IT MADE be hard for the younger generation to believe, but there was a time when football wasn’t awash with statistics and mathematical analysis. All that mattered was the number of goals you scored, the number you let in, and whether that meant you were in the next round of the cup or moving up the league table.
The most complicated it got was trying to work out your goal average, which was the rule used to split teams tied on points before the advent of the much simpler goal difference. Nowadays you only have to do taking away rather than long division.
Of course, there was the “away goals count double” rule which always had the potential to thoroughly confuse. Did it count before extra-time? Did it count in the League Cup semi-finals? If you lost 3-2 away did that mean you actually won?
No, football was a simple game, a beautiful game, and that’s why it was the world’s most popular game. Why change it?
And then there came an idea that, instead of having penalty shoot-outs – or “kicks from the penalty mark”, as the official FA rules would have it – drawn matches should be decided on the number of corners each side earned. But football fans everywhere shook their heads at the silliness of it all. Not only did it seem a bit artificial, it also meant some poor soul would have to keep count of the corners. Who could be bothered to do that?
Well, as it turned out, poor, put-upon local newspaper reporters could. Or, rather, they had to. Someone decided that what match reports really needed was a bright graphic with the teams and bookings and scorers and … er, how are we going to fill it? I know, count the corners.
So, cub reporters, would-be reporters, volunteers and the terminally dull were all sent off to matches, not to watch the game, not to feel the joy and despair of athletic contest, not to thrill in the excitement, the skill, the drama, but to count corners and free-kicks and generally miss the point altogether.
Actually what happened was that these auditors of footballing facts often did get caught up in the unfolding story on the pitch and lost count or forgot to count. In the early days, there were a lot of what we should think of as “estimated” figures. They made them up.
But the statistical cat was out of the mathematical bag and there was no going back. Now we have whole companies and whole TV channels (yes, I mean you Sky Sports News HQ) making a living from counting and measuring everything that happens on a football pitch, somehow taking away the soul of the game.
I have just seen the aforementioned channel going through how many minutes of football every player chosen for Euro 2016 has already played this season, presumably to try to prove that England are too tired to succeed. The poor dears, being paid all that money to play football all the time. Terrible for them, terrible.
I did get grim satisfaction from the fact that all it really proved was that it didn’t really prove anything as a large proportion of the players in the tournament, from any number of countries, played in England so they should all be as tired as each other. So, no, tiredness will not be an excuse for Roy’s Boys.
Where will this obsession with statistics end? Will the average waistline of each starting XI soon be used to determine who are favourites for a particular clash? Will the number of lace-holes in each pair of boots be compared to decide who has the competitive edge? Lacing-up experts are waiting for their phones to ring as I type.
Will Sky and BT Sport soon be rolling out the glossmeters (yes, they really exist) to see who has the shiniest shirts? Just how silly will it get?
Still, if you can’t beat them, join them. So here’s my statistical analysis of my first football season of exclusively following cup football. Just imagine a pretty presenter in a TV studio reading out numbers on a screen which you can read for yourself anyway and you’ll get the point.
My season started with an FA Cup tie at Saltash on August 15, 2015, which St Austell won 4-0, and ended at Wembley Stadium on Sunday, May 29, 2016, when Millwall were beaten 3-1 by Barnsley in the League One play-off final.
In total, I saw 41 cup matches in 18 different competitions, with 11 home wins, 16 away wins, three draws and 11 matches played at neutral venues. All the games I saw were in Cornwall apart from trips to Roman Glass St George for an FA Vase tie, Plymouth Argyle for a Johnstone Paints Trophy thriller against Millwall which The Lions won 5-3, and, of course, Wembley.
And I made a second trip to Plymouth, this time to Devonport High School for Boys to see a quarter-final in the wonderfully-named Optimus PM Plymouth & West Devon Combination League Marshall Motors SW Premier Cup.
It had been moved to the plastic pitch at the school to cope with the fixture congestion caused by the wettest of wet winters and was a really good battle which ended The Windmill 2 Bar Sol Ona 3. The winners have now been absorbed into their neighbours, Plymouth Parkway, making them the only club I have seen this season who won’t be about for the next campaign.
Incidentally, anyone who has read this blog at any time this season, will know that my favourite name for a competition is the Carlsberg South West Peninsula League Walter C Parson Funeral Directors League Cup. OK, that’s not a statistic but I had to get it in somehow!
And so to the most important statistics of all – goals. I saw an amazing 171 of them in those 41 games, an average of 4.17 per game. The biggest win, and the highest scoring game, was an 8-1 win for Helston Athletic Reserves at Penryn Reserves in the Jolly’s Cornwall Combination League Cup quarter-final. Matt Buchan scored seven goals in that match, all in the second half, the most I saw any player score throughout the season.
But the really amazing fact, the statistic that really stands out, is that, in those 41 games, I didn’t see a single goalless draw. And there were just two that only finished 1-0. I am truly the goals master!
I have had a fabulous season of watching cup football, of watching the highs and the lows, the glory and the gloom. I have had my belief that cup football is the real spirit of the game, the real heart of it, thoroughly and delightfully confirmed. It has been an absolute joy. Cup football is truly number one – and that’s the only stat you really need to know.