Author Archives: rich

Kit Symons: the right appointment

Fulham get their man. Kit Symons made sense as a caretaker manager and the club’s form since he took over has made his promotion to the permanent role all but inevitable. He may or may not be the right choice long-term, but his work so far meant that Khan’s headhunters were left with a tricky job: either come up with someone very, very good, or the decision makes itself. Ultimately, you couldn’t replace Symons with a nothing manager.

And this is where Fulham realised that the only choice was to make no choice. It’s very likely that the club has sounded out various highish profile names in the preceding months, but, with last season’s chaos fresh in the memory, been met with polite “thanks but no thanks” emails back.

So in lowering their sights a little they moved into the realms of the not quites, the ne’er do wells, the once did wells. Aidy Boothroyd, Craig Brown, Lee Clark, Steve Clarke, John Collins, Owen Coyle, Billy Davies, Roberto Di Matteo, Dougie Freedman, Chris Hughton, Paul Ince, Paul Jewell, Brian McDermott, Mark McGhee, Tony Mowbray, Sean O’Driscoll, David O’Leary, Martin O’Neill, Tim Sherwood, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Gordon Strachan… you see the problem?

Even then, for all we know some of the above said no. And this largely omits international appointments, which might have offered the possibility of bringing in a recognised winner but also of another horrible mess.

It’s to Symons’ eternal credit that he made this decision into a non-decision. For this moment in time Kit Symons is the right man for this football club. No question. Whether he remains the right man in six months or a year we’ll just have to see – I remain suspicious that there’s a slight “anyone but Magath” halo effect going on here – but he has absolutely, unquestionable, earned the right to prove himself one way or another. It’s the right appointment.

Bill James

If ever you’ve tried to wonder why I seem to talk about stats more than most, this is the answer:

“Bullshit has tremendous advantages over knowledge. Bullshit can be created as needed, on demand, without limit. Anything that happens, you can make up an explanation for why it happened.

“There was a Kansas football game a year ago; some Texas-based football team, much better than Kansas, came to Lawrence and struggled through the first quarter — KU with, like, a 7-3 lead at the end of the first quarter. The rest of the game, KU lost, like, 37-0, or something. The announcer had an immediate explanation for it: The Texas team flew in the day before, they spent the night sleeping in a strange hotel; it takes them a while to get their feet on the ground.

“It’s pure bullshit, of course, but he was paid to say that … if it had happened the other way, and KU had lost the first quarter, 24-0, and then ‘won’ the rest of the game 17-14 (thus losing 38-17) … if that had happened, we both know that the announcer would have had an immediate explanation for why THAT had happened. … Bullshit is without limit.”

Then:

“As I saw it, baseball had two distinct mountains of material. One the one hand, there was a mountain of traditional wisdom, things that people said over and over again. On the other hand, there was a mountain of statistics. My work was to build a bridge between those two mountains. A statistician is concerned what baseball statistics ARE. I had no concern with what they are. I didn’t care, and I don’t care, whether Mike Schmidt hit .306 or .296 against left-handed pitching. I was concerned with what the statistics MEAN.

“Sportswriters, in my opinion, almost never use baseball statistics to try to understand baseball. They use statistics to decorate their articles. They use statistics as a club in the battle for what they believe intuitively to be correct. That is why sportswriters often believe that you can prove anything with statistics, an obscene and ludicrous position, but one which is the natural outgrowth of the way that they themselves use statistics. What I wanted to do was teach people instead to use statistics as a sword to cut toward the truth.”

Until very recently I was of the same mind.  (not the teaching bit, but the general point of using available data to get to the bottom of things).  I felt that there was an awful lot of bullshit talked about football, a lot of it from people who seemed far more certain in their views than it felt like they ought to be.  Now I don’t know why, but I was keen to offer alternative perspectives.   To get closer to a truth.  It wasn’t good enough that people could say “I don’t need stats to tell me that.  I’ve been watching football for 50 years and I trust my eyes”…. opinions really are like arseholes, we do all have one.  Having read Bill James for years I felt that bringing evidence, no matter how foggy, into discussions, would help.  So people would slate Bobby Zamora for not scoring goals, or Dickson Etuhu for not looking like the most technically accomplished footballer, or Clint Dempsey for whatever beef they had with him, or Chris Baird for various sins, or Bryan Ruiz for not trying, and these thoughts just felt lazy to me so I challenged them however I could.  I don’t quite know why I bothered but I was watching Fulham every week then and writing about them every day and, dammit, it felt important.  Sometimes this challenging (as with Ruiz) has been wishful thinking, sometimes I think that trying to look at things from other angles has been instructive.

However this little crusade might have seen, I wasn’t remotely arrogant enough to suppose that I had all the answers, but I did feel that there were ways of getting at truths that might advance discussions (certainly the comments in CCN over the years have taught me enormous amounts, more than anything else I suspect).

Why though?  Well who knows why?  Ultimately none of this matters, and lord knows nobody likes being lectured/hectored about their hobby, but you know how it is: people can and will discuss football in great depth, over and over and over.   Like Bill James, I wasn’t obsessed with stats, but I was, and am, interested in another perspective.

The Secret Footballer has a new book out and in its introduction he rails against the new wave of armchair experts, noting that the only way you can really understand is to be involved, or have been involved, in the game.  Now, he has books to sell, and of course he has a point, but they thought this in baseball until very recently, too, until it became obvious that ignoring different approaches to learning about the game was literally self-defeating.

But he is right. We’re all on the outside of the game and so there’s a limit to what we can really understand.  So we do our best to get at a truth by whatever means we can.

Sorry if this seems a bit self-serving – it isn’t meant to – but many of you have been kind enough to read this website for 8 years or so, and this article seemed very relevant to whatever underlying ethos you might find in the words I’ve written down the years.  (Bill James self-published his books for five years too, which directly inspired me to do the Fulham Review).  Anyway, thanks. As you were.

Barney Ronay downloads my brain

Barney Ronay downloads my brain.

Not that my brain is nearly so eloquent.

I feel quite torn on all this but in deciding to largely switch off from football I don’t find that life is much worse.  It would be different if I were still in London, didn’t have kids and did have money – I watched the Charlton game on TV and even just seeing the colour of the evening Sky reminded me of being at Craven Cottage (it’s a much underestimated phenomenon this, the colour of the sky and how this varies geographically), but still.  I don’t live in London, I do have kids and I don’t have money.  So football is quite easy to avoid, particularly with our family’s ongoing TV wars.

Does it fill a gap in lives? I think it’s more a case that something we loved as children has sort of mushroomed as we’ve reached adulthood. It’s a bit like when your other half’s been shopping and bought lots of chocolate: something deep within you knows that something you really like is there, and available, and available now, so just get in and eat three fun-sized bags of Maltesers.

And some of us have brains that are wired in a certain way, and that means that if we are interested in something we are very, very interested in something, so we dive in. And football’s extreme *thereness* means we can just keep digging. We will never run out of things about football to read. Think about that for a moment.

Fulham 3-0 Charlton

That’s the way to do it.

For Scott – captain fantastic – Parker, a man in motion with a pair of metaphorical wings that he doesn’t need as others in the team can manage the aerial stuff.

Fulham dominated the first half to the extent that the second was under control, if frightening.  Symons’ continuing reliance on an attacking three of Ruiz McCormack and Rodallega meant that Charlton were always nervous, and with Parker and Christensen patrolling and controlling behind Fulham were able to dominate the ball and territory.

The goals were terrific: Parker’s early strike coming after he won the ball, surged into the area and converted a cross that was behind him in off the bar.  Rodallega’s first was a study in anticipation, calmness and technique (from him and McCormack) and the third was worthy of far more celebrated names.

The whole thing clicked perfectly.  It’s a fine reflection on the manager that Fulham continue to thrive and surge up the table.  Full reflection later.

Why Kit Symons isn’t necessarily the man to lead Fulham forward

PAY-Brian-and-Shirley-Burnie
Brian Burnie with his then wife.

There was a programme on TV recently in which comedian Jon Richardson looked to get to the bottom of some heavy life issues. One of the three programmes was about money and our attitudes towards having or not having it. In this programme he met a man named Brian Burnie who had amassed a fortune, then essentially gave it away to start his own charity. His wife wasn’t very happy about this and didn’t appear. But his daughter did. Richardson asked her how she felt, the angle being that she would have been in line to inherit this vast fortune, but now was not.

The daughter, a teacher, was fine. She said that at this point in her own life she feels quite content. She is made happy by life’s little things. An example: when you are cycling in the rain and get wet socks. (If you have cycled at all you know what she’s getting at: wet socks can be horrible.) The feeling you get when you get indoors into the warm and take off the wet socks is briefly a magnificent one. In itself the feeling of changing socks isn’t much, but actually, in this context, it’s a good example of a small victory.

I think of Felix Magath’s time at Fulham as a pair of increasingly wet socks. We’ve taken them off and feel better.

The trick here is whether the socks we’re now wearing are what we need.

Here’s why. If you take the old rule of thumb for what Fulham ought to achieve we were clearly not there under Magath. This rule of thumb? That in home games we can expect to beat all but the very best teams in the division, and in away games we will lose to the very best opponents and draw with the rest. This is clearly not *right* in that these things are never so predictable, but if we consider the top six teams the “top teams” that would give us 17 home wins, 6 home draws, 6 away draws and 17 away defeats. Again, it’s not supposed to be a prediction but it works for us here.

FMKS

So by this reckoning we dropped 8 points under Magath and are exactly break even under Symons. We weren’t doing what we should have done then; we are now.

An added wrinkle here is a new-fangled statistic called TSR, or total shots ratio. I’m not going to make any claims for this above and beyond the following from the man who invented it:

http://jameswgrayson.wordpress.com/2012/12/02/introducing-tsr2-4/

http://jameswgrayson.wordpress.com/2011/10/31/predicting-future-performance-revisited/

http://jameswgrayson.wordpress.com/2013/10/30/the-relationship-between-tsr-and-points-over-9-games/

This isn’t me going all weird with stats, it’s someone who has looked at something and established various facts.  You can dismiss these things or you can buy into them – your choice – but for those of us who are even less certain than we were in the past, objectivity can be helpful.

TSR, is short for total shots ratio and in short is the proportion of shots in a game that a team takes. James has tested various things and found it to be the best predictor of future performance he’s come across.

So? Well here’s the thing: Fulham’s TSR under Magath and under Symons hasn’t changed at all. Fulham under Magath were massively under-performing their TSR, which might be bad luck but was probably a function of, well, everything. But the underlying indicators told us that this team wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked. We knew that – those of us who weren’t screeching at the internet about wanting our football team back anyway – but it’s still instructive. Magath would argue that this is evidence that the team would have improved in time, and the sensible conclusion is that he’s probably right, or he would be if the aforementioned “everything” wasn’t in the way. (is seven games too small a sample? Yes, perhaps, but James shows here that TSR works quite well in limited datasets too.)

Symons’ team has done what it should. Fulham have taken off their wet socks and are enjoying a welcome cup of tea on the sofa.

So has Symons taken Fulham forward? Yes, in the sense that it was in a very bad place when he arrived. Honestly, I’d probably argue that almost any manager could have achieved the same, but Symons had the advantage (of his own making) of knowing the squad and particularly its young players, so he was able to stabilise the ship almost instantly. That’s to his immense credit. We also have to acknowledge that he’s working with another man’s squad. Magath did a very thorough job of refurbishing the losing squad from last season but got carried away to the point where we didn’t have a lot left. Enough, sure, but not a great deal. This derailed our early season form (to a degree: TSR still thinks we were an alright team getting bad results) and Symons has had to work with the same issue. Again: it looks to all the world as if he’s got Fulham back to exactly where they should be. Well done him.

This is different to taking the club on a level, though, and here lies the problem for Khan’s Headhunters. They have two choices really:

a) the easy way out is to say “give the job to Kit Symons, a Fulham man who the fans like.”
b) the hard choice is to say “Kit’s been brilliant but we think we’ve found someone who can take Fulham to another level.”

I think really they have to take a combination of the two. They identify candidates who would work under scenario B but recommend that Symons keeps his job until at least the end of the season. If Fulham continue to improve steadily Symons is given the job on a permanent basis. If Fulham drop below the current baseline then you thank Kit and move to plan B, which has been teed up for this very purpose.

Kit Symons has done everything right. He has brought a stability to selection; the team is playing in a sensible fashion; the team is selecting its best players; the team is playing quite well. The job of the committee is to look at these achievements and try to value them and establish what they mean in a slightly longer term context.  I don’t think it’s as easy as it sounds.

Levelling the playing field

http://tangotiger.com/index.php/site/article/how-to-control-the-amount-of-random-variation-in-your-sport

We’ve talked about this in the past several times. The answer is “confrontations”. The more confrontations you have, the more talent will overcome the noise from random variation. A sport like basketball has plenty of confrontations. This allows the talent to shine through more, and so, keeps random variation at bay. That is, don’t expect many upsets. If however the NBA was limited to a 12-minute game, random variation would fly. The predictability would be severely reduced. And if you limit the season to a 32-game season as well, that would further allow random variation to take center stage.

The NBA is considering a 44-minute game. I love that they took the initiative. I don’t think they’ll get anything worth reporting on, especially based on one game.

It’ll never happen, and it probably never should happen, but if Premier League games were reduced to an hour, or even 45 minutes, the big teams wouldn’t dominate quite as much, you’d get more teams competing and it would be more interesting overall.

The lights exploded (now with highlights)

Sport is in many ways a waste of time and brain space. But when it’s nice, it’s really nice.

As you’ll know if you’ve read this for any time I’m a big fan of Juliana Hatfield. In a generally brilliant but occasionally erratic musical career Hatfield is capable of moments that make me feel feint. Bring a tear to my eye.

Take this for instance. It’s an album track from the Blake Babies’ 1990 album “Sunburn” and is a relatively ordinary Boston indie pop song. But at the end John Strohm’s guitar revs up a bit and Hatfield adds some harmonies that send me to heaven.

It’s more subtly demonstrated here. This is the Lemonheads’ “Drug Buddy”, one of the great songs from a great spell for Evan Dando’s band. Hatfield offered exceptional harmonies here, too, but much deeper into the background. She pops up on 4-5 Lemonheads songs like this and adds a great deal each time despite being barely noticeable.

For the full effect see 1990’s “Only Everything” album, whose title was taken from Dinosaur Jr’s phenomenal “Raisans”* In an otherwise loud and fuzzy album, the tender “Live on Tomorrow” contains one of the best 90 seconds of music I’m aware of.

That’s what it’s all about in my world. If you have it in you to make beautiful music, to bring about a gentle feeling of ecstasy in the middle of another dull London day, if you can do that, and if you’re given the chance to do that, then the world is a much better place than it would have been had you not been given this chance.

Your best is not just better than others’ best, it is beautifully and spectacularly better. Your day-to-day performance might not always be so good. But when you’re on, by god you’re on.

I make no apologies for this post. I didn’t see last night’s game but I’m looking forward to the highlights.


*The lights exploded
She stood burning in front of me
She ripped my heart out beating
My eyes wouldn’t open, cemented to her face
Have I begun a feeble chase?

I’ll be down, I’ll be around
I’ll be hanging where eventually you’ll have to be
I’ll just stare and hope you’ll care
It’s only everything standing in front of me

I know what you did to me
I know what you did was wrong
You’re allowed to torture me
Wait a moment until I’m gone
I know you’re the ticket, you gotta be
‘Cause I let you alone for long
Got to be so completely
Got to be so I can’t hang on

(you’re killing me)

I’ll be down, I’ll be around
I’ll be hanging where eventually you’ll have to be
I’ll just stare and hope you’ll care
It’s only everything standing in front of me

I’ll be down, I’ll be around
I’ll be hanging where eventually you’ll have to be
Then that man is standing there
Now you’ll have to decide the fate of my sanity