Brentford's Robert Rowan: Meet the millennial mind behind English football's only B Team

Joe Hall
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Robert Rowan Brentford
Rowan pictured delivering a presentation to the Scottish FA (Source: SNS)

For most young football fanatics, your mid to late twenties marks the period when real life will make its final claims over the adolescent obsession; Football Manager is uninstalled for good, the fanzines boxed away.

But for 26-year-old Robert Rowan, director of football operations at Brentford, pre-season schedules, scouting reports, agent negotiations and contract extensions are now all a part of the day-to-day adult reality.

Rowan has been at the heart of Brentford’s B team project, the latest eyebrow-raising move from a club that has been unafraid to forge its own path since being taken over by Matthew Benham, the former City trader and founder of sports betting consultancy Smartodds.

Last summer the second-tier club took the unprecedented step of dispensing with their entire academy and replacing it with a single B Team that would serve as a direct understudy to the first-team squad.

In keeping with a company philosophy that has seen the director of football role given to Phil Giles, a mathematics whizz with a statistics PhD, the task of running the pioneering B team move was given not to weathered training ground veteran – the fabled Proper Football Man – but to an outsider millennial who worked his way into the game by virtue of new ideas.

“I’m a non-football man,” the Scot tells City A.M. “It’s a term I think everybody qualifies for unless you’ve played football.”

Speaking in between sips of a flat white and bites from a frosted cupcake at a west London coffee shop, he probably did not need to specify.

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With a beard, black T-shirt, jeans and trainers, Rowan’s appearance is more typical of an app developer than sporting director.

His path to Brentford began as a teenager, when weighing up his options in the summer between school and university.

First inspired by the ultra-detailed scouting reports written by a young Andre Villas-Boas for Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, which later made their way into the public domain, Rowan set about compiling his own in-depth analyses of games he would watch at home on illegal streams and sending them to every club in the land.

“I just did it,” he recalls. “If it didn’t work out, I would have been under major pressure. Luckily, someone read that report. Celtic got in touch saying they wanted to meet me and discuss working for the academy.”

While most of his contemporaries were still secretly dreaming of their on-field talents being spotted by a scout in the park, a teenage Rowan’s off-field expertise was snapped up by the Scottish giants.

A role with the Scottish FA followed where he was in charge of creating and implementing a talent identification process for the national team. There he met former Brentford assistant manager David Weir, a connection which helped him land a role in west London in 2014.

Brentford B Team Reece Cole
Reece Cole (l) has progressed from B Team to first team this season (Source: Getty)

Rowan, who turned down a role with Celtic in 2015, has seen his responsibilities at Brentford evolve from recruitment to a wide-ranging palette featuring everything from training ground operations to club strategy.

Front and centre of those strategies this season has been implementation of the B team.

Brentford, a club that self-identifies as a David going up against the Goliaths of Championship rivals flushed with Premier League parachute payments, decided last year that the academy system commonly employed by other teams was inefficient for a team of limited resources.

Instead of managing a multi-layered academy statistically unlikely to produce a preponderance of first-team players, Brentford opted for a B team populated by a mixture of former trainees and new signings – including the grandson of Brazilian great Garrincha – tasked with honing players for the top squad.

Friendlies can be organised against the elite of Europe, players of any age can play, and an environment can be cultivated that more closely resembles professional men’s football.

“It’s like we have two teams and one’s called B team and the other’s called the first team,” he says.

“We’re on the same facilities, the pitches are pretty much the same. It’s the exact same model; a head coach, assistant coaches, servicing departments. It’s like running two teams within one club.

“After we’d set it up I was reading Steve Jobs’s book. He spoke about when he started at Apple, he reduced the numbers of staff and products because he wanted to have four products at the very top level rather than 42 products that were just quite simple.

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“It’s kind of a similar ethos; we’ve just got two products and they get the maximum attention. It’s made things a lot easier to manage.”

The project has already been more fruitful than anticipated. At the start of the season Rowan said he would consider just one player progressing from B team to first team a success.

By mid-March, four B team players had made their senior debuts. A further four have made the bench. Opponents have included teams put up by Chelsea, Valencia, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Villarreal and Bayern Munich.

So far, so good. But Rowan is keen to stress the project remains in its start-up stage.

“The B team was only established in the summer, therefore we are still in the early stages of our three-year strategy to make the model sustainable, credible and profitable,” he says.

Next up for Rowan is recruiting the next batch of B Team players – oft ignored continental leagues such as Greece and Sweden as well as players released by top English academies will likely be targeted – while completing an MA in sporting directorship at Manchester Metropolitan University and fitting in a visit to other top clubs in Europe to learn from their processes.

And if the Brentford B team keeps up its rate of success, more of those clubs might finally reply to that email.

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