John McCormick again raises Salut! Sunderland to levels of erudition George Dixon and Monsier Salut’s other hapless teachers would have thought impossible. But it all boils down to Everton romping past us in the FA cup replay thanks not to one of those Leon Osman ‘fall over own feet and wait for Howard Webb to see the invisible foul’ routines but to crafty subsidisation of away support. Unless, of course, they were just miles better than us …
When I wrote last week about the importance and use of hard data in football I was expecting comments that hard data alone will not give the full picture. I’d have had to agree, of course it won’t.
If that was all that mattered then all we would need to do would be to plug the most recent data into a computer and wait for it to churn out the team for the next match and the training programme they were to follow. If they didn’t win we wouldn’t sack the manager, we’d just buy a better system. Imagine the moaning about that – “It’s because I’m a Dalek….”
Where information is concerned there’s no doubt football has a soft side, although it’s difficult to think of the coach of our development team and the word soft in the same sentence. (In fact, it’s difficult for me to even think of “our development team”. Where did that come from?)
One of my former colleagues is a psychologist, specialising in the performance of elite sportspersons. He never mentioned footballers but he did tell me about a time when he watched a Formula 1 driver race. Within a few seconds of the start the driver was screaming around a bend at over 100 mph, inches behind someone and surrounded by more cars. After the race my colleague asked the driver what he was thinking. The answer was “Get out of the way, you b******s. I can go faster and you’re stopping me”.
Can an attitude like that be measured in any meaningful way? I have my reservations but lot of people are making good money by saying yes. The recruitment industry spends a fortune on commercially confidential psychometric tests, with different firms claiming theirs are more valid (they do what they say they do) and reliable (they do it consistently) than their competitors. Academics do something similar with tests, questions and surveys and I’m sure the advertising industry thinks Lickert scales are wonderful. (You will have seen these. They typically begin, “on a 1-7 scale, where 1 is strongly agree and 7 is strongly disagree, what would you…”). All of these are attractive because they can produce results in numerical form, ready for mathematical and statistical treatment which answers doubts about confidence (are results due to chance?) and significance (do differences mean anything?).
However, I’m not so sure this matters so much in professional sport. There are attempts to measure attitudes and what psychologists term “affect” in sportspersons but, really, how useful are they? Often the results are so bound with ifs and buts that they are meaningless, and sometimes the findings state the obvious or make something of nothing. Would you be surprised if a survey found professional athletes were, on average, more competitive than mere mortals?
Could you really care if someone said Roy Keane scored 9.9/10 on a competitiveness test but Bally only scored 9.8 and Catts 9.7while the average adult scored 5? Can the differences between such players ever be significant?
If measurement is difficult with individuals what must it be like when there is a group involved? 1973 saw eleven players and one manager become something greater than the sum of its parts, a team with an indomitable spirit. How can you measure intangibles like team spirit? And if you can’t measure it you can’t measure how well you’re building it. But then, you’re probably not building it on your own. There might be a leader but there will be contributions from elsewhere whose impact can’t be quantified. Bob Stokoe well merits his statue for what he achieved but he got help from various places. You might hear stories about Billy Hughes’s laughing box or Dave Watson’s guitar even now. Stokoe had the nous to build on what was there and harness its force.
Did we fans help generate that force? I like to think so. I would argue the away support at Notts County, Man City and Hillsbrough played its part in getting the team to Wembley (I wasn’t at the Reading replay, feel free to include it). Howard Kendall would probably agree with me. Here’s what he said in the Liverpool Echo in March after Everton laid on coaches to the SOL:
“Those extra small percentages make a big difference in FA Cup games, and the added boost that the Everton players will have received running out in front of 6,200 of their own fans did the trick on Tuesday. Players shouldn’t need extra motivation, but anyone who thinks seeing so many travelling fans won’t automatically spur a footballer on that little bit more is kidding themselves. You only needed to look at how Sunderland’s terrific travelling fans made such a big difference for their team in the original game.”
It cost Everton about £40,000 to put on those coaches. It’s impossible to say how much the club gained in return but by any reckoning that £40,000 must have been a bargain. And that’s the point. We know individual determination, team morale and fan support are crucial to success but they can’t just be assigned a particular worth or given a number.
Credit is due to the Everton board and executives for understanding this. Let’s hope our directors, discussed last week by M Salut, with help from Ian Todd, are as savvy. The decision to move the away end and recent moves to increase our international profile suggest they are moving in the right direction.
But no matter how well they can set up a club there isn’t a Board around which can do the same for a team. That’s why we have managers.
They do need hard data to give them a basis for action but, as with Bob Stokoe, it’s their people skills, their experience and their intelligence in making the crucial decisions which builds a team and brings out the best in its players, match after match after match. This means, to quote Kuper and Szymanski, of “Soccernomics” fame, “there will always be a place for gut alongside numbers”.
And what does all of this mean for you?
Well, if you‘re losing your favourite spot in the SOL to make space for relocated fans, go gracefully. If you have forked out your £50 only to find you don’t like the logo or feel of the new strip, live with the discomfort. And if MON says he is keeping Cattermole because of his attitude and his effect on the rest of the squad, go along with his judgement. Think “aggregation of minimal gains”. Some things can’t be measured. That doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Be glad the club is addressing them.