Tuesday, 31 August 2010

The myth of home advantage

[NB: this article also appears in the current edition of Clap Your Hands, Stamp Your Feet]

There’s no such thing as home advantage.

There, I’ve said it, and now I feel like that kid in the fairy story who notices that the emperor is parading around in his birthday suit. But can I really be the only person to have questioned the assumption that it’s somehow easier for the home team to win a game of football than it is for the away team?

I can tell you’re going take some convincing, so let’s run through the factors generally viewed as contributing to the phenomenon of home advantage:

The pitch
I’m sure there are plenty of park pitches where there’s a genuine advantage to be gained by knowing, say, that there’s a large pothole over by the corner flag that’s never been properly filled in, or that one side of the pitch is liable to turn into the Somme after five minutes of light drizzle.

But at the professional level, pitches are much of a muchness, generally well tended and flat. Ever where there are local variations, it’s hard to see how this gives an advantage to the home team. Take Vicarage Road. Does playing on a boggy quagmire once a fortnight during the winter months help the Hornets? I rest my case.

The ground
We’ve all heard about the dastardly ruses teams employ to cause their visitors maximum discomfort: ‘forgetting’ to turn the hot water on in the away dressing room, neglecting to mend the wonky leg on the massage table and so on.

Maybe this really does have an effect. But you’d have to hope that professional sportsmen, with all the expensive training and psychological conditioning they receive, can rise above the trauma of having to wait a bit longer than usual for their pre-match massage.

The travelling
On the face of it, this is more plausible. We all know what it’s like sitting on a coach for three hours, and it’s easy to imagine that by the time you get off, the last thing you feel like doing is playing a game of football against a bunch of players who’ve just strolled over to the ground from their nearby homes.

But that’s not how it works, is it? For one thing, players don’t live locally any more. To give just one example, during his playing days, Alec Chamberlain lived in Northampton – so when we played Luton* at Vicarage Road, he had to travel further to get there than they did. Did he therefore forfeit home advantage on an individual basis? It’s a nonsense.

The idea that travelling in itself puts you at a disadvantage would be more acceptable if it wasn’t assumed to apply equally across the board. When Liverpool play Everton, they can get there by ambling across Stanley Park if they want. Dundee and Dundee United are famously sited on the same street, and it’s not that long. So why is the away team at a disadvantage in that fixture?

The crowd
Ah yes, the famous ‘12th man’, the passionate home crowd that can spur on a team to great heights. And I don’t doubt that this is true, sometimes at least.

But shouldn’t that logically mean that the clubs with the loudest, most fanatical supporters ought to win everything? Clubs like Newcastle, Man City, Sunderland, Wolves... By the same token, the grounds where the singing is occasional and tentative ought to offer easy points to the visitors – grounds like the Emirates and Old Trafford, for example.

So the idea that having the home crowd on your side gives you an automatic advantage is plainly tosh. Again, look at Vicarage Road. Yes, we can make a bit of noise when the mood takes us, but I don’t believe that any footballer ever looks at the fixture list and shudders at the thought of having to play in front of the naked aggression of the Upper Rous.

Above all, it’s hard to take the concept of home advantage seriously when it’s applied so indiscriminately. If someone came up with a formula that took into account the distance the away team had to travel, the average decibel level generated by the home crowd and other factors, and then calculated the home advantage as a percentage, say, then I might be prepared to accept it.

Now I know what you’re going to say: if there’s no such thing as home advantage, why are there more home wins than away wins most weeks? The answer brings us to the crux of the problem, and the reason that it matters: tactics.

The myth of home advantage relieves managers of the stress of having to think too much. If you’re at home, you know you’re expected to win, so you line up in an attacking formation and batter the opposition until they concede. If you’re away, you play defensively, avoid taking risks and hope you might snatch a goal on the break. The reason there are more home wins is that most away teams’ defences simply aren’t good enough to withstand the pressure they’re put under.

In an ideal world, I’d take one of those memory-wiping devices Will Smith used in Men In Black and use it on every footballer and every manager to rid them of the notion that there is any such thing as home advantage. Then they’d be forced to approach every match on its own merits – work out how to neutralise the opposition’s best players and devise a system that allowed their own to shine.

For proof of how this can work in practice, think back to the 2006 Championship Play-Off Final. On neutral territory in Cardiff, Aidy Boothroyd went toe-to-toe with Kevin Blackwell, and only one of them got their tactics right. Imagine how much more fun football would be if you could turn up every week and have no idea how each team was going to play.

*Come on, you must remember them. They’re a non-league club now, but they used to be quite big.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

The benefits of being boring

There’s an article in the latest edition of the ever-excellent When Saturday Comes in which a Coventry fan bemoans the (remarkable) fact than in the last 40 years, the Sky Blues have never finished in the top six of any division. They spent years battling relegation from the top division, and since they finally succumbed, they’ve been similarly mediocre in the Championship.

Coincidentally, 40 years is also the amount of time I’ve been following Watford, and we’ve finished in the top six of various divisions a total of eight times in that period. Partly as a result, the longest period we’ve spent in a single division since 1970 is the eight seasons from 1988/89 to 1995/96 when were in what was initially called Division Two, then League One (and is now the Championship, of course).

The naming system isn’t the only thing that’s changed in English football since the early 90s. I haven’t got the time (or the energy) to go into the financial inequalities that increase with each passing year, but suffice to say that they’ve led me to an uncomfortable conclusion: we need to beat that record.

Promotion to the Premiership is clearly not a good thing for a club like Watford. Twice we’ve gone up, and twice we’ve been driven to the brink of financial ruin as a direct result. A third time might finish us off, at least in our current financial circumstances.

Relegation to League One is equally undesirable. The idea of going down, rediscovering the joy of being one of the big clubs in the division, and coming back stronger, is a nice one, but it’s not always that simple – look how long it’s taken Leeds. And the latest change to parachute payments means the gap between the Championship and League One is only going to get bigger.

So what Watford need is a nice long stay in the Championship: 10 years ought to do it. That would give us time to complete the financial reorganisation that already seems to be fairly well advanced, and then to re-establish the club on a sustainable footing. That will depend largely on the Harefield academy producing a steady stream of young players who can contribute to the first team for a few seasons before being sold on for a fee to a bigger club. The model that Dario Gradi established at Crewe, in other words.

Boring? Perhaps. Unambitious? Well, no, actually. Because I think the football bubble is going to burst in the next few years, and the chances are that some professional clubs are going to go to the wall. I’ll be happy to witness 10 years of mid-table stability (hopefully leavened by the occasional cup run) if it means the club is still there to compete at the end of it. And that is a worthwhile ambition, in my book.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

We’ve (still) got Lloydinho

As usual, it falls to me at this time of year to name my favourite Watford player. And as usual, it’s Lloyd Doyley. Need I say more?

Well, apparently I do. A couple of weeks ago I read a comment on WML about the threadbare nature of our squad (no argument there) which said something like, “If Hodson gets injured, we’ve only got Doyley as back-up”. It seems that after 300-odd first-team appearances, there are still some Hornets fans who haven’t realised that Lloyd is the best defender at the club, has been for several seasons now, and hopefully will be for a few more years to come.

Indeed, I confidently expect to be writing much the same blog post this time in 2013, by which time Lloyd will still only be around 30. After all, that big move to the Premiership probably isn’t going to happen now, and anyway, why would we sell our best (and best-loved) defender?