Early days at Liverpool and the emergence of analysis


in the 1970s, Liverpool Polytechnic was at the heart of the debate about sport science. Vaughan Thomas, Tom Reilly and Frank Sanderson were right in the middle of this debate and set in place structures that promoted sport science. Vaughan arrived in 1971, Frank in 1973. Tom was at Liverpool before Frank arrived.

I was teaching physical education at the time and had started doing some hand notation in real time. This meant that I did keep an eye on what the Liverpool group were doing. The The School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Liverpool was founded in 1975 and soon thereafter, the School became first institution in the world to host a single honours’ program in sport science (link).

Vaughan had moved in 1971 from St Mary’s College at Strawberry Hill to the Liverpool Polytechnic. He shared some of his laboratory experience in a book published by Faber in 1970 Science and Sport: The measurement and Improvement of Performance. João Medeiros (2018) (link) regarded this as “one of the seminal monographs in exercise physiology” and underscored Vaughan’s belief “that if this nascent science was to make progress and gain credibility, then an interdisciplinary approach was required” (link).

Shortly after his arrival in Liverpool, Vaughan dined with John Moores at the Everton hospitality suite. At the meeting it was agreed to fund a sport science laboratory that could be of service to Everton and forged a direct link between the polytechnic and professional football (link). During the summer of 1972, “a fitness consultancy was established between Everton F.C. and Liverpool Polytechnic. The major objective was to test the fitness of the club’s professional players and to monitor fitness profiles throughout a full season (Reilly, 1975:24).

Vaughan was joined by Tom Reilly in the Everton project. At the time, Tom was twenty-five years old and had graduated from the Royal Free Hospital in London with a masters in ergonomics (link). He had also gained a postgraduate qualification in physical education at St Mary’s College, Strawberry Hill. Tom’s PhD explore the physiological demands of football. Data for the thesis were collected in the 1972-1973 season.

Tom’s thesis, submitted in June 1975, was titled An ergonomics evaluation of occupational stress in professional football (link). A number of papers emerged from this work, including: Thomas Reilly and Vaughan Thomas (1976), A motion analysis of work-rate in different contact roles inprofessional football match-play; Thomas Reilly and Vaughan Thomas (1977) (link), Applications of Multivariate Analysis to the Fitness Assessment of Soccer Players; Thomas Reilly and Vaughan Thomas (1978) (link), Estimated daily energy expenditures of professional association footballers; Vaughan Thomas and Thomas Reilly (1979) (link), Fitness assessment of English league soccer players through the competitive season.

Tom’s Thesis

Tom’s thesis is available as a pdf from Liverpool John Moores University eprint (link). I regard this as one of the most important documents in the history of sport science and performance analysis. In his acknowledgements, Tom noted “I am especially indebted to Dr. Vaughan Thomas for the opportunity afforded to me of undertaking this investigation and for his tireless enthusiasm for the research as it progressed” (1975:iii). He also acknowledged “the management and staff at Everton Football Club for their co-operation”. Tom’s thesis was a typescript manuscript.

In his abstract, Tom observed that his was an investigation of occupational stress in professional football. He noted “This necessitated assessment of the strain imposed on players in training, competition and habitual contexts and of their capacity to meet strain levels encountered”. In his study, capacity was evaluated from the results of a multi-Item test battery which included physical, physiological and psychological fitness parameters (1975:iv). The participants in the study were members of an English First division soccer team.

Tom’s methodology for his thesis included “motion analysis for the quantification of work rate during competition”. He noted that “Match play typically involved about 900 separate movement activities”. Tom found differences in distance covered per game between positional roles and argued “the work load being greatest in mid-fielders and least among outfield players in centre-backs” (1975:v).

Tom’s review of the literature included a look at distances travelled. He cite Wade (1962), Vinnai (1973), Knowles and Brooke (1974), Zelenka et al (1967). This sets an important benchmark for subsequent studies of the movement characteristics of players.

His methodology included a battery of fitness tests: pre-season; end of pre-season training; mid-season; end of season (1975:37). He looked carefully at players’ movements: “Each discrete activity during competitive play was recorded from observation, any change in the nature and level of behaviour constituting a new activity. Movement was divided into walking, backing and running. Running was sub-divided according to intensity into jogging, cruising (running with manifest purpose and effort) and sprinting. Where distance was covered in possession of the ball, this was recorded (1975:61). Tom had communicated with a researcher (Bengt Saltin) who had recorded players’ movements with a cine camera. Tom concluded that this approach was “too expensive to employ for collecting the amount of data required to investigate positional differences, apart from the technical problems of obtaining measurements of distance from the film” (1975:61).

Tom noted “to assist the estimation of distance a number of cues on the playing pitch and its boundaries were used. A map of the home pitch was drawn up and a grid superimposed on this. The lime markings on the playing pitch provided the framework for this purpose”. At away games, “the dimensions of the playing pitch were obtained from ground staff and checked using a”steel tape on one half of the pitch. Convenient visual cues incorporated in the advertisement hoardings along the far side-line were used as, a basis for interpolating between pitch markings” (1975:62).

Tom observed 51 competitive games. His observations “were made from a seat in the Directors’ Box overlooking the half-way line in one metre units. The activity of one individual was monitored for the duration of a complete game. A coded commentary of his activity was recorded using a cassette tape-recorder. In addition to his experimental method, to further check on validity and reliability, “a video-tape recording was made by an assistant, the camera following the same participant throughout one complete match”(1975:65). Plate 15 in the thesis has this picture of Tom’s system.

Tom looked at the overall distance covered by outfield players during competition. Distances “ranged from 7069 to 10921m with a mean of 8680m and a standard deviation of 1011m. Of this, 36.8% was covered jogging, 24.8%% walking, 20.5% cruising, II. 2% sprinting and 6.7% backing. The proportion of the overall distance covered in possession of the ball ranged from 4.0 to 0.26% with a mean of 1.73% and a standard deviation of 0.87%” (1975:126). “The overall distance covered per game was 7759m (SD = 521m) for centre-backs, 8245m (SD = 816m) for full-backs, 9805m (SD 787m) m for mid-fielders and 8397m (SD = 710m) for strikers” (1975:127).

Tom’s Appendices 41 and 42 share information about distances travelled.


Frank Sanderson joined the Department in 1973. He and Tom shared an office in his early years there. He was the admissions tutor in September 1975 when the first students enrolled on the sports science degree. Frank lectured in sports psychology for many years and later in his career became head of the Department of Sports Sciences and then as Director of the School of Health Sciences. Frank was county squash player.

It was Frank’s work in notation that attracted my attention. Stafford Murray and his colleagues (2016) observe that his “basic profiling and data collection and data presentation … still form the basis of our work today” (link). In 1977, Frank published with K Way a brief paper titled The Development of Objective Methods of Game Analysis in Squash Rackets. They noted “the speed of play,a system was required which enabled the relevant information to be recorded quickly and accurately. Illustrative symbols were found to be more suitable for recording strokes than word initials, and the use of court plans solved the problem of extracting reasonably accurate positional information”.

They added “Using the product-moment correlation analysis in a context … an assessment of the similarity of stroke frequencies of individual players in different matches and against different opponents was made. Results indicate that players show a higher degree of consistency (in terms of similarity between measured parameters) when winning rather than losing”.

Frank published a subsequent squash paper in 1983 titled Developing a hand notation system for squash. This paper looked at playing patterns in squash. This hand notation used symbols to notate game play. My reading of these data is that they laid a platform for Mike Hughes to develop with his computerised notation of squash (link). Mike shared some of his early ideas (he too was a county squash player) in a 1985 paper (link) titled A comparison of the patterns of play of squash. in a 1988 paper, Mike noted:

Notation systems in sport developed rapidly from racket games to team sports. Initially all systems were manual. The development and growth in power and sophistication, together with a decrease in cost, of the micro-computer in the early 1980s has enabled sports analysts to use this tool to simplify data handling. Far greater amounts of data can now be handled, processed and analysed in a fraction of the time taken previously.

Back in 1963, before sport science plans at Liverpool Polytechnic had started to coalesce, a group of economists met to discuss the concept of “take-off”. Walt Rostow’s concept was that Take-off “is an industrial revolution, tied directly to radical changes in methods of production, having their decisive consequences over a relatively short period of time” (link) (my emphasis). In an edited version of those conversations, Walt Rostow suggested that take-off will have to look after itself. “Each reader will make an assessment of the debate” (link). I thought what happened in Liverpool in the 1970s was a take-off moment. Together, Vaughan, Tom and Frank provided the foundation for subsequent work to emerge. It is interesting that Frank’s work developed in Mike Hughes’s use of computerised notation of squash enriched by Mike’s passion as a player and coach.

What is interesting for me is how little conversation Tom’s ergonomic work received. It was discussed in papers he and Vaughan co-wrote. I took the essence of Tom’s work to be its interdisciplinarity. I thought his thesis combined important stressors in professional footballers’ lives. I trust its availability as an eprint will make it possible for those interested in exercise physiology, ergonomics and performance analytics to read it as a classic in our literature.


The history I share here took place whilst I was a young physical education teacher in Richmond-upon-Thames. I had been working on some real-time hand notation in rugby union whilst teaching. I was a rugby player and at that time was playing at London Welsh. Three years later in 1978, I moved to St Mary’s College as a teacher educator and coach of the College rugby team. Vaughan had left St Mary’s eight years earlier but he was still talked about as a charismatic, transformative person. Ironically, I became the course director of the course that accredited Tom’s physical education qualifications from Ireland. There was a sense that we were vicariously involved with Liverpool. As I developed game analysis courses at St Mary’s, I kept a close eye on Liverpool and also what was starting to happen at Lady Mabel College with John Alderson and Celia Brackenridge (link). Both institutions were undergoing exciting changes and both had decided to invest in sport science. At this time, everyone involved in the changes were players or coaches and this informed their work profoundly in terms of the research agenda.

In the 1980s I became part of a group that discussed notational systems. My hand notations did not involve symbols and I found that I could notate a game in real time without any delay. The data I collected were available immediately to coaches and I found we could discuss these data as part of an ongoing conversation within a game. I was keen to introduce some philosophical discussions into our practice as analysts. Jim Parry (link) had started introducing some of these ideas and challenged our profession to think about what and how we gathered data. With Celia, I was keen to add conversations about the social construction of reality and introduce some of my Weberian ‘verstehen’ ideas (link). Mike Hughes developed his microcomputer systems in the 1980s and the availability of a concept keyboard accelerated the development of systems (link). Beyond the United Kingdom, Ian Franks (link), a football player and coach, was developing a unit in the University of British Columbia. Ian had graduated as a physical education teacher at Exeter in 1968 and then went to Canada to study aspects of the psychology of sport. Ian qualified as an FA Coach in 1975 and was involved in developments of the Canadian coaching framework in the 1980s. Ian was developing computerised systems for football. I became interested in his work when I read a 1983 paper titled Human Factors in Sports Systems: An Empirical Investigation of Events in Team Games (link), in which Ian and his colleagues David Goodman and Garry Miller used “a recently developed computer system to analyse the events that occur during a soccer game”. Mike did a great deal to share Ian’s work in the United Kingdom. My sense was that access to Ian, his combination of psychology and coaching, and his research group, including in the early days David and Garry, transformed our conversations about observation and analysis.

I am mindful that my recollection of these times are selective. It was exciting to be in at the start of these conversations. I have written about them here as part of a history we share. All the people mentioned were actively involved in sport as players and coaches. Vaughan’s conversation with John Moores at Everton foreshadows every institution’s attempts to be connected with professional sport. That connection, and Tom’s PhD, set the standards for what was to follow. I do hope Tom’s PhD (link) is read more widely and that we are able to discuss interdisciplinarity in our practice.

Photo Credits

Photo by Gianandrea Villa on Unsplash

LJMU photographs from Celebrating 40 Years of Sports Science at LJMU (link)

Ian Franks and David Goodman (Twitter)

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