Football: The old game succumbs to the stats attack

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The Independent Online
WHEN WE WERE kids we used to spend countless hours playing Owzat, a dice game based on cricket. With the two dice and a limitless imagination you could re-create the Ashes or the Roses match with the bitter enemy, Yorkshire. Like with real cricket, much of the fun came from painstakingly recording every ball in your scorebook and compiling the analyses at the end.

During my enforced break from football administration this year I rekindled my love for cricket by playing for the Bunbury XI, which has raised over pounds 6m for various good causes over the last twelve years. Ian Wright, sitting out another football suspension, returned to the flannelled fold last Sunday, scoring a brisk 21 (predictably the dressing room door suffered when he was questionably given out) and taking two excellent catches. My batting average is 9.27.

By contrast, football was never afflicted by the stats freaks who obsessed on our national summer game. The Football League did not even see fit to officially record goal-scorers for its first 100 years. There was no call for the information and, in the true Corinthian spirit, football, of course, was a team game.

All that may be about to change. American television gave a foretaste of what was about to happen during the 1994 World Cup. "Assists" entered football's already tortured vocabulary overnight.

Now I've invested in two books of football facts and figures. The Rothmans Football Yearbook has long been the bible of the coach and the journalist.

The near 1,000-page tome is, in the words of John Motson on the back cover, "every football follower's first point of reference". (Why ever did they go to Motty, I wonder?) According to The Observer, Rothmans is "the thinking fan's guide to the game", whatever a "thinking fan" is.

Hard on the heels of Rothmans comes the Carling Opta Football Yearbook, which, under the guidance of Don Howe, analyses every club, player, referee, shot, tackle, pass, header and disciplinary record of the 1998-1999 FA Carling Premiership.

Sometimes the narrative falls into inconsistency. The table of yellow cards, etc. awarded by referees is "merely a factual account", yet the commentary goes on to state : "Mike Reed tops the list and was never far from controversy", citing two decisions from 23 matches the Birmingham official controlled. Mark Hughes and John Hartson appear in the "Dirty Dozen", while Peter Schmeichel is one of a number of goalkeepers who didn't have a whistle blown against them in anger at all last season. Wimbledon's Dean Blackwell committed a foul only once every three games, a remarkable statistic for a central defender. It would have been illuminating to ascertain somehow whether this was explained by his own style of play or whether the Dons' defensive strategy afforded him more protection than other players in the same position. Similarly Roland Nilsson, Coventry City's Swedish international, played an average of 2.5 matches for every free-kick he conceded. Given this, it was remarkable that I saw him sent off for two bookable offences when Sweden played Austria in Vienna a couple of seasons ago. He was furious.

Arsenal hit the headlines with seven red cards last season, but achieved a commendable third place in the list of teams committing the fewest fouls. They conceded a mean 17 goals in the process.

Everton won most tackles, so their distribution must have been pretty awful.

Champions Manchester United had three players in the list of those who successfully found a teammate with over 85 per-cent of their passes (Roy Keane was on 88per-cent). Ryan Giggs only reached a colleague with 19 of his 134 crosses, but did his direct runs create panic and confusion which the statistics do not reflect?

The Carling Opta player of the season was Dietmar Hamann of Newcastle United. He scored three long-range goals, completed 86 per-cent of his passes and won 50 per-cent of the challenges he made. Gerard Houllier sees him as the focal point of his re-building at Anfield this season.

Inevitably, a work of this nature can raise almost as many questions as answers. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating trawl through the minutiae of a dramatic season.

Maybe it's only the start. The video analyses and compilation of mind- numbing statistics could be extended to other leagues. Who will be this season's Screwfix Direct League player of the year?

Should we also be taking a closer look at those who help bring this sort of information into the public arena. Does John Motson shout "Amazing" more than Martin Tyler? Which finger does Andy Gray use most to hit the play button on his action replay gizmo?

I feel a headache coming on, and I haven't even switched on my Sky digibox yet with its interactive football which enables me to call the shots.