TGG Podcast #35: Phil Giles - Staying ahead of the curve at Brentford
Written by Training Ground Guru — January 28, 2022
DESPITE having had one of the lowest revenues in the Championship (aside from player sales) Brentford are now playing in the Premier League for the first time in their history.
The story of how they got there is one of innovation, clever use of data and investment in people. We found out more about this from their Director of Football, Phil Giles, in Episode #35 of the TGG Podcast.
You can read an edited transcript below, via a dozen questions, and listen to the interview on the player.
How did you get started in football?
Phil Giles: Most people leave school and think, 'What am I going to do?' My skillset was in mathematics and that’s what I did as a degree. I thought, ‘How can you combine maths and football?’
There was very little detailed statistical work on football data that would be used by clubs at that time, so that wasn’t an option. In those days betting was the only way, so I went and applied to be a football trader at Spreadex, pricing games, taking bets, hedging bets, trying to win for the company.
I did that for two years and enjoyed it and learnt quite a lot, but wasn’t really using a lot of the mathematical background I’d got. In 2007 I saw an advert to work for Smartodds, owned by Matthew Benham, and went in and did much more of the mathematical stuff there.
I was set the challenge of, ‘If you know all the data that happened from previous games, how would you work out what will happen in the next one?’ One thing led to another and he (Benham) asked me to get involved with Brentford.
Do you remember your first meeting with (Brentford owner) Matthew Benham?
I remember that quite clearly to be honest with you. One of the first things we talked about was, ‘Who do you support?’ I said Newcastle United and he said, ‘Oh I’m a Brentford fan.’ I remember being surprised by that because I’m not sure I’d ever met a Brentford fan before!
One of the good things as a Smartodds employee was that you got to play at Griffin Park at the end of the season, so there were a few perks to that involvement he had.
Initially I tended to work with the guy who had recruited me, Dave Hastie (who headed up the quantitative team at Smartodds), and got to know him (Benham) more and more over time.
I think the combination of the mathematical background that we both share, the love of football and an understanding of sports betting and how it works were aligned.
One of the best things is you can say what you think and he’s very open to ideas and suggestions. He doesn’t think he knows it all and that debate and back-and-forth process is really helpful in terms of arriving at good ideas and solutions to problems.
Is it true that Thomas Tuchel came to visit Smartodds?
That will have been 2015. I think he was between jobs, before he went to Dortmund. I think that was a relationship he got through Matthew. Brentford had just got to the play-offs in the Championship and we were looking to progress as a club.
He (Tuchel) had done very well at Mainz, so it’s always good to share ideas with him. Some of the coaching ideas that were being progressed in Germany at the time were a little bit different to here and we needed a new manager and were looking at different parts of Europe.
He then obviously was interested in the data we were collecting, the recruitment ideas we had, which we hadn’t really established in detail at that point. It was a direction we wanted to take it in and over the last five six years it has shown to be relatively successful.
We would love to have had Thomas Tuchel as our coach, but that was never really realistic! I think occasionally Matthew has sent him a message and vice versa, although I’m not privy to those conversations.
Do the underlying principles of Smartodds also apply to football?
Part of it is understanding how good two teams are now and what makes them good if you’re trying to predict a future result. When it comes to buying and selling players (at a football club) that’s part of the battle. If we can find teams that are better than us, that have better players than us, it helps to identify players.
What I learned (at Brentford) was that a football club is a very different thing compared to a regular business. Regular businesses are trying to make and sell something, whereas the football department of a club is dealing with people - 95% of it is people management.
Things I have learned at Brentford have helped me outside of football as well. Smartodds is a data company and service provider, it’s not a betting company per se, and Brentford as a company will pay for (their) services.
We will avail ourselves of their services from time to time to help us out but they are still very distinct companies.
What are your responsibilities as a Director of Football?
A Head Coach or manager more or less does the same thing, day to day at least. But Sporting Director seems to be quite a varied job title, especially in England. For me, what that means is that the club is effectively split in two halves.
There’s the training ground and everything that happens there - I’m in charge of everything there. Then there’s the stadium and offices, commercial, marketing, operations, ticketing - our Chief Executive (Jon Varney) looks after that.
I think that’s a good split, a good division of responsibility. They’re two very different things. Two very different skillsets are needed to recruit and negotiate on player contracts versus creating a commercial strategy.
I’m not a coach, I’m not a physio, I’m not a scout and I don’t organise the logistics on travel. But the key thing is to recruit good staff members, who are good at their jobs and good people. Let them do their jobs and help where you can.
That might mean them coming to me for advice, or me going to them with suggestions or ideas. If you’re surrounded by good people it makes the job so much easier and I’m fortunate that I am.
How do you go about hiring the best people?
We always run a recruitment process. The first thing is to think about how can we advertise this more widely. It’s relevant in two ways. If I just focus on my contacts and network, I have a very small subset of available people and there must be some people out there who are so good at their jobs that I wouldn’t actually know.
And even if you do a recruitment process which doesn’t result in a particular person getting a job, it helps you build your contact base and network for future cases as well. So by doing that you get the best possible candidate.
You also keep a turnover of staff and new ideas coming into the club by recruiting externally rather than always focusing on people you know, either internally or externally. And the other thing is a bigger focus today than ever is on the diversity of your workforce.
They’re not targets for the sake of targets, they’re targets because we believe a more diverse workforce will be a better workforce. By advertising externally we get a much broader range of diversity of candidate as well and that’s really important.
Sometimes what we’ll do is a recruitment process and employ the internal candidate, promote them up a step, and I think that’s good as well. Not only is it good to show we reward our own staff on their career path, we also demonstrate to them that they were the best of a proper recruitment process, they didn’t just have it handed to them on a plate.
Do you need to look beyond results as a Director of Football?
The important thing is to look at how you’re playing and forget about the results. If you’re a little bit below par, even if you’re winning, then over time that is going to build up. What that’s saying is we’re not doing as well as we thought, even if we’ve got the points on the board.
Eventually that will catch up with you. My job is to be as unemotional about results as possible and look at the underlying performance and not get too carried away by one performance either way; to look for trends and patterns and try and identify what the underlying causes might be.
For the players and coaching staff, they have to crack on and try and win the game. That’s their focus. They don’t have to worry too much about the long term, they can leave that to myself and the team around me.
Work out not how are we going to win the next game but how are we going to be better after the next window and the one after that. That can involve adding players and also selling to reinvest or renew the squad in some way.
How closely does Brentford work with FC Midtjylland (also owned by Matthew Benham)?
There’s good relations. There are directors in common between the clubs. Off the pitch I can’t really say, because I’m not too directly involved with that.
We brought in Frank Onyeka (Nigeria midfielder) in the summer and we’ve had the opportunity to put loan players into Midtjylland, like Emiliano Marcondes. He came back a better player and had an impact for us, scoring in the play-off final last season.
If a player’s not getting the minutes here, they can go out to Midtjylland. I don’t think we do that in quite the same way as Red Bull or the City Group, I don’t think there’s quite that movement of players between us, but it happens.
Obviously the scouting and recruitment network is shared, which makes us more efficient. It’s not a group structure, they are independent clubs still. They both have their own targets and ambitions and are trying to achieve their own success.
The principles and scouting and scouting database might be the same, but ultimately when it came down to a player, I can’t think of too many examples historically where it might be, ‘Do you want to come to either.’
With the players we’re scouting it’s pretty straightforward who was a Midtjylland potential target and a Brentford potential target.
You’ve been great innovators in terms of specialist coaching. How did that come about?
A lot of that was Rasmus (Ankersen, former Co-Director of Football). There were people who were involved at Midtjylland before anyway, like Bartek Sylwestrzak, our ball striking specialist, and (throw-in specialist) Thomas Grønnemark.
Other clubs have used these people as well, they tend to be independent consultants rather than employees of the club.
Perhaps we were early adopters of giving it a chance - ‘Let’s see what it can bring’. Sometimes it can be quite successful, sometimes it can have less success.
The most important thing is being open-minded to try it. Dean (Smith’s) last season, we didn’t have a club captain at the start of the season. We thought, ‘Let’s see if we can rotate it round a bit, see if it can inspire people to take more of a leadership role.’
Thomas (Frank), when he came in, appointed a captain again. If you don’t try it you will keep on doing what everyone has always done in the past and will do in the future.
How can we differentiate ourselves and find out what works for us and can be done better in football in general?
Our first set piece coach, Nicolas (Jover), went to Man City and is now at Arsenal; our next set piece coach, Andreas Georgson, ended up at Arsenal and is back in Sweden (as Sports Manager at Malmo), so they can quickly move on.
There are these guys floating around and we’ve been early adopters, but it’s a bit difficult to talk about exactly what we do right now without those guys being the target of the next Man City and Arsenal!
You’ve also focused heavily on set pieces. What’s the background there?
Midtjylland, because of the success they had in set pieces, it was easy to look across the water and say, ‘Well they’re doing it and scoring this many goals and could frankly be the best in the world at this. What about if we add 10 goals to our tally at the end of the season just by scoring 10 more from free kicks and corners?’
When Thomas came here we were finishing ninth, 10th in the Championship, which is good for a club the size of Brentford, but of course we wanted to get in the play-offs and go higher.
How did you manage to punch above your weight (ie budget) in the Championship
Our budget had increased from the bottom quarter of the Championship when I came in, but that was the result of spending the net proceeds of sales.
Selling Chris Mepham, Andre Gray, Scott Hogan, Ryan Woods, Neal Maupay, Ollie Watkins and Said Benrahma allowed us to go out and spend more. We certainly didn’t buy Ollie Watkins and say, ‘The good news is we’ll sell him for a 15 times profit.’ That was never the plan, but the fact we were able to do it and he had a very good season and we ended up with a very good player enabled us to capitalise a bit.
(Watkins signed for Brentford from Exeter for £1.8m in July 2017 and was sold to Aston Villa for £28m in September 2020).
We weren’t really looking at the competitors and we weren’t thinking about Covid. It was a combination of sales allowing us to invest a bit more and over time, with Covid, it becoming more difficult for those (traditionally big-spending) teams.
When I started there were quite a few big teams and big-spending teams in the Championship. There was a drop overall in spending from those clubs while we maintained it really, having given ourselves the opportunity from selling players.
But that doesn’t change that the underlying revenue was still low, from commercial operations and ticketing. Griffin Park was tiny and gave us no opportunities to make money whatsoever really.
The one thing you can say is it doesn’t matter what league we’re in, relative to the rest of that league we’ll always be the poor relations. We pretty much had the lowest revenue in the Championship year on year on year, 23rd or 24th, when we were at Griffin Park and had to sustain ourselves by selling players.
Now, if you look at us in the Premier League, the amount of commercial revenue we get will be lower, we haven’t got the biggest stadium, we’ve only been there one year, so for quite a considerable time in the future I think we will be the lowest income side in the Premier League.
What are your future ambitions?
The key thing for me is to just keeping on getting better. Every decision we make will be saying, ‘How can we be better for the rest of the season, for next season? How can we be an asset to the league, interesting in the league?’
Hopefully we have been quite an interesting team this season and we want to keep that going.
My ambition is to just keep building Brentford up and see where we get to. I’ve got no idea where this club can get to ultimately, genuinely no clue where we might end up.
But just keep enjoying it, right, that’s the plan.