Brentford’s director of recruitment Lee Dykes is one of the men behind the club’s rise to the Premier League – and one of the most talked about young minds in English football.
The club won promotion to the top flight through the Championship playoffs last season, beating Swansea City at Wembley, and are now gearing up for their first ever Premier League campaign – which kicks off with a visit from Arsenal on August 13.
At just 36, Dykes represents one of the youngest heads of recruitment in the Premier League. Despite his age, he has a wealth of experience in the game, beginning life in his native Yorkshire with Rotherham before working his way through the system with Crawley, Notts County, Oldham, Carlisle and Bury – where he became one of the youngest sporting directors ever appointed in the English game.
Brentford recognised his talents and appointed him in the the summer of 2019. He has since played a leading role in their rise to the top flight.
From the off, Dykes is very quick to play down the personal plaudits, despite the significant role he has played in the success of the Premier League’s newest members. He immediately points to the co-directors of football Rasmus Ankersen, Phil Giles and of course the leading light behind the whole Brentford project – owner Matthew Benham.
“What I think is massively under-rated is the structure at a football club, and Phil and Rasmus do such a wonderful job at Brentford and FC Midtjylland, they have been almost unbelievable,” Dykes explained exclusively to 90min.
“The strategy is always paramount, it is in the mindset of everyone, all the heads of departments have their own targets or strategy points and those strategy points are branches of the tree, but everything is geared to the main ambition of the club and ours was Premier League promotion – and none of this could have happened without Matthew Benham. He predicted this when he took over the club seven years ago.
“We have accomplished Premier League, but already we have a new plan in place.”
Despite only being a new Premier League club for a matter of weeks, already Dykes admits that they have already noticed some subtle differences.
“When you become a Premier League club you find out quickly that you are a club that players are willing, almost desperate, to sign for, which was not the case when you are in the Championship,” Dykes added.
“Now we are a Premier League club based in the west of London, in a brand new stadium, you can imagine what contacts we are getting – but we are not agent led, we know which players we want.”
Amid their promotion, Dykes insists that Brentford’s long-term strategy – with recruitment at its heart – remains the same throughout the club.
“Last season [2019/20] we lost the play-off final, and last year we produced lists and lists. We had Premier League and Championship. And when you develop Premier League lists and Championship lists, naturally you will always like the best players. In many ways the top of the Premier League lists to the bottom of the Championship lists is very different.
“But we already know every decision should be made with long-term durability and thoughts of the financial situation, even though we are in the Premier League.”
Indeed, the extra money will not see Brentford turn away from their belief that their system is the correct one. Like with last season, Brentford signed just one player on loan, and that was the experienced Winston Reid to help cover in central defence. This is somewhat unusual, but Dykes explains why.
“Our whole club is controlled and we all have the same goals through our strategies, as I said. I believe a wonderful example of this is Finn Stevens from Worthing. We signed him for our B team and we got an injury in August. But instead of just going out and loaning a more developed player, we had an asset of our own – we used him despite being just 17 – we brought him in.
“This is the structure, this is our plan and we stick to it. We are not reliant on loan players, we took Winston Reid to help cover in defensive areas, but we would rather buy a player and progress him. We sold Ollie Watkins and Said Benrahma, two of the best players in the league, replaced them at a quarter of the price, and got promoted.”
Of the deals done in the wake of Watkins’ departure, one of the biggest was signing Ivan Toney [bought for £6.5m with future add-ons]. It now seems something of a ‘no-brainer’ – but for many that was not the case.
“I can’t tell you how many people spoke to us about Ivan, managers included, who told us that they weren’t sure about it and they would not have done it – but we did our homework.
“I knew Ivan from his days at Northampton and when he moved to Newcastle. When he made that move he was a young, inexperienced player who had been bought for a good fee at a young age. But when he moved to Peterborough, he had a child himself and something changed; he became a leader.
“What a guy he is, and he’s a top striker – but we did our work. People do change and we knew it. I firmly believe a Premier League club should have taken him. And even though we are in the Premier League, that won’t stop us looking at the Championship, League One and even League Two.
“We have signed the likes Rico Henry and Ollie Watkins – these are good players, and these leagues have good players. It is just the transition period of how long they will take to make it at that level.”
Dykes’ summer has been spent so far by watching the European Championship, as well as the Copa America and Gold Cup, and he admits that a standout performance at one of the major tournaments could help – although Brentford already know of the players featuring and won’t be caught by surprise.
“We cover things cleverly,” he added. “We have a lot of data in terms of identifying talent throughout the world. We don’t need to watch every game to identify the players in the way we work. But the ones who look interesting, we get eyes on them quickly. The tournaments in the summer are good to watch because now being a Premier League club, we have a lot more pull and there are certainly a couple of players we like who will be playing.”
Dykes admits that their system can be difficult for some owners to contend with.
“You need people at the top, like Matthew, who embrace the strategy, but some clubs do panic. Look at us – I think Thomas Frank here didn’t win for nearly ten games, but we had the stats, we had the data and we could see the progress. But a lot of clubs think like this – Norwich, Burnley, etc., many clubs have their own plans and successfully embrace them. Not all plans are the same but you have that belief.
“With some clubs that’s hard to do. Some managers have an average tenure of nine months.”
Brentford’s strategy also means they will be the only team in the Premier League without an academy, after they opted against using the academy system. They made that decision back in 2016 and Huddersfield Town soon followed. Brentford’s use of a B team is something a host of clubs are looking at – given the Bees’ success with developing talent since the move.
“We don’t have an EPPP Academy system and we back our B team. But to get into Europe you do have to have an academy, so we may have do a variant of some kind – Ian Poveda who went to Man City, now at Leeds, was a catalyst.”
Dykes and Brentford’s recruitment team have had numerous successes, but it does strike you that players like Finn Stevens almost mean more to Dykes than the multi-million deals for the likes of Watkins and Toney.
“It does mean so much. You are changing peoples lives and he [Stevens] is such a wonderful player and a person. He was released by Arsenal, played at Worthing, and we spotted him and brought him in.
“He has now played for Wales at Under-21 level and is on the brink of Wales senior squad after impressing Rob Page in a recent game. It is so satisfying knowing what we are doing is working. Marcus Forss another example before my time here, who we signed on a free transfer from West Brom.
“And we also had someone like Vitaly Janelt. We knew he was undervalued – that was one we pushed for, but we signed him to cover injuries whilst he adapted. Then Christian Norgaard picked up an injury. And now from Second Division in Germany and not playing regularly, he is suddenly helping us into the Premier League and is being scouted by their national team. But we had done our work on him, we were confident in him.
“This system is working, we have just signed a Rangers player, an Arsenal player and a Crystal Palace player, we are attracting a lot of interest from development players as they know there is a pathway for them and it is something different.
“But this is nothing new – it is like giving me a chance. They took someone from Bury rather than someone from a West Ham or a Crystal Palace, like they might have previously.”
Dykes arrived at Brentford having taken a path in the game that was down to his hard work. He knew from an early age what he wanted, but it was not always easy as he grew up being pushed towards another sport – rugby league.
“I was a rugby league player in Hull from a young age. But I actually loved football and at 14 and 15 I managed my school team, as there was nobody else to do it.
“I got picked up by a few scouts like Hull City and Scunthorpe, which came to nothing, and I started playing semi-professional football after rejecting offers to progress in rugby league. I knew there was a chance to make it but I damaged my ACL in my knee early on and that thwarted that.
“I always remember my mum saying to me, ‘son, go and teach others what you have taught yourself’ so I did, and started coaching young kids. That’s where the journey started.
“After that I put myself through the courses and I eventually got a job with the Rotherham United academy, getting paid per session. It barely covered the petrol, but they agreed to put me through my A Lesson which was a few thousand pounds. I was one of the younger candidates, but I actually passed it quite quickly. That was huge. After that I got the chance at Crawley with Steve Evans, then Notts County with Keith Curle. I then worked with Lee Johnson at Oldham before going again by Keith at Carlisle.”
Dykes admits it was at Carlisle where he recognised that coaching was not the way for him.
“I actually became assistant manager and that was where my pathway was highlighted. I knew I wanted to do recruitment, I felt that was a real place to work. There was a real gap, and at that point even though I didn’t quite know it as ‘sporting director’ I realised that there was a real misalignment in football of clubs, especially down the pyramid. Clubs needed to run more efficiently and more sustainably.
“Looking at clubs in Germany, like a Borussia Dortmund, and in other areas in Europe, it made me think and study hard the upcoming changes in the football dynamics of senior management.
“After Carlisle, Keith was in for the Bury job. I went in for the job with him, and the job actually went to the existing stand-in manager. But the owner actually rang me to see if I could do the sporting director role, and I knew I could do that.
“I could get the players, I could get the staff and Carrington was a potential goldmine. All that was great, but the club was too far down the line with debt and bad situations. How we got promoted still I will never know in such circumstances.
“The club had such potential, but it was costing them too much money and I personally feel I and others got there 12 months too late. We sold £675k of youth players and turned down more than £500k for first team players, it just need the backing, and that is why it went how it did. I knew when the new owner came in that it was potentially going to be my only season at the club – and the timing was right when the Brentford role came around.
“Brentford were and are a forward thinking club, a good organisation. And I firmly believe their structure is how football clubs should be run. It was an opportunity I could not turn down. I went in with the ambition to establish myself and it was the right time. And I now use that 15 years of lower league football knowledge to my advantage.”
Dykes is someone who recognises the use of analytics in football, but it is clearly more than a trend to him, as he has now practiced it and used it within games at almost every level.
Data and analytics has had some bad press in football, but Dykes is clear that it does not replace some of the more traditional scouting methods. Some clubs have and are known to sign players without seeing them live; a situation he would never sanction ideally.
“There is no chance we would ever sign a player without having eyes on them. We use data when we sign a player – our owner has made money through data and it is my job to incorporate that. But Brentford now have a coach in the recruitment department, and I can see it also from the coaching objective – they can challenge their own philosophies. We combine data with knowledge and it works pretty well.
“We don’t divulge on statistics and/or data or how we use them, that is key. We have huge coverage around the world – we have scouts in Spain, in Germany, in France in Italy, and in Brazil and a few others around the world. In terms of GBE (Governing Body Endorsements), we were prepared. We knew what was coming, and as a result we started looking at more British players last year as it has cut off a certain calibration of player. I am sure they will change again in the future, but we are happy with working with the new rules, as one door closes another will open.”
In the last 12 months Dykes has become Director of Recruitment at FC Midtjylland, the Danish champions, giving him experience of players worldwide on top of that European knowledge.
“With FC Midtjylland, I didn’t have much to do with them until last October. But we discussed how we would go forward and I suggested that we should combine recruitment – I have people all over the world that could help them too, so that is why I cover both bases now. Multi-club recruitment is a route a lot of clubs are taking forward.”
So what next for Dykes? Given his learning curve at Brentford, no changes are in the offing.
“I’m looking at being a sporting director in the future again. I think it will be the path if at the right club, but working with Phil, Rasmus and Matthew – and this isn’t just a line – they are great people and I am learning so much. They allow me work and I am soaking it up. Hopefully I can progress at this club.
“But for now we enjoy the moment, drink it in and look forward to playing Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea and seeing if we can test our strategy at the highest level in the world. Won’t that be fun?”