Neil Lanham: using computers in sport

Introduction

In Football Analytics: Now and Beyond, Daniel Memmert, Jürgen Perl and Robert Rein noted that when computers became available in the late 1970s “more complex data recording and analysis became possible” and “connections to mathematical game theoretical models became feasible”. Their observation sent me off thinking about those early days of computers in sport.

I am fascinated by the biographies of the early pioneers of computer science in sport.

In this blog, I have written about Donald Knuth at the Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, Ohio in the period 1956-1960 (link). The Computer History Museum‘s biography of Donald includes notes:

Knuth’s lifelong love affair with computers began as an undergraduate when he discovered the IBM 650 computer system at Case. He quickly mastered the inner workings of the machine and developed a novel program to automate coaching of the school’s basketball team.

I have written about Anatolij Zelentsov and Valerij Lobanovs’kyj in a golden age of cybernetics in Russia in the 1970s (link). They first met in 1968. They lived near Kyiv, the centre of the Soviet computer industry. An early prototype of a domestic computer was developed there in 1963. Jonathan Wilson observes “it is no great surprise that Lobanovskyi should have been gripped by the spirit of technological optimism”. They worked together for four years at Dnipro and then, in 1974, Valerij was appointed coach of the Dynamo Kyiv team. Anatolij moved to Dynamo Kyiv with him. As their partnership developed, so too did their interest in the ‘functional readiness’ of players. This led Anatolij to develop a computer program to collect and analyse data about players’ physical, cognitive and affective behaviours to inform and support Valerij’s quest to optimise the team’s performances in training and competition.

It strikes me that both posts underscore that Donald, Anatolij and Valerij were situated to take advantage of the availability of computers. Their professional experience enabled them to be open to digital computing. Donald and Anatolij were particularly skilled in using computers. Donald had experience of programming and Anatolij was Dean of the Dnipropetrovsk Institute of Physical Science.

This situation alerts me to the conjunction of ideas and technology. I indicated in a post about Liverpool Polytechnic how analysis practices emerge in a context (link). I think biographies help us understand the origins of analysis. A case in point is Neil Lanham (link), one of the invisible pioneers of computing in sport. I believe it is essential to know about people like Neil. Our provenance as analysts lies with him and his colleagues.

Neil Lanham

I correspond with Neil. I have learned a great deal about his work from him, particularly in relation to his encounter with Charles Reep at Cambridge and Neil’s development of his own real-time hand notation to observe, analyse and transcribe games (link). Neil is one of a very few people remaining that met with Charles (link).

In the 1960s, Neil was a chartered surveyor (link). He ran an estate agency and observed “in my estate agency I had an ICL400 card sorter in the early 70s for sorting applicants into requirements which gave me ideas about the football” (personal communication). In 1963, a relative working at Shell a relative told Neil how at the push of a button she could pay sailors in the Far East. “I never forgot it – I knew that it was the coming world and she advised me on the ICL which was a pre-runner to the PC at that time”. In 1964 Neil invested in a Rotaprint offset litho machine, a plate maker, a Hermes proportionate spacing typewriter and a Polaroid Land Camera. “This enabled us to put a black and white picture on our property particulars, before that it had been Roneo. We were the first in East Anglia to do this and many came to see it” (personal correspondence).

In the 1967-1968 football season, Neil had season tickets at Ipswich when they won the Division 2 Championship (link) and he printed “a set of his caricature drawings in three separate run colours that enabled him to take these foolscap sheets into the Ipswich dressing room” (personal communication).

Eventually, Neil purchased an Apricot computer, a software programme in MSDos and an Oki printer and notes “it initially took over 12 hours to run before we could print out the match report – it now takes seconds!”. Neil dictated the notation code to Hazel, his wife, and she transcribed the hand notations of games into a database for use in the computer. Neil was so impressed with the software program that he invested £8,000 in further programs (“I cannot think that anyone one else would have had the belief to have spend such an amount, but I could see then where it was going and was determined to get my shoulder in front”. (Personal communication).) Neil notated Cambridge, Wimbledon and England (link) games by hand as he saw this as an essential way to observe and record performance.

Neil developed his own notation system and observed it provided him with “a greater view of the workings of the world and particularly how people think and react”. He thought his system enabled him to do in a short time what it would have taken light years to have achieved otherwise. He added “after an auction sale I would study my sale book thinking who bought what and for how much and would he have paid more. Then I wrote a report of several pages thinking everywhere ‘could we have done better?‘. I did exactly the same with my match surveys – which covered both teams. My quarter season reports covered all relevant probabilities and I could advise after the first, from previous experiences, where they were likely to finish at the end of the season” (my emphasis, personal correspondence).

In 1984, Neil wrote to Dave Bassett at Wimbledon (link). He offered to work on a no promotion – no fee basis. Part of the historical record that needs to be corrected is that in no way was Charles Reep was associated with Dave Bassett, John Beck, Steve Coppell or any other managers with whom Neil worked such as Graham Taylor when he was England manager (link) (my emphasis).

When Graham was England Manager, Neil noted: I was the sole analyst working for Graham Taylor … putting every touch of the ball through my bespoke software … 

An extract from a letter to Neil lanham from Graham Taylor
Extract from a letter written to Neil Lanham, 22 May 1992.

Neil’s work as an analyst with Dave Bassett at Wimbledon is mentioned in Dave’s autobiography The Crazy Gang (2015:186):

A quote from the Crazy Gang biography

Ultimately, Neil’s database of match analysis comprised of 5,000 games. 

I have compiled some information about Neil’s work in a Google Doc (link)

I am hopeful that Neil’s perspective assists our understanding of what was happening at a formative time in the use of permanent records of football performance. Dave Bassett and Wally Downes (2015) give a feel for Neil’s work in a supportive environment:

The investment in equipment enabled Neil to go “down to the office at night time printing out averages, ratios rates and framework of probability that would have taken light years by hand” (personal communication).

In 1995, Neil purchased a Cannon digital camera and the software to prepare in house catalogues for his estate agency business with a photo of every lot in every auction sale.

Conclusion

This combination of business and sport does emphasise for me how professional experience situates analysts to pursue their passion for observation and analysis of performance. Neil concluded one of his emails with this comment “I was very lucky in that I was a qualified Chartered Surveyor and had my own business at 23 which supported my eccentric pursuits” (personal correspondence). These pursuits, I suggest, are part of our history and Neil’s work with Cambridge, Watford and England help us understand our roots (link).

In Neil’s case, there is an additional reason for sharing his biography. Not only is he a pioneer, he is also and acclaimed oral historian. He is a member of the Suffolk Branch of the Central Association of Agricultural Values and is involved in Traditions of Suffolk. He is a contributor to The World Oral Literature Project (link).

One of Neil’s oral history papers starts “Stories, in their natural setting, are vitally important to human understanding because they are the tools of wisdom” (link). In the paper, he explores the concept of ‘double vision’. This vision impacted on his work as a football analyst as he came to contemplate “vision beyond the literal” and be sensitive to the ‘Near Constant Law of Chance’. Neil wrote “to understand what really happens we need to see the invisible (chance), that is the second vision and unless you analyse Reep’s way it will not become apparent to you in football so I believe that I have been exceedingly fortunate in my life to discover a way of achieving this second vision in football” (personal correspondence). He added that an holistic view of the invisibles led to “the intangible understandings of the people and their society that go to produce the stories as well as the language and mindset of the teller and the inherited technique in delivery” (link). Of double vision, he wrote that we need “to stand aside from the artificialities that can distort the modern mind, and then take an independent whole-life perspective from the natural world” (link). Neil explored these issues in a 1991 paper (link) wherein he argued that “facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored”. Football is a team game and understanding this makes it possible to investigate the near constant laws of chance. Neil feels strongly that his approach to analysis enabled him to make sense of the invisibles of the game.

These experiences seem to me to be exactly why biographies and oral histories such as Neil’s are so important to us and they become part of a public record about practice.

Postscript

Writing a life history presents important challenges about accuracy and veracity (Ulric Neisser and Robyn Fivush eds. (1994) (link). I have corresponded with Neil throughout the preparation of this post to ensure what i was going to post had veracity and Neil’s approval. In his most recent correspondence, Neil wrote “Please be aware that behind what I write can be many meanings. Some of which I want to say or just imply some I do not and you only need to add or delete or alter one word to change what can be said”. This is a very important issue, I believe.

I do hope this post gives a feel for Neil and his work. He is a very important figure in our analytics history. He is a member of a small group who met and knew Charles Reep.

Back in 1935, John Dollard (link) observed “the life history remains a much suspected tool of research and no comfortable certainty exists as to what an adequate life history document will eventually look like”. The writing of life history has come a long way since then. John Creswell and Cheryl Poth (2016) (link), for example, in their study Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches indicate the richness of the journey and what can be achieved by connecting narrative research, phenomenology, grounded theory, ethnography and case study.

I do see the integration of the five approaches John and Cheryl discuss as vital in life history sharing. My background in sociology, cultural studies and educational research make this integration ‘natural’ and an important part of what I share on Clyde Street.

Photo Credit

Neil and Hazel Lanham and their computer (Neil Lanham)

Neil hand notation analyst (Neil Lanham)

Hand notation (Neil Lanham)

Hay wain (Neil Lanham)

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