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.
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:
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.