By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - Football fortune is fickle, players come and go, but Brentford hope sticking to their tried and trusted formula is the best bet of returning to the top flight for the first time in 74 years.
The humble west London club beat Reading 3-1 on Wednesday to extend their unbeaten league run to 21 games and move top of the second-tier Championship.
Six months ago Thomas Frank's side missed automatic promotion to the Premier League by losing to Barnsley on the final day of the season, then fell agonisingly to more-celebrated local rivals Fulham in the playoff final.
Fans might have feared the worst when 26-goal striker Ollie Watkins was sold to Aston Villa for 27 million pounds ($37.3 million), and winger Said Benrahma went to West Ham United, for 20 million.
That left only Bryan Mbuemo, signed from French second-tier team Troyes for a club record 5.7 million pounds in 2019, remaining from Brentford's so-called 'BMW' strikeforce.
Yet the club's modus operandi is buy low, sell high and replenish the squad with what sporting director Rasmus Ankersen describes as "whispering talents" -- players overlooked by conventional scouting systems.
It clearly works as, with 10 more points than they had at the equivalent stage of last season, Brentford are now favourites to finally re-join the elite.
Striker Ivan Toney, who failed to make the grade at Newcastle United, typifies the Brentford way.
Signed from third-tier Peterborough for five million pounds to replace Watkins, he has doubled his market value with 23 Championship goals in 28 appearances.
Since the playoff defeat, Brentford are up by 46 million pounds in the transfer market, continuing a theme which saw them sell prized assets Ezri Konsa, Neal Maupay and Romaine Sawyers in 2019 for around 35 million pounds having cost a combined four million.
It is not the usual way of escaping the Championship -- one of the most competitive leagues in European football.
Bucket loads of cash are usually thrown at it at huge risk and the list of big clubs who enter a spiral of decline in the second-tier is lengthy.
Leeds United finally made it back to the Premier League this year after a 16-year absence but the likes Nottingham Forest, Derby County and Blackburn Rovers still languish there.
Alternatively, forensic player recruitment can give you a chance, as Brentford, who operated on the fourth-lowest playing budget in the Championships last season, are proving.
"If David wants to beat Goliath, you can't do that by using the same weapons," Ankersen once said of a club policy masterminded by owner and lifelong fan Matthew Benham.
Benham, likened to former Oakland Athletics owner Billy Beane, whose analytical recruitment of baseball players was portrayed by Brad Pitt in the film "Moneyball", made a fortune as a professional gambler, using deep statistical analysis to get the edge over bookmakers.
After buying Brentford in 2012 he is using the same algorithmic methods to help the club, crunching the numbers with sports directors Ankersen and Phil Giles to unearth gems like Watkins whose sell-on values have helped pay for a brand new 17,000-seater stadium near the iconic Kew Gardens.
"Using data and using models to compare the strength of different teams and different leagues, we've been able to identify some of the markets or some of the leagues that have a higher level than people think," Ankersen says.
The squad includes Denmark midfielder Mathias Jensen, plucked from Celta Vigo, Spanish goalkeeper David Raya who has been a revelation since signing from Blackburn Rovers and defender Ethan Pinnock who arrived from Barnsley and is attracting the eyes of the big boys.
That defensive spine cost less then four million pounds while Iranian midfielder Saman Ghoddos, who joined from Amiens, has been an economical replacement for Benrahma.
Oxford graduate Benham's methods have had spectacular results with Danish club FC Midtjylland winning their first title a year after he bought them in 2014.
Astute player recruitment is only half the job, though, and would be wasted on the wrong manager.
Frank, a former Denmark youth coach, was promoted to Brentford's first-team coach when Dean Smith left for Aston Villa in 2018 and promptly lost eight of his first 10 games.
"It's about knowing when to stick to the plan and when to drive change," said Ankersen, author of left-field sports performance book The Gold Mine Effect.
Frank soon came good and clearly the 47-year-old shares the vision of the owner and even if promotion does not happen this season, the formula will stay the same.
($1 = 0.7241 pounds)
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris and Ed Osmond)