Back To School. I still remember how those three words used to cast a dark shadow over the second half of August.
These days, as a parent, they’re more like the light at the end of the tunnel.
Much as I love our kids, relations did get a bit strained towards the end of the holidays, with the two of them using the garden trampoline with its tall net enclosure, not for bouncing, but as a venue for Ultimate Cage Fighting.
I couldn’t wait for lessons to start again – so I didn’t. I started giving our daughter some extra maths tuition a few days early. (A move calculated to both quieten her down and make her keen to get back to school where the teachers are less grumpy and impatient.)
We did some work on percentages, as she’d said she didn’t really understand them. I’m not sure she’s much more enlightened now, though; it seems to me that, like the offside rule in football, the idea of percentages is clear enough once you’ve grasped it, but hard to explain to someone from scratch.
Even football didn’t help much. It’s usually my first resort when I want to explain something with an analogy (as you’ll have noticed from the last paragraph), but percentages and football don’t always go well together.
Of course, you can make up questions like:
‘Fabio Capello picks a squad of 24 players. Six of these players have been the subject of lurid tabloid allegations about their sex lives. Express this proportion as a percentage.’
Or, since that’s perhaps not an entirely suitable question for primary school children:
‘The attendance at Portman Road is 25,000, including 2,500 visiting Norwich supporters. What percentage of the crowd is guaranteed to feel happy on the way home?’ (Answer: 10%. Even if City haven’t won, we always go away pleased that we don’t live there.)
But beyond that, percentages in football can be confusing, misleading or both.
For a start, there are the frequent references to players ‘giving 110%’. On one occasion, John Motson even referred to a player being ‘not quite at 110% fitness’. And back in February, Alan Pardew came out with this head-scratcher:
“(Rickie) Lambert has scored 60% of all of Southampton’s goals, but I wonder how many of the other 60% he has set up.”
Then there are the percentages which you find in post-match statistics. I’m always doubtful about those relating to ball possession. How do they work them out in the first place? Is there someone watching the game and operating two buttons, pressing them alternately when possession switches from one team to the other? What do they do when there’s a mad goalmouth scramble?
More importantly, the percentages don’t necessarily tell you which team played better. They’re an indication of the quantity of possession, but not the quality. Similarly, statistics showing the percentage of passes completed by a player don’t reflect how clever or inventive they are.
For example, if Wes Hoolahan spots an option few others would, and plays a defence-splitting ball which just eludes a team-mate, that presumably goes down as an unsuccessful pass – yet that creativity is more likely to win games than twenty safe, short passes across the middle of the pitch.
These percentages don’t look like going away any time soon, though. And of course, Don Fabio has recently launched his Capello Index, which gives players overall percentage ratings. They’re already being used by the national press as another stick to beat him with; last week, the fact that Luke Varney was given a higher rating than Wayne Rooney was highlighted as proof that they’re nonsense.
(That said, Reg Varney would have rated higher than Rooney at the World Cup finals.)
But it’s the term ‘percentage football’ that’s really misleading. This is generally used to describe the long ball approach favoured by evil mastermind Charles Hughes, who was Director of Coaching for the FA during the 1990s. He based his policy on research carried out in the 1950s by retired RAF Wing Commander Charles Reep, who found that a high percentage of goals are scored from moves involving only three passes.
Subsequent analysis – not to mention bitter experience at successive international tournaments – has shown this approach to be deeply flawed. Even Hughes’ own statistics suggested that the higher the level of football, the higher the percentage of successful moves involving a greater number of passes.
Those two England fans who wore RAF uniforms to the England-Germany game this summer almost certainly didn’t have this intention, but their choice of outfits could be interpreted as an ironic indictment of the man who effectively formulated the method which held English football back for so long.
As it happens, I have a percentage-related theory of my own – though it’s not precisely measurable. It’s this: that the last couple of percentage points of effort are worth as much, if not more, than all the rest put together.
It’s a bit like a loading progress bar on your computer; it’s all very well the counter moving up past 70%, 80%, 90%, but if it gets stuck and doesn’t make it to 100%, it’s a waste of time.
This, as I think I’ve mentioned before, is why I can’t be bothered with friendly matches; the players only give 90%, and it’s the other 10% that makes things interesting.
Fortunately, we currently have a manager and team that understand the importance of giving every last percent of effort; the recent run of five consecutive matches in which we scored during time added on indicates determination and mental strength to go the whole distance in every game.
Or if you like, to gain that vital inch of advantage over the opposition which Al Pacino’s character in Any Given Sunday describes as the difference between winning and losing.
Hmm, inches. I suppose I’ll have to explain to my daughter what they are too. They don’t teach imperial measurements at school any more, do they?
And finally… it’s just emerged that Sir Alex Ferguson tried to sign Osama Bin Laden before the transfer deadline last week. As with his recent signing Bebe, he’d never seen him play, but he’d heard a lot of people were after him.
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