Let’s talk about every Fulham fan’s favourite team. Brentford. Yes, Brentford. The plucky outfit from down the road that has risen from the depths of League One to the brink of the Premier League over the past decade, despite regularly selling their best players. What is the key to their success? And how can Fulham learn from it?
First of all, to understand the key to Brentford’s success, you must understand game theory, as well as how it is applied to football business. In simple terms, game theory is the mathematical analysis of decision making in competitive circumstances. You don’t really need to know much more than that, but you’ll have to understand how it affects a football club and how the operate.
Off of the pitch, game theory can be applied to football clubs in one-off events, such as the negotiation of a transfer or a contract, as well as the entire outlook on football which a club possesses and how that impacts upon their strategy.
In Fulham’s case, the club has a ‘finite’ game theory. That is a short-term strategy focussing on the event at the end of the season. Namely, promotion to or survival in the Premier League. Therefore, the club takes actions based on these objectives, such as 2018/19’s high transfer spend and then sacking of both Jokanovic and Ranieri in an effort to avoid the drop. However, as we are finding out now, this is detrimental for the future.
This is because Fulham are caught in a cycle caused by the huge broadcast revenues in the Premier League and the relative financial poverty of the Championship. The massive returns that come with being in the Premier League mean that the top flight regulars are comfortably established. Promoted clubs often find that they must spend big to be able to compete. Otherwise, in the cases of Norwich and SC Paderborn, they will spend little instead recouping the one-off top-flight revenue in order to build for the future.
If the promoted clubs who spend big fail to survive, they become trapped in an ongoing ‘yo-yo club’ cycle, as their costs are too high for the Championship and therefore must focus on a short-term plan of promotion back to the Premier League to avoid financial ruin. However, this short-termism is detrimental for the future, trapping the club in said cycle.
So, this is the situation that Fulham is in, but how can we learn from our next-door neighbours?
Since gambling magnate, Matthew Benham, assumed full control of Brentford in 2012, the club has instilled the same values that has made him so successful at playing the bookies. This involves trusting the numbers and writing off any short-term setbacks in favour of sticking to the long-term ‘infinite’ plan. In other words, they have patience in their project which uses slow and sustainable growth as they look past the end of the current season.
Brentford have a well-documented ‘Moneyball’ style of recruitment, involving recruiting players who other players have missed via statistical analysis. However, it is their plan after the simple recruitment which is the genius and that really differentiates Brentford and Fulham’s moneyball techniques.
First of all, Brentford aim for low cost, high reward transfers, aiming to uncover young hidden gems to develop and integrate into the side over multiple years. Whereas, under Tony Khan, Fulham’s strategy has been to identify players to buy using stats, with seemingly little thought to cost or age – as long as they are under 28.
It is the slow development and integration of talent which makes Brentford successful, as the player learns the club culture and playing philosophy through the B team and by working with players further ahead of them in their development cycle. It is this slow, patient approach with unparalleled continuity that breeds success into the future.
For example, after the play off final, Brentford sold Ollie Watkins and Said Benramah, two of their best players, for huge fees and impressive profits. They kept Thomas Frank as their manager and picked up Ivan Toney from Peterborough for just £5 million – an impressively low fee for a player who is currently the league’s top scorer. They also promoted Sergi Canos to a starting role, to replace Benramah, who they have been slowly developing through the B team and then first team since 2017. They have also promoted Marcus Forss, a highly rated young prospect, to a rotational role at centre forward. Marcus Forss is now learning from Ivan Toney and has worked alongside the other Griffin Park success stories like Watkins and Neal Maupay since he joined the club in 2017.
Brentford have managed all of this change whilst remaining one of the Championship’s top sides – currently third in the table on an eighteen-match unbeaten run. They undoubtedly contingency plans to replace every player in their squad as they leave for bigger clubs and it is this consistency that is key. It is a testament to their long-term planning and project as they have committed to incremental improvement whilst leaving within their means. Although the final step has so far eluded them, I can’t help but feel that they will eventually become an established top flight team capable of punching above their weight, even if it takes another decade.
So, what can Fulham learn from this? The first objective has to be breaking the ‘yo-yo club’ cycle. This can be done either by avoiding relegation from the Premier League long enough to become an established side that is comfortably better than any newly promoted teams each year, or by spending a few seasons in the Championship to develop and implement a long-term strategy that promotes low and sustainable growth. Whilst I’m sure that the second is the less popular option amongst fans, it might prove more profitable in the longer term.
To implement this plan, Fulham should shift their recruitment strategy to something more similar to Brentford. The club already heavily uses data within its recruitment, so it just needs a slight change in what to look for. We have seen from the summer window that low cost ‘uncovered gem’ signings utilise Tony’s data system more effectively than the high cost signings that we have previously seen – witness the success of integrating Tosin Adarabioyo into the first team, for example.
However, not only should Fulham be looking to buy cheap young talent, but we should be looking to develop the talent that we produce from our academy. This is a massive strength over Brentford, who scrapped their academy some years ago, and if done correctly we could see youth players constantly breaking into the first team – similar to Southampton in recent years. Ryan Sessegnon is the only real success story from the academy in recent years as players are rarely trusted in the first team, due to our short-term plan. We have seen brilliant prospects leave in recent years – O’Riley, Elliott, Dembele and Drameh for example. If the club gave youth its head and allowed a young manager more freedom without being worried about the impact of relegation then some of these talents might thrive. What’s more, any youth player sales are financially deemed as pure profit – where is the downside?
Finally, could the club restructure and add people with footballing experience to help with workloads and decision making? Could a technical director and a vice-director of football help avoid the mistakes from the past and implement a long-term strategy? Someone with the knowledge and experience being added into the mix couldn’t hurt – especially if it allows the club to complete transfers faster.
The Premier League is clearly the place to be and we all hope that Fulham can stage a recovery to remain among English football’s elite, but if dropping into the Championship prompts a rethink that persuades the club to pursue a long-term plan to achieve sustainability it could deliver real rewards. On the bright side, those glorious Championship away days are better, aren’t they?