A Special Moment

Football is often comparable to life the ebb and flow of the game, the unfairness, the hardship, the great moments that are quickly put aside for the next game.

Playing grassroots football for me has always been ‘against the odds’ in almost every sense of the word. With limited physical advantages (short, slow and a portly shaped child) it made the game tough.

It was interesting at a football coaching course I went to recently the instructor said who remembers there junior football and made out as if nobody had. I didn’t pipe up with a reply perhaps that was for the fear of embarrassment at the fact I could remember almost every season in some defining way.

I remember my first full pitch goal as the goalkeeper trod on my foot as I beat him to the ball.  Losing the league on the final day of a season, the near misses of end of season cup games amongst the smoldering of smashings incurred over a junior career.

The attitude was developed to approach every game as one that could be won. No matter the opponent, no matter if that dream was shattered within 10 minutes the approach at the start of the game was the same. Fear no opponent.

Football is a funny game even the most underserving of teams can snatch a win from the jaws of defeat. To treat the game any other way would be a disservice especially in the Australian sporting landscape where everyone loves an underdog.

This didn’t stop me from picking a successful English team to follow as Arsenal were collecting silverware. I even remember my dad telling me they were about to go unbeaten in the league. I looked at him and muttered words not fully understanding the situation and the hardship that was to follow. 12 years but who is counting?

As I grew into my teens and injuries took hold the FIFA video game become a rather large part of my life. I managed to take my game to the top levels in Australia but for me it has always been about playing with the underdog. Going on fantastic runs of form with Fulham lead by Andy Johnson, Middlesborough lead by Tuncay amongst many others. It was about harnessing the less able players into a cohesive unit to claim unexpected victory upon unexpected victory.

As my knowledge of the statistical side of football grew and the personal injuries piled up the ‘against all odds’ beast had begun to be tamed. The removing of the ability to heavily mismatch teams on FIFA certainly didn’t help the cause either!

For years I battled away at Fantasy Premier League, one solitary year I managed to have a blistering start. In an effort to maintain this I stumbled across the quite excellent http://www.fantasyfootballscout.co.uk and started to be influenced by a look into statistics in football.

Moneyball was a fantastic book and movie although I didn’t see the direct overlap to football. It was when I was on holidays browsing a bookstore that I picked up a sports book with bright cover, the book was called Soccernomics. It raised so many excellent ideas, ideas I had always wondered about and had been told to discard for the folklores still held dear by many involved in the game.

A little while ago Twitter became my friend and the football analytics community is something I have kept a close eye on. Perhaps too much so the powerful ‘against all odds beast’ has been curtailed by the predictive models and suggestions which are found amongst this community. Today I sit back as someone heavily influenced by the analytical sports movement. With a strong upbringing in the folklores of the game I thought I had found the answer to all my questions through statistics.

And then Leicester City Happened

Like many I disregarded them as serious title contenders at any point until it was confirmed. There was too much luck and chance involved, the squad was too small, they were over performing on expected goals, over performing on defense given the shots they were giving up.

I gave up on the upbringing I had in football. The cobbled together team of those that had to fight against the odds, against the big boys. Believing they could win every game and holding that attitude together no matter what the other results were. A bunch of lads that couldn’t believe what was happening but went into the match with the same defiant attitude that has held them together their whole careers.

Tottenham Hotspur imploded against Chelsea in what was a fascinating game. Quite a chuckle for Arsenal fans, one goes into any of these derbies asking for an all in brawl and points deduction for both sides. I think we saw the next best thing with Tottenham giving up a two-nil lead to lose the title amongst violent scenes with nine yellow cards and an eye gouge.

With all the fantastic photos and celebrations it was a great story. Leicester had won the title against all odds but the realities of the title winners still hadn’t hit home, the kid scrapping for each result hoping to one day take home a title against all odds.

Then Andrea Bocelli appeared with a deeply emotional Claudio Ranieri standing next to him. It hit home, his music brought me back to the battlegrounds of football. The tough slog of every training session, every tackle, every injury. The flow of the music was something to behold as we witnessed the celebration of the greatest underdog story in sport.

It is a once in a lifetime moment that was signified in such a captivating way it brought me to tears. The singer blinded by a football incident brought on stage to deliver such beautiful music in such an authentic manner, it was truly moving.

A conclusion I had come to some time ago was that models can’t be totally trusted because there can be strong outliers for a number of indescribable reasons. They are a good guide but they are not the answer, understanding humans and the interaction we have with each other is an imperfect science.

I had slipped into a sense of over trusting models and statistics. This was adjusted during the season but I still held this inbuilt bias towards models over instinct. For this thinking to be put into perspective was excellent. That it came in the form of such beautiful music was truly moving and is something I will never forget.

Bravo Bocelli

Originally published on http://www.liambfootball.com on May 8th 2016

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