Moving the Goalposts (NFFC Programme Notes – M’boro)

 

Two weeks ago I was delighted to receive an unexpected parcel in the post. My life is such that I slide gung-ho down the banister at the sound of a new pizza menu being shoved through the letterbox, so you can imagine my excitement when I actually had to sign for something.

I gathered the family in the Chris Cohen Executive Suite (or living room, as we sometimes call it) and opened the parcel with my ceremonial scissors. To my surprise, renegade sports author and lifelong Forest supporter, Rob Jovanovic, had sent me a copy of his latest book ‘Moving the Goalposts’.

It turns out he had seen my Blackburn article, in which I tried to highlight the buffoonery of football pundits, and thought I might be interested in his latest book, a collection of statistical football revelations that conclusively undermine said buffoonery. I’m planning to write my next article about the declining state of British meat, in the hope that someone might send me a mixed grill.

‘Moving the Goalposts’ is not the sort of book I would normally read and I certainly never thought I would be so compelled as to write about it in tonight’s programme. The chapter titles alone had me hooked and I genuinely loved reading each and every one.

But be warned, the book is addictive and has the potential to destroy marriages. I literally spent a whole day entrenched in it, only occasionally sticking my head above the parapet to say things like, “Did you know that, discounting friendly matches, Michael Owen is actually England’s all-time leading goal scorer.” As you can imagine, my wife was thrilled.

Jovanovic takes a scientific approach to common footballing conundrums, in a manner that is seldom seen within football non-fiction. Unlike with other popular sports, football and statistics are not inseparable bedfellows. If cricket and statistics are like Bert and Ernie, then football and statistics are more like David Cameron and Nick Clegg; they co-exist quite harmoniously when in the public eye, but there is a hidden coldness and distrust that privately festers. Or so I’m told.

Many people think that statistics have no real place in football. “Football is all about opinions”, “There’s only one statistic that counts” and the famous “Lies, damned lies and statistics” are just a few of the hackneyed maxims that enable football people to say whatever they like, without ever having to back it up.

‘Moving the Goalposts’ is clearly born out of the author’s frustration at listening to pundits and archetypal pub morons spout utter tripe, with seemingly boundless confidence. It humorously details the myths that consistently circulate the football airwaves and then unravels them with uncompromising fact.

A perfect example of Jovanovic dissecting a common footballing myth is his chapter on the case of Pele versus Maradona. I must have heard it said a hundred times that if Maradona had been removed from the World Cup winning Argentina team they would have been useless. Pele, on the other hand, is often claimed to be just one of many great Brazil players in an already great team. Being too young to have seen either play, I’ve always just accepted the summary of each player to be true.

Even Eric Cantona, usually the voice of reason, states that Pele was just a cog in Brazil’s World Cup winning machine, whereas Maradona literally dragged Argentina to glory, kicking and screaming. Jovanovic proves that, according to the cold hard facts, this was simply not the case.

During the two relevant eras, and discounting friendly games, the ‘Brazil team with Pele’ had a significantly greater win percentage than the ‘Brazil team without Pele’. By contrast, in terms of win percentages, Argentina actually performed better without Maradona. This shocking outcome just goes to show that, in the world of football, it’s folly to simply accept what is generally perceived to be true.

If, like me, you engage in a lot of down-the-pub punditry, ‘Moving the Goalposts’ may well empower you to take a more scientific approach to football talk in the future, but the real beauty of this book is that Rob Jovanovic does all the work for you. He even throws in a few gems specifically for us Forest fans.

In one of the many short chapters, Jovanovic compiles a league table based on the number of top flight points each English club has obtained over the course of football history. Though the book is more of an eyebrow raiser than a tear jerker, I did start welling up when I saw that, despite our recent absence from the top flight, Forest are still positioned 20th. Middlesbrough fans may be interested to know that they sit proudly in 18th. So, in terms of historical success, both teams remain pure Premiership!

Though a statistical non-fiction book about football sounds like it ought to be a difficult read, nothing could be further from the truth. Rob Jovanovic obviously enjoyed himself on this project and that bubbles to the surface of this enjoyable myth-slaying must-read. The vast research undertaken is compressed into concise bite-sized chapters, meaning fans can dip in and out of the book at their leisure. ‘Moving the Goalposts’ is the perfect Christmas stocking filler for any football fan.

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Sean O’Driscoll (NFFC Programme Notes – Millwall)

 

In the depths of the joyless labyrinth of despair that was Forest’s last championship campaign, I used my ‘Red Revolution’ platform to write a desperate list of reasons to remain positive despite our faltering form.

Amid the sea of unfounded optimism, I even listed Harry Potter defeating the evil Lord Voldemort, against all odds, as a potential reason why Forest might avoid relegation. In hindsight, I may have been clutching at straws … but it was a dark time to be a Red, back then.

Within my panicking pleas for positivity lay one genuine reason for Forest fans to remain hopeful – Sean O’ Driscoll had joined us, as assistant to our former manager Steve Cotterill. Little did I know just how big his role in the future of Nottingham Forest would be.

Long before he became involved with my beloved Forest, I had been following Sean’s career with keen interest, not least because he was born and raised in Wolverhampton, only a Greg Halford throw away from my own dwelling hole.

We Black Country folk are not the glam-rocking flare-wearing simpletons that the media depict us to be. In fact, more commonly you’ll find those from the Black Country to be a very down to earth and straightforward species. In the best possible sense, this is exactly how Sean O’Driscoll comes across.

In a recent interview he was asked what his ambitions for the season were. He answered simply, “to win the next game.”

He used to deflect the same thorny question with identical words during his time as Doncaster manager and it’s not the first time he’s bluntly conveyed such understated sentiments whilst here at the City Ground.

His words may not always capture the starry-eyed supporter’s imagination but they are always grounded firmly in reality. It would seem O’ Driscoll is defiant in his belief that the only route to success is through the tried and tested combination of hard work and time. The patient, meticulous approach is what will eventually get Forest back to the premiership. There aren’t any magic wands or secret passages. It’s boring but it’s the truth!

Personally I couldn’t be happier with how the season has gone so far, mainly because there are tangible signs of genuine progress. Are Nottingham Forest beginning to forge a new identity under the stewardship of their new manager?

It seems evident that Sean O’ Driscoll works to an unwavering set of core beliefs, which together form his ‘football philosophy’. This term is another that’s overused within the game – perhaps part of a growing ‘football rhetoric’ that O’ Driscoll himself so despises.

Many managers don’t have any underpinning philosophy; the decisions they make are mainly reactionary and their teams often develop organically, sometimes in spite of them. In the case of Sean O’ Driscoll, I believe the term ‘football philosophy’ has a real meaning.

He may be a football purist but at the heart of Sean O’ Driscoll sides are the values of discipline, organisation and togetherness. At the start of the 2012/13 season, these were the cornerstones from which O’ Driscoll began to build and subsequently there has been a core strength and solidity to the majority of Forest’s performances so far this season. We could play the prettiest football in the division but without organisation and unity we would, ultimately, be doomed.

Of course, O’ Driscoll is actively trying to implement the purposeful passing style of football that is central to his philosophy, but he’s doing so from a solid foundation. I believe we’re starting to see the fruits of our labour.

There have been times this season when our football has been breathtaking and there have been times when it has been patchy and uninspiring, but throughout our players have tried to play exciting, positive football. It will, however, take time for us to perfect our craft.

But the changes at the City Ground this season go beyond the decision to pass, rather than hoof, from the back. Forest have employed a more fluid attacking approach than that which we saw for the majority of last season. Although we have played a 4-4-2 for the majority of games, it hasn’t been at all rigid or predictable.

Whichever five players play in front of our colossal patrolling midfielder, Simon Gillett, they are encouraged to be adventurous and inventive. The side is full of exciting players, who are beginning to thrive on the opportunity to get in advanced positions and express themselves.

In the signings he’s made since taking over, O’ Driscoll has looked for certain types of players. Not only are the new players all good technical footballers, but they are also decision makers, brave enough to implement the aforementioned style of play.

Yet another football cliché tells us that there is very little a manager can do to influence the game once his players have crossed that white line. O’ Driscoll does not seem to allow this to be an excuse. You only need to listen to his interviews to know that he seeks to empower his players to make their own decisions during a game.

It helps that we now have strong leaders with calm heads carefully dispatched all over the pitch – players like Collins, Gillett and Reid are the glue that hold the team together. With a clear philosophy growing within the squad and players willing to impose it out on the field, it’s an exciting time to be a Forest fan.

I know talk of philosophy and identity are a little deep for a Saturday afternoon, so if I’m urging fans to do anything it’s to have a little faith in Sean.

 

San Marino (NFFC Programme Notes – Cardiff City)

 

“What is the point of San Marino?” quizzed Gareth Southgate, during the half-time analysis of last Friday night’s England game.

 

Actually Gareth, San Marino is a beautiful mountainous country with a rich culture and a high standard of living. Besides, you can’t just go around declaring countries to be pointless. That’s how wars get started!

 

He certainly did himself no favours in his bid to become Britain’s next foreign secretary. Imagine him at the EU summit: “Seriously, what’s the point of Greece? They bring nothing to the table.”

 

I am, of course, being a little unfair on the finely preened ITV pundit – after all, that’s not quite how he meant it.

 

San Marino visited Wembley last Friday night and literally kept all ten outfield players behind the ball for the entire game. Could they have gotten away with it, they’d probably have pitched tents and lit a bonfire in their own penalty box.

 

Their plan worked for an eyeball-gratingly dull thirty-five minutes, before England were awarded a penalty. Five goals later and San Marino still had their proverbial team bus parked directly under the crossbar.

 

In essence, what Southgate meant was “What is the point of this fixture?” Many share these sentiments.

 

When one team turns up with no intention of scoring a goal, let alone winning the game, the encounter is sure to be a very poor spectacle. But what exactly were San Marino supposed to do? Anyone with even a fraction of football knowledge knows that had any other tactic been employed, England would have completely pulverised them. In reality, 5-0 was a decent result for a nation that has only been victorious once in its 26 year football history.

 

Only a handful of their squad are full-time professionals. With their midfield made up of a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker, how can they be expected to compete against our millionaire superstars?

 

Their entire population would only just fill the seats at the City Ground and a decade of football investment in San Marino wouldn’t cover the cost of Ashley Cole’s ivory back scratcher. To put it in more quantifiable terms, England against San Marino is equivalent to an elephant fighting a peanut.

 

So, should the likes of San Marino even be competing with the top countries in Europe?

 

Southgate, and many others in the football world, would argue not. There have, over recent times, been calls for the football minnows to be somehow lifted out of the qualification process.

 

The main proposal, which stems from football journalists and industry experts, rather than the game’s governing body, is to give countries like San Marino and The Faroe Islands their own special tournament. The winner of this tournament would be awarded the privilege of being allowed to compete against the rest of Europe.

 

I have only one question. Could we be any more patronising?

 

What is the problem with us Englishmen? We spend all summer bemoaning the fact that we are technically inferior to the rest of Europe, then when we find a team who we are significantly better than, we put all our efforts into making them extinct!

 

San Marino’s footballers deserve their opportunity to wear the national shirt with pride, competing against all the teams in Europe; not just those of similar size and collective ability.

 

If I was of San Marinese descendancy, and I pray that some day I discover I am, then I would shudder at the thought of being hidden away from the rest of Europe, like some embarrassing fungal infection.

 

One of the main reasons football people advocate the phasing out of these ‘smaller footballing countries’ is the hope that it might alleviate the terrible evils of fixture congestion. Frankly, I think people over-estimate the difference that taking the ‘international whipping boys’ out of European qualification would make to the football calendar.

 

There are only four European countries that fit the specification laid out by those wishing to rid football of its perennial underdogs. Andorra, The Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein and San Marino all have tiny populations and consistently finish bottom of their qualifying group, with few or no points. Beyond that there aren’t such tangible gaps between nations, in terms of either size or ability.

 

Clearly, taking only four countries out of the equation would make no impact on the congested fixture list. If there is to be a pre-qualification round that truly shakes up the international scene it would have to include countries such as Moldova, Kazakhstan, Cyprus and probably Northern Ireland too.

 

To avoid international relegation, Scotland might even need to start winning some games … and that goes against everything they stand for!

 

A further concern is how football’s governing bodies could possibly calculate which teams warrant dropping into international obscurity … and which teams don’t. They can hardly rely on the FIFA rankings; we’d probably get more accurate results using Pythagoras’ theorem. If England are the fifth best football team in the world then I am the fifth best Bhangra dancer this side of the Arctic circle.

 

Luckily the dark lord himself, Sepp Blatter, has shown no sign of indulging Gareth Southgate and the band wagon of jingoistic journalists who paint these nations as such a terrible inconvenience to the international game.

 

Football is supposed to bring the world together and I, for one, won’t stand idly by while the ‘inconvenient countries’ are cut adrift.

 

Long live the minnows of the footballing world – those who flounder on in spite of inevitable defeat. The Faroe Islands, Andorra, Derby County … and, of course, San Marino.

 

Follow me on Twitter: @Dave_Abbiss