Mark Warburton: From trader to manager (Chapter 3 of 4)

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When Brentford were promoted to the English Championship, it was the first time the club had reached the second-tier since 1992-93. The Bees fans loved Warburton and his approach to the game. He is reported to have said there is no Plan B, just do Plan A better. And that strategy was based on possession and attack. It paid off as he only lost three games in a row four times. His first game was a 90th minute winner over Oldham. Billy Grant of the ‘Beesotted Fan Network’ says of season 2014-15 in the Championship that, “we were the team with the highest number of goals scored in the last ten minutes. We scored over 20 goals in the last 10 minutes of matches and that epitomised exactly what Brentford were about. It's 'attack, attack, attack.' Every Brentford fan has said it's the most exciting football we have seen at the club. We used to get caught out on the break at times, but that's the style of football - score more goals than the opposition." By the summer Warburton signed a one-year rolling contract, while Weir and McParland also committed their future to the London club.

After a draw and defeat in the first two Championship matches, the Bees finally got a win in the third. A 2-1 away win at Blackpool. It started a great first half of the league campaign. The English Championship is a level above anything in Scotland, except maybe for Rangers (in normal times) and Celtic. Instead of Brentford being expected to fall back down the table they were sixth at the end of 2014, with 40 points from 24 matches. On the 10 November, Warburton was honoured by being chosen as the manager of the Football League’s ‘Team of the Week’. At the end of November, Brentford destroyed their old conquerors Wolves four-nil. The club had equalled a 75-year club record of five straight wins in the second-tier. Warburton duly won the November ‘Manager of the Month'. One of the judges, Paul Lowery of Sky Bet, said: “For me there was no other contender for this month’s award. Brentford have been breath-taking under Warburton during November.” In 2014, Brentford won 17 of 23 games at Griffin Park, losing only three times. Their 78% home win percentage was the best in any division of the Football League.

It was a proud record, for the manager and club. Everything was publicly going well in the new year until The Times newspaper published a bombshell article on the 10 February. The headline stunned Bees fans: ‘Brentford will sack Warburton despite promotion challenge’. It said:

“Mark Warburton, the Brentford manager, has been told that he will be dismissed at the end of the season -- even if he leads the west London club into football's top flight for the first time since the Second World War. The Times has learnt that the club's owner, Matthew Benham, has made it clear that he is determined to pursue a new direction despite Brentford's excellent progress under Warburton, who has taken them from Sky Bet League One to fourth place in the Championship. Tonight, they are at home to Watford, among their rivals for automatic promotion to the Premier League. Warburton discovered via the Spanish media last week that Brentford had held talks with Paco Jemez, the Rayo Vallecano coach, about the manager's job at Griffin Park. Sources in Spain have confirmed that a meeting between Benham, Cliff Crown, the Brentford chairman, and Jemez took place in Spain last week, with the former Deportivo La Coruna and Real Zaragoza centre back offered the chance to replace Warburton at the end of the season. Warburton sought clarification over the past few days and is understood to be in no doubt that he will be leaving at the end of the season.”

As can be imagined, there was confusion amongst the fans and interested observers. Brentford responded the same day to The Times article. It mentioned “rumours” and “gossip” but it didn’t deny Warburton and his staff would leave at the end of the season. It suspiciously spoke of Brentford being a “progressive club” who “consider novel strategic approaches to the game.” Supporters are not stupid. They could read between the lines and it was a poor response. Strangely, the statement said that, “The team’s performance has been magnificent this season and that is primarily down to Mark’s leadership.” While most people would agree, it seems bizarre that you would tamper with your primary achiever. Exactly one week later Brentford admitted The Times story was correct and, “Club Owner Matthew Benham has met with Sporting Director Frank McParland, Manager Mark Warburton and Assistant Manager David Weir and the Club has reached agreement on terms for their departure. The board, with Matthew’s approval, has made the decision that the trio will leave Brentford at the end of the 2014/15 season.”

Missed Chapter One? Click here to find out more about Mark Warburton's tentative steps back into football as he left the financial world behind.

It could be nothing, but how many clubs stating their manager and staff were leaving would place him second on the list? There is a danger of over-analysing, but it isn’t a natural thing for anyone to do. Warburton leaving was the story for the fans and journalists. As much as Frank McParland and David Weir were vital parts of the team, they weren’t the focus. It’s likely this was deliberate. Not as some petty dig, but because the new structure and ethos of the club was on taking the manager as much out of the picture as possible. As the same club statement told the Brentford support, “As part of a remodelling of the Club’s football management, a Head Coach will be appointed to work alongside a new Sporting Director. There will also be a new recruitment structure using a mixture of traditional scouting and other tools including mathematical modelling. As part of the new recruitment structure, the Head Coach will have a strong input in to the players brought in to the Club but not an absolute veto.”

Brentford were doing better than anyone imagined at the start of the season. Although a proud club, they had one of the smallest budgets in the league. How could someone who could possibly win two promotions in a row be axed? What was all this about mathematical modelling? The answer was owner Matthew Benham. Although he had brought Warburton to the club, and worked with him on the NextGen Series, he had his own ideas. Benham was a physics graduate from Oxford University. This is a subject which rests on mathematics. He became a trader, then set up smartodds, a company which uses statistics and mathematical models to advise customers on betting. And these customers aren’t putting on a ‘fun bet’. This isn’t about helping the guy with the bookie pen behind his ear hoping to get lucky with his £5 football coupon. This is big-money stuff.

It has made Benham a multi-millionaire and he has spent much of those millions on his club Brentford. Whether he is right or wrong in the long-term, one thing is sure. He isn’t a Craig Whyte or David Murray. He loves the Bees and is putting his money where it hurts. He also has a controlling share in Danish side FC Midtjylland. From his perspective, statistics and figures have made him wealthy and successful. Why would he give it up now to depend on Mark Warburton? Benham revealed his type of thinking when he spoke to Michael Calvin for the highly-rated book, The Nowhere Men. He told Calvin, “If I am looking at a striker I absolutely do not care about his goalscoring record. For me, the only thing that is interesting is how the team do collectively, offensively and defensively, within the context of an individual’s performance. I always thought Alan Shearer gave his team an amazing outlet. The team would be under pressure. You knew if you hoofed it in his general direction there’d be a high chance the ball would stick, and he’d win a foul. That’s the great defensive service Shearer is offering. The fact a front player can hold the ball up means you are not going to concede another attack. We’re working towards a new football model, we’re pretty far away. It is a computational issue.”

Whether Benham would have kept Warburton if he had accepted everything the owner wanted is irrelevant. The manager was not willing to stay at a club where he didn’t have the final say. As Warburton pointed out, “The emphasis is going slightly more to that mathematical model allied with the traditional scouting methods. That is what the club have chosen and I have to respect that. But if I disagree with something now then I would rather be honest than leave in six months and look back with regret.”

What about Chapter Two? Click here to read John exploring the NextGen series and Warburton's move to Brentford.

At the time of writing the Bees are missing Warburton. This doesn’t mean Benham won’t be correct in the long-term. FC Midtjylland won their first Danish Superliga in 2014-15, and are putting the Benham principles into action. All the evidence so far suggests analysis and statistics can give you an advantage, but it’s unlikely the human element will not continue to be the major factor. If you could then football and finances would be reliant solely on software and data. A laptop loaded with the latest mathematical models can’t take training. Statistics can't make a player more confident by having a good chat. Software can't rage at a strong personality and make them more determined. Ultimately, analysis can't even determine the future of the stock market because the 'animal spirits' of human emotion determine price more than facts.

Football analytics are great, and will improve the knowledge given to managers in the future, but it must be a tool for the manager to use; not the toolbox itself. No Joe Bloggs with the best statistics will ever beat someone like Sir Alex Ferguson. His knowledge, instinct, desire and aggression would always win. As Warburton said at Brentford, “My job is all about man management”. Or as Harry Redknapp once said to Southampton’s ‘Performance Analyst’ after a bad loss, “I'll tell you what, next week, why don't we get your computer to play against their computer and see who wins?”

As could be expected the Brentford team took a slight dip. And like children torn over two beloved parents, the Brentford fans chanted Warburton and Benham’s name at games. Warburton took the reins and Brentford recovered their form get to fifth in the Championship. The 3-0 home win over Wigan in the final game ensured a better goal difference over Ipswich and Wolves. The London club would now look forward to playing Middlesbrough in the first play-off tie. The end prize was the Premiership mega-jackpot. But it was not to be, and a 2-1 home defeat and a 3-0 loss away would see Mark Warburton leave disappointed, but proud of his achievements at Brentford. But he was still worried his perceived lack of experience would damage him. A week before the final game against Middlesbrough he said, “people see me as a risk. We finish at the end of May and we hope the phone rings.”

He should not have worried.

In tomorrow's final chapter, John examines what attracted Warburton to Rangers and the qualities he'll offer to the club.

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