The Sports Science Revolution

Here is the most recent piece of work I have had 
marked by the university (another Brentford article…). It was given 69% – a 2:1 – which I am pretty pleased with considering I wasn’t wholly happy about it and it takes quite a long time to get to the point of the article. Anyway, hopefully posting two pieces of work in the last few days will mean I am actually going to take writing seriously from now on..

There is a revolution happening in West London. Just beside the towering M4 lies Griffin Park, the home of Brentford Football Club since 1904; immortalised in sporting trivia for being the only stadium in British football to have a pub on each corner. Next season, for the first time in 21 years, Championship football will make an overdue return to TW8.

Many diehard Brentford fans, or ‘Bees’ as they are affectionately known, will wholeheartedly admit that there have been times when they felt like giving up supporting the club, not least due to the heartbreak of April 2013 when promotion was dashed in the dying seconds of the season, by the width of a crossbar. But the less that is said about that, the better. In December 2013 there was a shake-up at the club in the wake of manager Uwe Rosler’s departure to Championship side Wigan Athletic. When the news first broke, social media sites were awash with fearful speculation; fear that hopes of reaching the promised land of the second-tier were going to be dashed again. But this shake-up was completed without panic and was ultimately turned out to be a seamless and successful transition. Sporting Director Mark Warburton became the new manager, former Rangers captain David Weir became his assistant and, most impressively – thanks to Warburton’s extensive contacts list – former Liverpool Academy boss Frank McParland, who nurtured England star Raheem Sterling and John Flanagan, became the new Sporting Director; completing a setup that would not look out of place in the Premier League.

And how has the reputation of a small club in West London improved so much? It is all thanks to a lifelong supporter – albeit a wealthy one – the new owner, Matthew Benham. His financial support has not only guided Brentford to the summit of English football’s third tier but also helped them to become undoubtedly one of the fittest teams in the league, through vastly improved sports science, fitness and conditioning departments. Youth Academy analyst Xarius Desai, speaking to the club’s official matchday programme earlier this month, detailed just how much work goes into maintaining these improved levels, even at youth level. He explained how a lot of his time at work is spent at a computer; “I have done nearly 60,000 actions for the season in 31 games, so if you add each button press it is about 250,000 clicks so far this season.” The Edinburgh University graduate added, “It definitely is hard work. We [Desai and his colleague, Alistair Pearson] have to work out the possession stats ourselves and we have to work out if a pass was successful or not.” Whilst Desai concedes that individual match analysis is a very modern concept, he stated, “The players have to buy into it and they have. Players come to us now wanting to know what their overall pass completion rate is, for example, and then they want to improve that.” The club has access to a wide selection of videos of the world’s best players, and the analysts have the ability to show these to the players, Desai explained, “We can show Josh Clarke and Courtney Senior, two players who use their speed, clips of people like Lucas Moura and it gives them confidence and helps them learn from the styles of top players.”

The improved analysis techniques at the club have not taken long to bear fruit; standout performances from goalkeeper Simon Moore in his first full season as first-choice goalkeeper led to the 23 year old earning a summer move to Premier League newcomers Cardiff City. In addition to Moore’s transfer, it is testament to Brentford as a club that Chris Haslam, former Head of Conditioning, was appointed as Wigan Athletic’s Head of Performance at the turn of the year, again linking up with former Bees boss, Uwe Rosler. Haslam, along with current Head of Medical, Neil Greig, oversaw the remarkably accelerated recovery from serious leg injuries suffered by Moroccan striker Farid El Alagui and Griffin Park legend, Kevin O’Connor, during the 2012/13 season. With the financial backing of Benham, the club has been able to expand the medical department and rent an anti-gravity treadmill to radically speed up recovery time. This piece of pioneering equipment allows players to reduce their weight by altering the air pressure so that less strain is put on their joints and less pain is experienced; therefore speeding up recovery time. For example, with O’Connor – who is approaching the milestone of becoming just the third player in history to play 500 games for the club – he sustained multiple leg and ankle injuries, so began walking at around 60% of his body weight, slowly building both the weight and the intensity of the exercise until he was ready to move onto running and ball work on the training pitch.

The club has also recently adopted the stance of leading Premier League side Manchester City in using GPS trackers to analyse player performance, not just in terms of contracted squad members but also with trialists. Brentford fan and Season ticket holder Rhys Williams, 18, is a goalkeeper for amateur Surrey team Milford Pumas and had a trial at the club’s Jersey Road training ground last summer. He explained how, “We were all given these small trackers to wear before the session and once we’d been training, the coaches downloaded loads of different statistics on the computer which made their final decisions easier, I guess.” Despite not being offered a call back, which the youngster admits he was “really gutted” about, he added, “I was given the results from the tracker pretty much straight away which helped me try to improve different areas of my game.”

Sports science, in the form of both injury recovery and performance analysis, has become increasingly attractive to both fans and football clubs in recent years; many universities also now offer sports science and exercise degrees, including Roehampton, in West London and the country’s two highest ranked courses at Birmingham and Loughborough. It could be said that this trend has been led by the financial force of Manchester City’s new owners and chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak. City have one of the largest and most advanced sports science departments in the Premier League, and whilst many will say that they have bought it, it is clearly one that is reaping rewards, winning the League, the League Cup and the FA Cup all within three years. Popular football magazine, FourFourTwo, have recently released a smartphone app ‘Stats Zone’ which gives fans a chance to see and understand the game’s most minute details, from the number of passes completed in a certain section of the pitch to a team ‘dashboard’ which shows every event in the match, represented by a certain coloured shape. Much like the GPS trackers used by Manchester City and Brentford, amongst others, the app also produces a heat map for each player, in order to show where on the pitch each player spent most time, and importantly whether they were playing out of position or not. In addition to the app, FourFourTwo have dedicated a whole section of their website to performance; offering wannabe footballers professional advice on sport nutrition, training exercises and even interviews with elite footballers explaining how they eat, train and recover.

Brentford sealed a top-two finish and were automatically promoted this season with three games to spare. Having missed an influential pair in commanding centre-back Harlee Dean and League One player of the year, Adam Forshaw, for large parts of the season due to injury, it is testament to the fitness, conditioning and medical teams that the remaining players have been in peak physical condition and won promotion to the Championship so early on. Add that to the fact that the Bees are due to move into a new stadium just a stones throw away at Lionel Road South within the next few years and they have one of the countries brightest managerial talents in Mark Warburton, and the future of the club looks thoroughly exciting for fans and neutrals alike.

There is a revolution happening at Brentford. And the Championship had better watch out.


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