Charles, Richard, Neil and Simon: the stories we craft

Tom Fenton and Rob Carroll have published a story about Charles Reep (link). It is titled Football’s Pioneer – The Charles Reep story.

Earlier this year, Richard Pollard published Invalid Interpretation of Passing Sequence Data to Assess Team Performance in Football: Repairing the Tarnished Legacy of Charles Reep in the Open Sports Sciences Journal (link).

Both posts have encouraged me to think about how we craft stories. Tom’s introduction indicates that Charles’ achievements have been forgotten and marginalised (link). Richard suggests that a 2005 paper makes “erroneous and misleading statements” about Charles and that “a basic misunderstanding of how to interpret and assess the effectiveness of passing sequences of different lengths” is at the heart of the issue (link).

Tom concludes:

Whatever you think of Charles Reep’s tactical influence, his legacy on Sport Analytics is not only undeniable, it is simply invaluable, for the industry we see and admire today, would not be the same without him and his priceless notes.

Richard ends his paper with this comment:

The way in which the 2005 paper has been used by others to discredit Reep, while at the same time claiming definitive proof that direct football is less effective than keeping possession, is a salutary warning as to how easily false information can disseminate itself.

Much of my professional life has sought to integrate qualitative observation, the analysis of performance, teaching and coaching. I have spent a great deal of time thinking about ethnography and autoethnography and my PhD thesis completed in 1989 (link) was an ethnographic account of the teaching of physical education in two schools located next to each other.

In writing that thesis, I became very interested in the ways stories are socially constructed. Ctlifford Geerz had an enormous impact on me and once I had read about his work in ‘thick description’ (link) I saw the process of observation, the art of teaching and coaching quite differently. From then on, I took culture to be “a web of analysis” and an interpretive science “in search of meaning”.

This search of meaning led me to see story sharing as a way of talking about practice (link). Stories were built with careful observation and written in ways that embraced language, reader receptivity and poetics. At that time, I was emboldened by the publication of John Van Maanen’s approach in Tales From The Field (link). In looking at different kind of tales, John notes that conveying social reality requires authorial voice. His book explores how this voice is crafted in realist, confessional and impressionist tales.

In an Epilogue to a 2010 print edition of the Tales (link), John wrote:

Our writing is both explicitly and implicitly designed to persuade others that we know what we’re talking about and they ought therefore to pay attention to what we are saying. (2010:147)

Re-reading this after looking at Tom, Rob and Richard’s accounts of Charles Reep took me back to think about authorial voice and how we might construct a life history and a socially constructed account of a very special time in sport analytics.

Richard Pollard

Richard, Neil and Simon knew Charles very well at that point in time and are primary sources of Charles’s life. I have corresponded with Richard and Neil about their experiences with Charles and their own careers as analysts. I have not spoken with Simon Hartley and I think about this absence has on the story I would like to construct about the life and times of all four of them.

Richard, for example, has kept every letter Charles sent him dating back to 1960, and has stored Charles’ match analyses and other documents shared over the years. He also has two years of Simon’s analyses of Watford performance. Richard has kept all his correspondence with Bernard Benjamin about the authorship of both papers on Skill and Chance (link) (link).

Richard completed his thesis in 1989 at the University of the South Pacific. It was titled Measuring the effectiveness of playing strategies at soccer (link). Information about this thesis was contained in a paper written by Richard and Charles that appeared in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society in 1997 (link).

Neil Lanham

Neil has shared some of his experiences with me in email correspondence and these emails have become important insights for me as I try to fit Neil’s story into Charles’, Richard’s and Simon’s stories. Neil’s memoirs were to be published this year. They will make for fascinating reading.

I have written about Neil’s work but have yet to provide an account of his work with Wimbledon, Dave Bassett and Graham Taylor. I have not addressed Neil’s early use of computers in 1985 and the impact this had on his work. I hope to explore Neil’s contact with Charles over a long period of time. In one personal correspondence to me, Neil observes “to know Reep you need to have trod in his footsteps”.

Treading in Charles, Richard, Neil and Simon’s footsteps will be a fascinating journey and one that raises important questions about authorial voice. As an action researcher I am keen to share these stories with them before I post public blogs about them. I see the production of stories as an iterative and participatory process.

Charles Reep

This process will require an understanding of documents. Jean-François Rouet and colleagues (1996) (link) note that historians “must carefully select information from documents and evaluate it in the context of who wrote the document, what type of document it is, and how the document relates to other documents on the same topic”. This requires us to reason about documents and reason with documents.

This reasoning acknowledges, as Sam Wineburg (1998) (link) points out, that “historians do not go into the archive to find carefully excerpted documents, serially presented, each with an explanatory sentence at the top”.

These challenges require the writer to be a critical friend in the story gathering, story crafting and story sharing aspects in the search of meaning. Erin Comollo (2019) (link), amongst others, points out that we can “engage in joint construction of knowledge through conversation and other forms of collaborative analysis and interpretation”.

In doing so, I believe, the art of writing provides the opportunity for the critical friend, as Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick (1993) indicate, to be “a trusted person who asks provocative questions, provides data to be examined through another lens, and offers critique of a person’s work as a friend” (link).

To date, we have had partial stories about Charles, Richard, Neil and Simon. There is an opportunity to extend these stories and provide thick description of a pivotal moment of sport analytics in England. It requires a comprehensive, co-operative story-making effort. The outcome could be an inclusive and participatory account that is reflective and critical. Perhaps a story that addresses concerns raised by Richard and Neil in their various responses to accounts of Charles, his practices and impacts. It would be important to have Simon’s take on this too.

There is so much to write about and share.

Photo Credit

Champions of the world (The Football Times)

 A Football Pink report of the Swindon Town v Bristol Rovers game, played on Saturday, 18 March 1950.

Richard Pollard (Personal Correspondence)

Neil Lanham (Personal Correspondence)

Charles Reep (The Sun)

Watford v Southampton 1980 (YouTube)

Goal Scoring in Association Football: Neil Lanham’s Research

One of the posts on this blog that receives regular hits is a post about Charles Reep.

I based the post on a 1997 article I wrote after meeting Charles.

Recently I have heard from Neil Lanham about Charles’s work and this post addresses some of the issues Neil has raised with me. Neil met Charles for the first time in 1962. Neil has pointed out that:

    • Charles Reep did not analyse a single game for Wimbledon Football Club or had any influence on their play.
    • Neil took Charles to meet Dave Bassett for about half an hour one afternoon when Wimbledon were in Division 3. Neil had been working for them for some time.
    • Neil kept his head below the parapet “as professionally requested by Dave Bassett and others” and did not publish his work in academic circles.
    • Neil’s work as a professional soccer performance analyst is the subject of a forthcoming book.
    • His paper at the 2003 World Congress of Science and Football reports on some of the teams with whom he worked.
    • Neil’s network of colleagues includes Simon Hartley (the first full-time match analyst at Watford) and Richard Pollard (who worked with Watford prior to Simon’s appointment).
    • Neil produced an unpublished book on the effect behind every possession in every match in Wimbledon’s first season the former English League Division 1. Neil’s data were hand notated and then computer analysed.

In a paper written in 1991, Figures do not cease to exist because they are not counted,  Neil reports data from 500 games (including Wimbledon games). He notes that “the ball changed sides 180 times for each team on average in between goals with 1.33 average goals/team”.

In his correspondence with me (February 2012) Neil suggests that:

the big thing about Reep is that the pundits seem to think that he invented a sort of winning game that included long balls. Not so – what Reep invented was a method of recording what happens to every possession of both teams on a soccer field that over a series shows the truth of how goals come. (My emphasis in bold.)

Neil hand notated and then computer analysed every touch of the ball in all 52 games of the 1990 World Cup … “the ratios were exactly as Reep predicted”.

In a paper published in 2005 in Science and Football V, Neil presents further detailed evidence about his own work. He notes that:

Employed since 1981 in a professional capacity, by League and International teams, over 3000 games have been fully recorded by using a previously noted shorthand code of every move in every possession in each match for both For and Against teams.  Since 1985 this has been fed into a database computer system programmed to average long runs of matches so that rate and quality can be examined.  The 15 teams selected for this paper were all recorded in long runs and all had success in either achieving promotion or top of the table status.  From their figures we can pinpoint the measured difference that brought success.

The 2005 paper presents data from:

  • 2001/2002 English Premier League
  • World Cup and Euro Cup 1978-1996
  • Wimbledon 1986/1987 and 1987/1988

Neil uses his data from these data sets to argue that:

… there is a Near Constant Law of Chance that 180 possessions on average are lost and won back supporting the single possession of ‘goal’.  At an assumed 240 possessions per match this represents 1.33 goals on average for and against.  This is the same at all levels of the game, however it is played, and whether fast or slow…

I am delighted to have corresponded with Neil about these matters. At present I am supervising a PhD student, Ron Smith, who is investigating goal scoring in football. Ron has had a distinguished career as a coach and performance analyst. I am hopeful that his work will add to the community of practice that has flourished as a result of Neil’s, Charles’, Simon’s and Richard’s foundational work.

Photo Credits

Wales versus Ireland football international at Wrexham

San Mames