Football: Ray Spiller has turned a hobby into a priceless commodity - and that commodity is information

Olivia Blair On the man who knew all about Spurs' new coach - and plenty more besides
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The Independent Online
The whole (very) wide world of football was asking "Christian Who?" on Wednesday when news broke of the appointment of Christian Gross as Tottenham's new manager - and Ray Spiller was asked more times than most.

But there's nothing new in that - most people in football ask most things of Spiller, and they have been doing so ever since Ray Spiller Esq became the Association of Football Statisticians 15 years ago.

Spiller has a vested interest in Spurs' new head coach, born as he was just an Ian Walker hoof away from White Hart Lane. But while it's indicative of football's changing face that he has had to expand his already considerable knowledge - not to mention his database - to include information on overseas players and managers, it was actually a lack of any such information that got him into the business in the first place.

He used to work for an engineering company but filed football stats out of interest, and recalls contacting Spurs for information when the club signed the Argentinians Ricky Villa and Ossie Ardiles in 1978 - but he's still waiting for a reply.

"No one seemed to know anything about them," he explains, "in fact, no one seemed to know very much about anything in the game, so I stuck some adverts in magazines to see if there were any experts around, and got about 40 replies. So I wrote to Graham Kelly who was really upbeat about the idea of me forming a club [originally called The Football Experts]."

Hard though it might be to imagine Graham Kelly being really upbeat about anything, the FA's chief executive must be glad he showed such enthusiasm back then, since Spiller has become invaluable to the FA, for whom he compiles statistics for every Wembley match and acts as a general know- it-all - in the nicest sense of the phrase.

He also supplies data to at least eight national newspapers and several football magazines as well as Teletext, Littlewoods and Coca-Cola.

And, in keeping with the fashion of football's peripheral figures - David Mellor, Danny Baker and Eric Hall among them - achieving hero (or anti- hero) status, the 44-year-old Spiller has even recently appeared as a model (for the BBC's Match of the Day magazine) and is a favourite among television and radio producers keen to pit him against wannabee experts.

But, frankly, it is like trying to breach the Manchester United defence (and Spiller will know how many times that's been done in recent years): it takes a good 'un to beat him.

On Granada TV last weekend, for example, he was asked which player scored the winner in three FA Cup semi-finals but finished up on the losing side in each year's final. Spiller was, for once, stumped (the answer was Billy Bremner in 1965, '70 and '73).

Still, you would expect him to know a thing or two about football. His library consists of at least 3,000 books, he has newspapers dating back to the war, and his three computers store details on upwards of 250,000 matches and 36,000 players - that is every player who has played League football since 1888.

In fact, there is not an awful lot he does not know about football; transfer fees can be a grey area (the figures vary); ditto missed penalties and bookings (they are seldom recorded), but ask him about sendings-off or international caps or undefeated runs or record victories, or even about players with disabilities (there was a one-armed player who once played for Germany against England, apparently) and Spiller, like any striker worth his salt, regularly produces the goods.

It all started out as a labour of love, of course, but it has turned into quite nice little earner; the Association (ie Spiller) turns over around pounds 80,000 a year, not bad considering it has just the one employee. And his 1994/95 income was boosted to the tune of pounds 6,600 after his pounds 100 at 66-1 with Ladbrokes on a Premiership player scoring five goals paid off when Andy Cole duly obliged (against Ipswich).

Now he is sweating on a pounds 250 bet at 50-1 with William Hill ("Ladbrokes told me where to go") on a player scoring six goals in the Premiership or Football League, and was livid with the then Burnley manager Adrian Heath for substituting five-goal striker Paul Barnes with minutes to go in a game against Stockport last season. (The feat has not, by the way, been achieved since 1968, when Geoff Hurst scored six for West Ham against Sunderland.)

Cynics might call him a trainspotter-made-good, but in reality he is unique in that he has turned a hobby into a priceless commodity and become a font of knowledge on a game which is expanding out of all recognition.

One wonders, in fact, how much longer he will be able to work a 16-hour day (at least), single-handedly, out of his modest offices in Basildon, even if his task has been eased somewhat now that most of the big clubs - not before time, it has to be said - employ a statistician and/or a historian.

However, it is still to Spiller that most enquiries are referred - to paraphrase that AA ad, he is usually the man who can help in an emergency.

But even he is just hoping that, come the end of the season, he will not be the only one with the low-down on Christian Gross.