By Steve Price
John Greenwood is not the best 'Soccer Coach 2003' player in the world, but he's in the top one. That's what Jamie Smith thinks anyway, and he can't wait to meet his idol. But when the new edition of the game comes out, John's previous experience will count for nothing...
"Eighty-eight minutes gone in this pulsating match. Aston Villa, who fell behind twice earlier in the match, are now on the ascendancy. The crowd really getting behind them now."
"They've had a fantastic season haven't they Geoff."
"That they have. Winning the league, and reaching the cup final in young manager Jamie Smith's first year in charge. Here comes Ridgewell now, on the left-hand side. Looks inside for Juninho."
"What a season he's had. That big money move from Middlesbrough has really paid off hasn't it? People doubted Smith's wisdom when he signed Juninho, but he has certainly proved his critics wrong."
"Juninho turns, under pressure from Gerrard- Liverpool's talisman whose first half goal seems a lifetime away now."
"Juninho finds Barry, the captain. Barry to Hendrie."
"This Villa side can really move the ball around can't they? They're making full use of this wide Wembley pitch."
"Liverpool defending in numbers here, they know they've just got to hold on for a few more minutes. Hendrie moves the ball from left to right."
"Those Liverpool players look tired in the Wembley heat. These cup finals can sometimes become a war of attrition in the second-half."
"Solano beats Finnan for pace, crosses it in. Headed away by Carragher."
"A solid header, just what Liverpool needed."
"Villa have it once more with Barry again. The crowd getting right behind them. Barry, passes it to McPhail, the substitute who turned this game on his head."
"Say what you like about Jamie Smith, he always seems to get his substitutions spot-on."
"Returns the ball to Barry now, who gets the better of Murphy. Barry plays it through. Vassell is onside! Can he win it for Villa? Vassell Shoots!"
"Jamie, time for tea."
"Just a moment mum."
The afternoon sunshine and the roar of the Wembley crowd suddenly replaced by the sound of a Vauxhall Astra and some children shouting in the street outside.
Jamie went downstairs, the moment gone.
"Why are you wearing a suit Jamie?"
"No reason," Jamie didn't want to admit that he always put a suit on for cup final games, it helped him get into the atmosphere of the match. His white shirt was covered in sweat from Aston Villa's incredible second-half comeback against Liverpool. "Was just checking it still fits."
"There's a letter here for you," his mum said.
Jamie could see the letterhead; his heart started racing. 'South Birmingham Polytechnic' was printed in dark red, its logo instantly recognizable from the hours and hours Jamie had spent on the school's website dreaming. Dreaming of a place at the school and a chance to study football management analytics. Dreaming of studying under the legendary Professor John Greenwood, of becoming an expert in football analytics, of getting head-hunted by Chelsea or Arsenal, or getting hired by Aston Villa and helping them win the league for the first time since 1981.
"Aren't you going to open it?"
Jamie looked at the letter, he wanted to rip it open right there and then.
"I'll open it later," Jamie said, trying to act like the letter was no big deal, fully aware that his attempt to be nonchalant was undermined by his voice.
"So, what are your plans for the summer?" his mum asked, "You know, something productive, not just playing video games."
"Soccer Coach 2003is more than a video game," Jamie told his mum for what must have been the hundredth time, "You know that clubs use the statistics on the game to make real life decisions about who to sign. The great Professor Greenwood actually used the game to predict that Wayne Rooney would be Everton's star player this season two whole years ago. If teams had followed his advice, they could've made millions."
"Rooney. He's in the England squad mum. He'll be a household name this time next year, just you wait."
"Even so," said his mum, "You can't spend all summer locked up in your room all day, how will that look on your CV? Don't look at me like that, you know how your dad feels strongly about this too. He's arranged an internship for you at Grey's Accountancy in town, it'll be a great experience."
Jamie glanced at his letter again. His dad had wanted him to follow in his footsteps and study economics; to get a safe, secure, well-paid job like him. To be just another man in a suit, just like him.
"Urgh, Grey's Accountancy. Why would you want me to be locked up there?"
"I told you, it would be good for you. You know many companies value summer work experience. I've never heard of a company valuing 'video game experience'. Anyway, what's the point of video games about football, if you went outside and played football for real every once in a while you would at least get some fresh air and make some friends."
"You know I can't play football, just look at my belly. Have you ever seen a footballer with a belly like this? If there was a crowd watching me, they'd probably sing 'who ate all the pies' or something. Anyway the other lads just tease me or make me play in goal, I'm useless in goal 'cos I can't wear my glasses, but they make me play there anyway, then blame me every time I let one in."
"Being in goal is better than just wasting your time on those video games, and I'm sure Carla would be more impressed if you saved a penalty or something than if you just stared at your computer all day."
"Carla doesn't care what I do with my free time. She's cool like that." Jamie replied, wondering if his mum even knew what a goalkeeper was. She probably only liked them 'cos they had funny coloured shirts or moustaches like David Seaman. "As long as I spend time with her when I do see her, she doesn't care."
"Anyway, I heard that the accountancy firm pays some pocket money for the internship," Jamie's mum said, trying to change the subject, "You could even buy a nice gift for Carla. She'd like that, wouldn't she?"
Jamie didn't reply, his mum didn't know what Carla was like, what kind of things she liked. Not all girls wanted cheap jewellery from one of those generic accessory shops in town. If Carla was anything like other girls, she wouldn't have given him a second glance. That much should be obvious to everyone. Anyway, she might be studying far away at the other end of the country from him next year. It would be better to spend the summer with her, rather than at a stuffy accountancy firm. What was the point of doing an internship in accountancy; he would never want to be an accountant. He would rather be a sewage worker than an accountant.
"Your dad will be back from his trip to Germany in two days, make sure you show your appreciation to him, he had to pull a lot of strings to get you this internship you know. We are only thinking of your future. We want to give you the best chance possible in life."
Jamie finished his meal without saying another word, he knew his parents were just trying to look out for him, the thing is, they just didn'tknowhim. They just couldn't comprehend that it was even possible to have a career in football analytics, or that this was something that he was actually good at. He went back upstairs, still in his sweat-stained cup-final suit. Jamie decided that, like the FA Cup final, the opening of the letter that would change his life was a momentous occasion; an occasion more-than-worthy of the suit. He kept the suit on.
He knew what the letter would say. He had easily met all of South Birmingham's requirements, and his application letter was atour de force. He glanced at his computer. Full-time - Aston Villa 3: Liverpool 2. He knew it was destiny, today was the day when his life would finally start, when he would get out of suburban boredom and accountancy drudgery. He knew that once his parents saw his acceptance letter that they would change their mind and realize that he was actually good at what he loved. They would realize that he was now, finally, on his way towards changing the face of football forever. He just knew.
Jamie's palms were sweating as he held the letter in his hands. He had no reason to doubt its contents, just like a striker had no reason to doubt his ability to put the ball in the bottom corner from twelve yards. But when you're faced with 70,000 fans, and with the chance of making history, then suddenly the goal seems a lot smaller, the 'keeper seems a lot bigger, 12 yards seem a lot further. It suddenly seems comprehensible that you might actually miss. Jamie tried to control his breathing; his heart pounding, his sweat-stained suit becoming even more so. Slowly, carefully, excruciatingly, he opened the envelope...
"As we established earlier in the course, passing to a player inside the area is a far better proposition than shooting from distance. Even when the chances of a successful pass are only ten percent," John reminded his class. It was the final lecture before the summer vacation and the students' final exams; he could already guess which students were likely to pass and which ones were at risk of failing. "Can anyone remind me why people still believe that long range shooting is still believed to be a successful tactic?" he said to the class. A wall of blank expressions answered him, their minds already checked-out, thinking of the end of year parties or tomorrow's inter-college cup. "Umm, TV?" said one nervous voice. "Yes, that's right, television highlights show us the spectacular goals and make fans and coaches alike believe that they happen more regularly than they do. Think about how many times you've seen Paulo Di Canio's volley against Chelsea last season. It's a great goal for sure, but shown far more regularly than a simple shot from eight or ten yards."
John had his final exam too. A presentation to the head of department, the dean, and some other bigwigs that would determine if he would get a pay-rise this year. Making the rent was difficult on a junior lecturer's salary, and John knew he was a junior lecturer by rank only, that his research was cutting-edge, at the top of his field. "So my question for you today is," he said to the vacant faces and empty seats that defined an end-of-term lecture, "How can we identify players who have a higher than average propensity to shoot so that we can eliminate them during the scouting process?"
He loaded up some highlights from Soccer Coach 2003. Some people thought that it was just a video game, but the databases used allowed John to predict the form of real players with startling accuracy. Hopefully his assessors would see that, hopefully they would realize that it wasn't just a video game. As the highlights were projected in front of the class, John asked his students which statistics they thought would be the most effective in judging a player's likelihood to shoot from long range. The answers he received were predictable.
"Long shots ability," said one tired voice.
"Technical ability," said another.
John showed the students a comparison of two players: one who was composed, had high anticipation skills, and was good at decision making; and another player who was not. The students saw the end results of these two players playing in identical seasons, in the same formation, and against the same opposition, everything possible done to make the test scientific. They saw the clear results which showed that decision making, anticipation skills, and being composed prevented players from taking needless long shots. What they didn't see were the hours of research and testing that went into proving this, the painstaking attention to detail and patience needed to create an identical environment. John was sure that half of his class still treated his research as 'just a video game'.
The students filed out of the lecture theatre into the brightness of the lunchtime sun, their brains emptying of knowledge as fast as their memories could wipe themselves, creating room for the summer alcohol. John packed up his notes and left too. After a tough year, he was looking forward to cracking open a few beers and playing the latest version of the game: Soccer Coach 2004. Each version was different, and John spent every summer learning the game inside-out so that it could be properly used for player analysis. But it was more than a job. John was so engrossed daydreaming about taking Leyton Orient to the final of the European Cup or winning the World Cup with Slovenia that he didn't even notice Sam Woodfood as he turned the corner.
"Watch where you're going John!" Woodford said.
John's papers were strewn across the corridor floor, mixed with Sam's assignments and lukewarm tea.
"I guess you never did have much spatial awareness, did you John? All that time cooped up in your room, in the dark, on your computer."
John apologized to Sam, the great Sam Woodford, captain of the 1982 Brighton side that reached the FA Cup final and took Manchester United to a replay. Now he was the legendary Sam Woodford: Special Lecturer in Player Conditioning. A man who once boasted that he could get a football team so fit that they could play non-stop for twenty-four hours and still be able to win a penalty shoot-out at the end of it all.
"You know John, you need to get out of your office and into the real world every once in a while," Sam said, his huge frame towering over John like a Greek god, while John crawled on the floor, picking up the dropped notes in Sam's shadow.
John bit his tongue. He knew that over on the over side of the Atlantic, in a different sport, the Oakland As had shown that statistics can change a sport. It was only a matter of time before the same seismic shift would happen in football. He would be at the head of the movement, the trendsetter and trailblazer like Bill James or Billy Beane, and guys like Woodford would be seen as the dinosaurs that they are. Woodford's technique amounted to little more than shouting at players, and making sure that they ate healthily and didn't smoke. John gathered up Sam's papers, "You know, my computer analysis could make a huge difference to your conditioning program." Woodford wasn't impressed, "That's the problem with you John. Always thinking that you are smarter than everyone else, that you know better. You haven't even played the game."
"Sure I have," said John, "I had trials at Leeds and everything."
"Everyone's had trials," scoffed Woodford.
It was a cliché that every man and his dog claimed to have had trials at some club or other, but John knew that he was close to making it as a professional all those years ago. If only that other lad, Jim Brightwell hadn't joined the club, or the coach hadn't been so narrow-minded as to think that John could only play as a left-back. He was a damn good left back, but he knew he could play as a midfielder too. He had once played there against Rotherham youth, scoring once and getting two assists, but the coach's eyes that day were fixed on Leeds' star-striker, the one who they thought would go on to play for England but now warms the bench for Fleetwood Town. John knew that it was blind luck that prevented him from becoming a pro; he had a statistical model to prove it and everything. His late growth spurt, injuries at the wrong time, being forced to play with Martin Bridges, the midfielder who always over-hit his passes just to make John look bad. Those factors, and so many others, were just luck. He could have been a professional like Woodford.
John handed Sam the last of his papers, it held his glance for longer than it should have. The paper said something about a faculty five-a-side.
"We already have five players," Sam said, "If you spent more time getting to know the other guys here, instead of the numbers on your spreadsheets, then you would know that."
John picked up the other papers that he had dropped as Woodford walked away. Poorly written assignments, now covered in tea stains, bent and crumpled by John's attempts to grab them all before they were blown off in the breeze. 'Not even invited to five-a-side,' John thought to himself. He was still only in his late twenties and certainly wouldn't embarrass himself playing with the likes of Woodford. Sam Woodford had walked a fair distance away but his booming voice carried in the wind as he talked on his phone.
"Yeah, Green-nerd wants to join the five-a-side team, what a joke."
One day they would take him seriously. One day.
John heard a young voice behind him.
"Oh, I'm glad you're still here. I have a problem, I need to ask, y'know, before the final exam."
It was a female student, one of the better ones, Sally Carlyle, or Carling, or something. With over a hundred students, all coming and going and being absent or hungover meant that sometimes it was hard to remember their names.
"I was reading this paper by Zach Bernardo, it says some things that I'm a bit confused about; I was hoping you could help."
John knew the paper well. Zach, Zach Bernardo, that guy from the States who thinks that he invented sports statistics. That guy whose work is so hackneyed that he might as well have gotten it off one of those pay-for-an essay sites that everyone knew existed but pretended didn't. John knew the paper well. It was basically a critique of all the work he had done over the past two years, a critique based on conjecture and lacking in academic rigour or scientific evidence.
"Anything in particular?" he asked Sally, trying to hide his disdain for Zach's 'work'.
Sally brought up the idea that yellow cards by strikers was an indicator of strong pressing play, an idea so absurd that he was surprised Zach had even found evidence to support it.
"The evidence is from the minor leagues in the States," John told her, "Other leagues are different, strikers get booked for all sorts of things, from jumping with their elbows out, to taking off their shirts when they score. You can't think that shirtless strikers are a cause of pressing football, can you?"
Sally didn't look overly impressed with his answer. Bernardo's style of pop-analysis was very catchy with his students, and each week, John saw Professor Bernardo cited more and more, despite his rather absurd claims.
"All the best in your final exam," John said. He tried to sound compassionate but could feel his feelings for Zach the charlatan were coming through in his voice, "I'm sure you will pass, you've got nothing to worry about."
Sally left and the summer arrived. Next month he had his presentation, but between now and then he had nothing but marking his finals and getting to grips with Soccer Coach 2004.