The Way We Were.

RENFREW FC – Match Programme

League –November 3rd 2018 – BEITH JUNIORS

THE WAY WE WERE.

“Tick.”
“Tack.”
“Tick.”
“Tack.”
The voices amplify as the tension increases. Eventually, the winner’s declared when his size ten, right guttie overlaps that of his opponent’s size nine left.

To the victor, the spoils – in this case, first pick of the assembled masses. At this early stage, tactical choices are not made. Simply the best. And the beaming smile on the face of the proud kid tells its own story. Today, and very possibly yesterday and tomorrow also, he is the best. At least in the eyes of his loyal pal.

The vanquished chooses next, then the victor again. The process is repeated until one poor wee soul remains. Invariably it’s the tubby lad, sucking his thumb and sporting National Health glasses held together by a small Elastoplast. He is grudgingly welcomed by his reluctant captain.

“You can play in goal!”

The jumpers are thrown down, an argument ensues over one team’s goals being wider than the others, and the game kicks off.  It may be a ten minute game. It may last a couple of hours. It may even last until the players are called in by their parents as the street lights glare. Game’s a bogey. No – the match is too tight to call. The captains chat.

Yay!

“OK – that’s half time! 32 – 29 to us! Everyone be here straight after school, right? What’s that Tubby? You gotta do homework. Swot! Don’t worry – we’ll manage.”

Can it be that it was all so simple then
Or has time rewritten every line
And if we had the chance to do it all again
Tell me
Would we?
Could we?

I feel comfortable with the thought that most us most certainly would do it all again, although our ageing limbs and muscles may dispute the ‘could we’ aspect. Regrettably though, it does also seem that time has rewritten every line.

It was so simple back then. We all knew who the good players were. And although we weren’t aware of the expressions, most of us knew how to counteract their threat, by ‘showing them inside,’ ‘getting tight’ or ‘putting him up in the air.’

And now, as supporters some fifty years down the line, our experience of playing to varying levels and indeed just watching football over the years means that even without a UEFA coaching badge, we can tell the good players from the bad.

For example, none of us watching the pre-season tournament at Neilston about fifteen years ago were of any doubt into which category our #8 trialist fell. I’m not one for slagging off players at all, but bless him, this poor lad will go down in Renfrew supporters’ folklore. He was so out his depth, it’s rumoured he had to be treated for ‘the bends’ when he resurfaced after the match.

The point is – do we really need to rewrite every line to understand football properly?

Apparently we do.

Over the past decade or so, certainly since the release of the 2011 fact-based film, ‘’Moneyball,’ starring Brad Pitt, clubs have been relying more and more on the use of statistics in their monitoring of players and opposition.

Yes – stats. ‘Statistics: the mathematical theory of ignorance,’ according to the Professor of Mathematics, Morris Kline. A man after my own heart, obviously.

It all stems back to some bloke called Henry Chadwick, in 1858. It was he who developed the ‘box-score’ method of recording a baseball game. The aim was to maintain a standardised statistical record of any given match. In 1989, a project was launched to computerize the box score of every major league baseball game ever played, in order to more accurately collect and compare the statistics of the game as a whole.

Given the name Sabermetrics, the science of analysing baseball statistics became a ‘thing’ in the Seventies. Yet, it was not until the Oakland A’s focused heavily on the stats to decide who they brought in from the Minors in the 1990s, that the sport and supporters started to take note. The practice was continued when Billy Beane took over as general manager in 1997. With his hired assistant Paul dePodesta, he led the team to an astonishing twenty game winning streak, using hitherto unknown and undervalued players in 2002.

This in turn prompted Michael Lewis to publish his book, ‘Moneyball,’ which was the subsequently turned into the film and … deep breath … we’re back to where we started this, four paragraphs ago.

It’s me, I know. I must be wrong when clubs like Manchester City reportedly employ a team of eleven statisticians. But I’m going to take some convincing that this in vogue trend is no more than another example of the game at the highest level, being awash with money. That clubs employ these people simply because they can.

I’m sure there’s an argument that will shoot me down in flames, but I’ve played competitive baseball and football in England and Scotland, and there are reasons why the application of stats is relevant in one, but not the other. In baseball, the sport is essentially one – v- one: pitcher versus batter. And the action stems from a stationary position. It is quite straightforward to interpret past behaviours in given situations, and predict what one party will try to do next.

In football, though, the game is more fluid. There are more factors to be considered. You cannot, for example, predict who your centre-forward will be up against in any particular situation.  He may be ‘passed on,’ or the expected, experienced centre half may be injured and replaced by a rookie eighteen year old. The ball comes from different angles, heights and speeds. (Ok – same as in baseball to degree, but far more random.) There are other players who will try to influence the outcome of play.

I do like some of the stats that are produced for us, the TV audience or newspaper subscriber. It is interesting to see that De Bruyne averages 55.84 passes per match over his time at The Etihad. Or that Sergio Aguero has blocked 192 shots in his City career. (These are actual averages taken from the Premier League site.)

‘Interesting,’ is one thing, but here’s a random paragraph lifted from the blog of Optapro, one of the biggest and respected provider of statistical information to clubs in UK and abroad:

Kane took the highest proportion of his shots under high pressure last season, with the majority of these shots coming from moderate clarity situations. Compared to other players with at least 50 shots, this was far above average. Kane also took a slightly higher proportion of his shots from high clarity and low pressure situations compared to this sample of players – highlighting his ability to get into these good shooting positions.

Still awake? The last ten words of this simply tell us supporters what we already know.

The trouble with stats, as a simpleton like me sees it, is that they are historical. Based on the gathered information, a manager may opt for player A over player B – only for his choice to have a complete ‘mare.

Nope, I just don’t get it. Henry Clay, the American lawyer, planter and statesman (1777 – 1852) hit the nail on the head when he said that: ‘Statistics are no substitute for judgment.’

Memories, like the corners of my mind
Misty watercolour memories
Of the way we were …


Come on Tubby – please come back. You’re not so bad after all.

THE MAD HATTER.

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