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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