Where are all the Saints? Southampton FCs Summer Exodus

31 Jul

There’s an irony that just over ten minutes walk away from Southampton’s St. Mary’s stadium is reputedly the spot where king Canute tried to reprove his courtiers by ordering the tide to turn back; Ironic because Chairman Ralph Krueger’s insistence that Jay Rodriguez and Morgan Schneiderlin are not up for sale seems to be a similar exercise in futility.

Ever since manager Pochettino was lured away by Spurs in May following his successful inaugural season in the Premier League where his style of play won both plaudits and a well regarded 8th place finish for the club Saints fans have braced themselves for an exodus of playing staff.

The situation was only exasperated by the shop window afforded by a World Cup tournament however, only the most pessimistic could have predicted the unprecedented number of players making for the exit. Whilst few fans would begrudge Rickie Lambert a boyhood dream move after years of loyal service and goals which have seen the club rise from the depths of League One, and most expected Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw to depart for big clubs, the loss of Calum Chambers and Dejan Lovren is an altogether harder pill to swallow.

While Pochettino’s main concern is to avoid the slide into mediocrity which undid Glenn Hoddle who made the same move from the South Coast to London in 2001 his replacement Ronald Koeman – a man still best known in England for allegedly costing Graham Taylor his job as England manager – faces a full-blown crisis.

With the beginning of the Premier League season fast approaching Koeman has only succeed in completing two permanent signings, those of Graziano Pelle from his former club Feyenoord and Dusan Tadic from FC Twente along with the addition of Ryan Bertrand on a season-long loan from Chelsea. This lack of recruitment despite recouping a reported figure of around £75 million in transfer fees is also leading to renewed concerns among sections of the fanbase about the intentions of club owner Katharina Liebherr, who inherited the club from her late father Markus.

With Krueger coming out to categorically insist that the club aren’t up for sale, perhaps the harder truth for Southampton fans – also spoilt by years of Le Tissier loyalty – is that in the era of big-money Champions League football the club will always struggle to the retain players, or managers whose success puts them on the radar of bigger clubs. As Canute proved, not so far away, it isn’t easy to turn back the tide.

The dream of Reddit FC

21 Jul

Congratulations to the winner of this year’s WSC Writers Comp. It wasn’t me, but there’s always next year! Anyway here is my entry about a few people with an enduring dream. As an aside If  you’re at all interested in Web FC here is an article I wrote for IBWM on the club.

Reddit FC have yet to kick a ball. They may never do so. They have no ground, nor even any players. The club is at present no more than a collective dream splashed across the bulletin-boards of the social media site Reddit. It’s sole possession the enthusiasm of a group of people who have most likely never met face-to-face, but who all want the same thing: a stake in the ownership and some sort of say in the day-to-day running of a football club.

The way they hope to do this, as outlined by the threads originator SimonFOOTBALL, is to mobilise the resources of a large online community, crowdsourcing the capital required to take-over a club. In return those contributing can expect to hold a stake which entitles them to vote on certain decisions. Since the first appearance of the thread on the Reddit site on the 10thApril the sites users have been engaging in a frantic exchange of ideas and debate. Discussions mainly focus on strategies of revenue generation, which clubs best serve as potential take-over targets (Grimsby Town, Lincoln City, Bedford Town, Carshalton Athletic and Alfreton Town all receiving suggestions) and far-fetched talk of reaching the Premier League which nestles alongside more grounded debate about how to develop a club constitution.

The concept behind Reddit FC, is however, nothing new. Almost as soon as the internet began to become a fixture in peoples homes at the turn of the millennium attempts were made to harness it’s potential to operate a football club as a collective enterprise. Web FC, a club which the brainchild of Caen-based P.E Teacher and technology enthusiast Frederic Gauquelin began in 2002 playing in the lower reaches of the French regional football. Visitors to the clubs website could set tactics, training schedules and pick the team. In February 2008 MyFootballCub, an internet based community of over 20 000 members from around the world, took over Conference side Ebbsfleet Town with members similarly making decisions on the running of the club along with crowdsourcing the finance for player purchases and even volunteering in roles such as club Chairman.

Despite initial successes such as Ebbsfleet’s May 2008 FA Trophy victory over Torquay and Web FCs successive promotions both, like all other similar schemes so far, proved to be shortlived. Web FC failed to find a sustainable business model which would maintain early momentum and propel the club beyond regional football. The club finally folded in 2007 after two seasons of stagnation. For its part MyFootballClub, which operated on a subscription basis with members paying an annual fee, suffered a sharp and catastrophic decline in membership. After reaching a high of over 30 000 members by late 2010 only 3500 remained as disappointment set in over just what decisions members could vote on, with the lack of ability to pick the team being a particular point of issue. Other issues concerned the troubled relationship between the clubs indigenous fans and it’s online ‘owners.’

Such failures though have done little to deter the fans, such as those behind Reddit FC, who look to the internet as a way to give fans a place at the heart of a club. Starting with a Tweet in 2013 Nashville FC became the first supporter owned football club in the United States, taking to the field in the National Premier Soccer League for the first time in May 2014. Funded by a membership prospective owners can sign-up on the clubs website for just $40 a year in return for a t-shirt and voting rights on ‘all major club decisions’.


In part this desire stems from the desire of many ordinary people to play the role of football manager, evidenced by the embedded popularity of the management sim genre over the past thirty years. Although these have increased in sophistication, there is an added thrill, as pointed out by several Web FC members, which can only come from the action taking place in the real-world. More fundamentally though, there has also been growing unease over the current dominant model of club ownership. This season alone has seen battles over the renaming of Hull City as Hull Tigers and the continuation of the controversy over the decision to change the team colours at Cardiff City from blue to red; In both cases these were instituted by a single owner against the wishes of many in the wider fan-community. With countless other tales of financial mismanagement and the trampling of revered traditions support for alternative schemes of fan-ownership has grown.

The technology of the internet, which continues to evolve, promises much on both counts. Fan ‘owners’ even from a distance can become involved through watching matches, training sessions and meetings via a live-stream whilst text, or internet voting provides the kind of democracy one-time US presidential candidate Ross Perot was imagining in the 1990s when he ran on a campaign ticket featuring a vision for electronic town halls where citizens voted on individual issues.

The real-world barriers though remain high. For Reddit FC the odds that it’s founders dreams of owning a real football club will ever become reality, let alone their team reaching the Premier League, are perhaps very slim indeed – Although over 1800 subscribers have been attracted to the thread in little over a month this is still far short of the 50 000 paying members SimonFOOTBALL, estimates is needed for the project to succeed. As for whether Nashville FC will prove to be a more sustainable model than previous attempts is a question which can only be answered in the course of time, but whatever the outcome in either case what seems almost certain is that the dream of an internet-based community collectively owning and running a football club is one which will continue to endure.

Build it and they will come: The impact on domestic attendances of hosting a major tournament

17 Jul

World Cups and continental level championships represent one of the few times large amounts of – mainly public – money is invested into new stadia projects. In Brazil it was reported that a large part of the $11.5bn on the world cup was on stadia whilst Russia is reportedly on course to spend $20 billion.

Left to clubs alone it is hard to see how this scale of investement would be matched. Even with money rushing through the game much of this is spent on wages, with very little on long-term infrastructure projects.

For a while I’ve had a theory that large increases in attendance are driven by the hosting of tournaments; These present an opportunity and impetus to renew and expand stadia along with the upgrading of transport links. New stadia are also proven to attract greater numbers of supporters – what business consultancy firm Deloitte call the ‘new stadium effect.’ But just what is the scale of the impact hosting tournament has on attendances, and how long does it last?

Using data on average attendances from the European Football Statistics website I looked at top-flight domestic attendances in the years leading up to and after a tournament. Due to data availability I have only included European based tournaments beginning with Euro 88 and have omitted Euro 2000 (Belgium).

Firstly I have compared the average attendance across the three seasons before and the three seasons following a tournament. In almost all cases average attendances show an increase for the period after a tournament.

tournament bar graph

Next I decided to look at the pattern of attendances over a twelve season period, taking six seasons before each tournament as a starting point:

Euros Index

In all the cases above the average attendance was higher in the sixth season after the tournament than in the sixth season before the tournament. Looking at the period immediately after hosting a tournament however, Austria appears to have experienced a rapid contraction in league attendances which very nearly mirrors the rapid increase it experienced in the build-up to joint hosting Euro 2008 with Switzerland – and quite coincidentally leads to the graph resembling an alpine mountain range.

Index sui Aus


Looking at World Cup Tournaments however, Italia 90 presents an exception where, despite a £2 billion investment in stadia, league attendances were actually lower in the sixth season following the tournament than in the sixth season before. There was however, a sharp rise in attendances in the first season after the tournament and a slower rise in the second, suggesting that the  investment did have some limited short term impact. Similarly for France 98, although Ligue 1 attendances rose sharply immediately before and after the tournament, by three seasons after the tournament growth had slowed and by five seasons had begun to retract.

World Cup index av att


The most recent data is available from Euro 2012 hosted by Poland and the Ukraine. Although it is too early to compare the longer-term trend it appears that both experienced rapid increases in average attendance immediately ahead of the tournament; For Poland this was two seasons before, whilst for the Ukraine experienced an increase from three seasons before the tournament. In both cases too growth appears to have stalled, with both experiencing a decline in the second season following the tournament.


Euro 2012


Combining the data for a number of tournaments I’ve produced the next graph to show the overall pattern. It bears a small resemblance to a worm with a very slight ‘s’s shape  and shows that, on average attendance growth is strongest in the period from two seasons before a tournament to three seasons following it. After which point attendances stabilise.

Index combined


Of course none of this proves anything; There are many, many factors which can influence attendances over both the short-term – such as promotion and relegation, or economic recession – whilst in the long-term there may be underlying trends driven by social change such as the long-term decline in English attendances from the 1950s to the 1980s and the subsequent recovery which lasted well into the noughties. It is impossible to disentangle these factors from the hosting of major tournaments in terms of their share of the effect. What we can say however is that for the tournaments shown – in Europe going back to 1988 – these do not appear to have any adverse effect on attendance, and although in a limited number of cases attendances may decline in the period following the tournament in the vast majority six seasons on from hosting a major tournament domestic attendances are higher than they were before the tournament. This suggests that in most increases in attendance, whether deriving from investment related to the tournament, or for some other reason appear to be sustainable over this period. Build it and they will come.






Is Everything You Know About Football Wrong? Why analytics won’t tell you everything

14 Jul

The news from the World Cup that among the victorious German sides arsenal was a sophisticated software analysis tool named Match Insights which is able to convert match data into simulations and graphs marks yet another triumph for the art of using in-depth statistical analysis to gain insights and improve performance.

Data analysis in football is of course nothing new. In 1968 Charles Reep co-authored a statistical paper Skill and Chance in Association Football in the journal of the Royal Statistical Society. The fruits of many years of having a pencil and notepad handy this was full of formulae seeking to unlock the secret of the most effective way of playing; Reep’s insights included the famous observation that most goals come from moves of three passes or less. Reep even achieved some influence – not least over Norwegian football – and is credited with popularising the long-ball game. Though that is perhaps also the reason for his downfall; long-ball being a style which wins few friends (though the writer Jonathan Wilson would later point out a crucial flaw in some of Reep’s analysis, namely that he had overestimated the actual efficiency of the three pass or less rule).

In any case Reep remained something of an oddity and the analytical approach firmly in the margins. That was until fairly recently. Footballs quantitative turn can be in part traced to events in another sport. It was the early noughties when the Oakland ‘A’s, an unfancied baseball team with a low budget exceeded all expectations. Their secret, captured in the book and film Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, was to use analytical techniques – often referred to as sabermetrics – to find players which had been hitherto undervalued by the market by finding new and better measures of ability.

It was nothing short of a revolution. Billy Beane the Oakland ‘A’s manager hailed the analytical approach as not just the key to improving performance, but also being able to deliver meritocracy and diversity whilst ending the insider/outsider divide in baseball. In football proponents of the data approach have also sought to challenge accepted wisdom; Chris Anderson and David Sally’s 2013 book, The Numbers Game being provocatively subtitled Why Everything You Know About Football is Wrong. Meanwhile clubs have clamoured aboard the analytic bandwagon; Last season it was reported that every single Premier League club was employing an analyst with the club who would go on to the championship, Manchester City, employing eleven.

That the German team used such analysis is therefore of little surprise. But there is a danger in over-emphasising the power of the technique. One issue is that football possesses a great deal of complexity, more so than a game such as baseball where the game is built around the key interaction between pitcher and batter. With 22 players on the field, all possessing free-will it can be hard to make accurate forecasts and simulations, not least when other factors come into play such as the effect of the crowd, psychology, the weather or even the performance of match officials. Furthermore in a game of football any one players individual performance data makes little sense outside of the context of their role in their team; for instance a player may be effective in one teams system, but then upon joining another team struggles to make any impact.

Although Beane, who points to the same issues in baseball, believes it is one which improvements in technology can, in time, overcome the issue remains that the problem with any analytical model is that it can only account for what is in the model. There are a multitude of events which will be outside the model such as the impact of a cold virus sweeping through the camp just before a game, or a key player becoming unsettled by a transfer bid. The success of a club is only partly achieved on the pitch, the rest – the financing, the corporate deals, the youth set up is also beyond the scope of match analytics. That is not to say that analytics – and God forbid heatmaps – are not worthwhile. They are. They are a valuable tool in reading and understanding the game. But that is just what they are – a tool. One of many. Alone they cannot hope capture football in all it’s glorious complexity.


English Football Attendances: Infographic

5 Jul

Football Infographic

European Average Attendances 2014

1 Jul

2013/14 was for the Premier League a record breaking year when it came to attendances. Based on the unofficial figures from the website European Football Statistics the average attendance figure of 36 670 (up from 35 921) represents the highest since the Premier League began and puts the division on a par with the kind of peak attendances seen in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Premier League Graph3

Much of the increase though can be put down to changes in the composition of the league – The loss of the two clubs with the lowest attendances for 2012/13, Wigan and QPR (19 359 and 17 779 respectively), to relegation at the end of the previous season undoubtedly helped the overall average as did the promotion in their place of Cardiff City who posted an average attendance of 27 430 for their debut Premier League Season. Like-for-like attendances however, remained virtually static with an increase of just 0.01%. This means that the Premier League has also failed to make any inroads on Germany’s Bundesliga which enjoyed a similarly small like-for-like increase of 0.56% to remain, on average, Europe’s best attended league with an average attendance figure of 43 499. The issue for the Premier League is very much one of ground capacity however, Tottenham’s new 56 000 capacity ground remains on the drawing board whilst West Ham’s move to the 54 000 seater Olympic Stadium is still some two years away.

Average attendances big 5

Elsewhere among the big 5 in Spain the top three clubs, Barca, Real and Atletico all saw modest rises in their average attendances from the previous season, however outside this top group nine out of the remaining fourteen clubs saw their average attendance fall. As a whole the league experienced a decline of 1282 in the average attendance figure to 26 955, with a like-for-like fall of 672, or 2.29%. In Italy Serie A experienced a small rise in average attendances, up 76 to 23 310 however for anyone wanting to infer that this may be a rallying point after a decade long decline in attendances would be disappointed to hear that like-for-like attendances actually declined by 0.83%

Per cent average attendance

The best news among the elite group came in France where the wisdom of the saying “build it and the will come” was put to the test. Moving into their new ground OGC Nice saw their average attendance balloon from 10 271 to 22 913 contributing to an overall increase of 9.07% and like-for-like increase of 11.15% for Ligue 1. As Lyon and Bordeaux are among those awaiting new stadia constructed for Euro 2016, Ligue 1 is likely to enjoy similar boosts next season, potentially putting it within reach of Serie A.

Outside of the big 5, Greek football attendances continued to demonstrate the disastrous effect economic crisis has on stadium crowds declining from 4976 in 2012/13 to 3876 for 2013/14, significantly lower than the 2008/09 average of 7622. In Russia average attendances have fallen to 11 620, their lowest level for 10 years however, with a stadia building programme planned ahead of the 2018 World Cup Russian clubs could well benefit from the new stadium effect.

Greece Average 2

Below the top leagues the most significant piece of news was the re-emergence of the German 2nd tier as the best attended 2nd tier league. It had previously wrested away the English Championship’s crown in 2007/08, following a period of high-growth, but held this for only one season as its average declined. Returning to growth once again it has overtaken the Championship which has, like the English Premier League, seen attendances remain more, or less static.

2bundesliga (1)

Why the US Men’s National Team Will One Day Win the World Cup

29 Jun

In telling his players to change their families travel plans, in anticipation of reaching the final – what would be the first time in their history – Jurgen Klinsmann may be jumping the mark, but whatever happens at this years tournament it is surely only a matter of time before the US men’s national team win the trophy.

It is exactly two decades since USA ’94. Won by Brazil in a penalty shoot out against Italy. The final itself a neat demonstration of the power-dynamic which has seen every single tournament won by either a South American, or European nation. The hosts themselves reached the round of 16, losing 1-0 to Brazil, a respectable enough performance for what was a largely unfancied side.

Off the field though USA ’94 was meant to play a wider role in the development of North American football. For a global sport The USA had remained, football’s last great unconquered territory with a largely indifferent public used to a diet of American Football, Baseball, Basketball and Ice Hockey. Football had remained a minority interest with no top-class league to speak of since the rapid decline and collapse of the spectacular, but short-lived, NASL in the mid-1980s

As part of the deal which took the world cup to the states a new professional league, the MLS, was established in the wake of the tournament in 1996. Consisting of an Eastern and Western Conference, with five teams each it was a tentative step, with an emphasis on sustainability. So far it seems the MLS has succeded where it’s predecessors had failed. In 2013 the number of teams has almost doubled to 19, a number which will expand again with the addition of several more teams in the near future. Attendances have also grown to a healthy figure with the 2013 season seeing an average attendance in excess of 18 000, higher than both the NBA and NHL, whilst the Seattle Sounders average of over 44 000 exceeded the vast majority of baseball teams, including the Seattle Mariners.

As well as providing a stable platform for developing players the biggest contribution the MLS has made is to raise the profile of football in the states and the fostering a fan culture. It is this which is most crucial to the future of the men’s national team. In a country of over 318 million people the United States possesses vast human, as well as material resources. The combination of which has seen it dominate a vast number of sporting fields; There can be no better demonstration of this than its position at the top of the 2012 Olympics medal table with 104 medals, 46 of them gold. The nearest rival, China managed a total of 88.

The lesson is that when the USA turns its attention to a sport success almost inevitably follows. Already there are signs of increasing amounts of resources being directed at football, and in particular player development. In 2007, following a comprehensive review of player development, U.S Soccer established a development academy focused on elite youth players, bringing together national team coaches and youth academy sides, many of which are attached to MLS clubs.

In achieving world cup success the US men’s team would also simply be following in the trail of the US women’s side. Currently ranked 1st in the world by FIFA the US women’s national team has won a host of titles, including the women’s world cup in 1999 and Olympic gold medals in 1996, 2004, 2008 and 2012.

When the US is determined, it is a force to be reckoned with.



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