management team, and in their first season as boss, they led Brentford to promotion from League One to the Championship. With results going their way elsewhere, a 1-0 win over Preston at Griffin Park on 18 April was enough. They solidified second-place behind Watford. The exuberance led to a pitch invasion of celebrating fans, although the results had not yet come in. Brentford released a video of the players in the dressing room huddled over a radio waiting for final whistles. When they heard the good news, the scrum of players and staff roared with joy. Fittingly, two signs hanging over the dressing room can be seen. They say: ‘101% we don't ask for, but 99% is not good enough’ and ‘Anyone can talk, you have to walk’.
Tomorrow in Chapter Three, John examines how the relationship between Warburton and Matthew Benham broke down after only a year as Brentford manager.
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