It wasn’t a night Manchester City will remember forever, nor the majority of 17,200 in attendance at the then-named City of Manchester Stadium.
Mark Hughes’ side, faced with wavering off-field uncertainty under Thaksin Shinawatra’s ill-fated financial backing, plummeted to new lows on August 14, 2008, with a 1-0 reverse against Denmark minnows FC Midtjylland in the UEFA Cup.
Though City eventually prevailed in the tie, needing a last-minute equaliser in normal time and then the lottery of penalties, it remains a standout night in Midtjylland’s brief history; certainly their most successful night of European football. Since the introduction of qualifying rounds, their only venture into the main draw ended in a 5-1 aggregate loss against Lokomotiv Moscow, and Panathinaikos overcame them 6-1 over two legs earlier this campaign.
Under the ownership Brentford FC owner and shrewd businessman Matthew Benham, such European misery looks certain to come to an end. Qualification for such competitions will become a formality and the city of Herning may be welcoming the giants of European football very soon. Don’t expect Midtjylland to be overawed and hand teams of such calibre easy victories, though – they’re aspiring to compete with the best.
This summer, Benham, the multi-millionaire owner of betting exchange Smartodds, became a 68 percent majority shareholder in the club in exchange for around £7 million. Rather than paying other shareholders, a large majority of that fee went directly towards paying the club’s debts and day-to-day running costs of the club, thus putting Ulvene on a better financial standing.
Should he mimic his transformation of Brentford overseas, Midtjylland could become the envy of Danish football. Having cleared the club’s sizeable debts, the Bees are well-placed in the Championship with a fledgling academy and a new 20,000 capacity stadium on the horizon. In their first foray into second division football in 21 years, they sit having beaten dreaded rivals Fulham with their eyes firmly set on promotion to the Premier League.
It may have Bees fans dreaming but it didn’t happen by chance or luck. Benham is no stereotypical millionaire backer pumping millions into the club’s coffers, a la Roman Abramovich or Sheikh Mansour. True he has healthily backed the club he supported as a child, but his aim of steady, manageable growth has worked superbly for the west London club.
He is a student of the game, using analytical sciences from business interests outside of football and implementing them into football, challenging usual convention in favour of ground-breaking new ideas.
FC Midtjylland fans must be salivating at such a forward-thinking prospect and the Englishman’s involvement over in Denmark has reaped handsome rewards so far. The Wolves are flying in the Danish Superliga and look well set for their maiden league title and a foray into the lucrative riches of the Champions League next season.
With domestic endeavours turning out better than even Benham could have imagined, why did he expand overseas – and why an obscure club from Herning?
“I liked the idea of having a European club anyway, primarily for the non-EU angle. England is far more restrictive about non-EU players than any other country in Europe and speaking to Greg Dyke [ex-Brentford chairman and current FA chairman] it is going to get far more restrictive. There’s no way [Lionel] Messi could have come over to England as a kid.
“I’m interested in the concept of investing in academies in Africa or Central America. You can either do that by way of some sort of fund, but that gets messy because of third-party ownership, or you can have a European club.
“I was looking at a club in Belgium. Belgium is a fantastic fit in terms of getting EU passports nice and early but the thing I liked about Denmark – if you look at Transparency International they have an index of how corrupt a country is and the two least corrupt countries are Denmark and New Zealand. In Denmark they don’t have this thing where the agent tries to force a move and just an easier place to do business generally.
“It just seemed a good fit. I went to visit the club and I liked what I saw, the atmosphere around the club. The players are not into the bling and souped-up cars, so it seemed a really interesting project.”
In line with other minor European leagues, Midtjylland have historically sold their most promising assets at academy level. Winston Reid, Viktor Fischer and Simon Kjær all moved on in their teens for paltry sums compared to today’s worth, but times may change with Benham at the helm.
Pione Sisto, a 21-year-old superstar born in Uganda to South Sudanese parents, is hot property in Europe and has attracted attention from a number of top clubs. English clubs in particular have been alerted to the fact he will become a Danish citizen in a few months, thus making it easier to sign him under FA rules, but the goalposts have shifted considerably and young stars will not be discarded on the cheap.
“We’ll never have to sell out of necessity. For example, if in the summer we think the fair price for Sisto is £5 million and we only get offered £3 million, we wouldn’t sell him and I’d rather just put more money in than selling a player cheaply.”
Brentford fans hopeful of gaining Midtjylland’s best players for modest fees should also reign in their expectations. Benham wishes to run both clubs on parallel roads, choosing not to import masses of players like Charlton and Watford, among others, have done recently through ownership involvement.
Through common ownership, those clubs have loaned in players from Belgium and Italy, respectively, to aid their cause for promotion to English football’s Holy Grail, the Premier League. Though Watford came close under Gianfranco Zola neither club has reached the top flight, and the Bees’ owner doesn’t intend to replicate them either:
“I should be clear that it’s not done as a feeder club,” he insisted. “It’s something I don’t want to do for a while because it has the potential to create dissatisfaction and suspicion for the supporters.
“I’m 68 percentowner of Midtjylland so any deal would have to be arms’ length. If I sold someone below the true market value, that’s abusing the minority shareholders so I can’t go down that road.”
The other 32 percent of ownership must be delighted with what he has brought to the club thus far. Benham’s aim to challenge in Europe is ambitious but once you’ve listened to his plans and absorbed his measured way of advancing a Danish club into serious contenders among the best, it somehow seems plausible.
Sustainability is what every football club aspires to achieve and reaching the European stage will give Midtjylland just that. “Once you get to a high level then everything comes sustainable, so any club that regularly gets into the Champions League can make a profit every year and re-invest that in facilities, stadium and new players. But until you get to that level you’ve got to fund a loss, which is fine.
“The level of investment at the moment gives the club a good shot to win the league. If they’re first, they’re still going to be odds against to make it into the Champions League group stages, but if they do get into the Champions League group stages, it basically funds them for the next three years. They could probably be a mid-table side in Denmark and run close to break even, but I’d rather spend a bit more money, try and win a title, get in the Champions League and take a bit of a punt.”
Should the punt not pay-off, it isn’t the club that takes the hit: “I’m the one that suffers and not the club.
“Ultimately in the long-term, you’d hope they [Midtjylland] become financially sustainable but I don’t like to put a time frame on that. For both of them [Brentford and Midtjylland] it might be in a year’s time, three years, five years, ten years, but we have to move in that direction.”
Contrary to some modern beliefs, sustainability and success can go hand-in-hand. Should Matthew Benham and FC Midtyjlland work as he aspires, they may become an enviable model over the coming years in Europe.
By Luke Bidwell. Follow @luke_bidwell