These days journalists, sports writers, bloggers and pretty much anyone under the sun with an opinion about football loves nothing more than to dig out some obscure statistics pertaining to the beautiful game in some way. They preach it to the masses, usually on Twitter, and feel pretty damn good about themselves.
A classic would be something along the lines of “Manchester United win 83 per cent of all games when Paul Scholes starts.” Wow. Or “If the league had started last Wednesday the team currently in ninth position would actually be in eighth position.” Amazing. Sometimes you just have to marvel at how some of these ‘facts’ could have ever been calculated.
The fact of the matter is that an over emphasis on statistics is creeping into football punditry. Certainly some statistics can add to a particular point. But that is all they should do. Add to it! And sometimes they can mislead totally.
I admit I am as guilty of anyone of this most grievous act of ‘fact-finding’. In my desperate efforts to write this week’s column I found myself trawling through record books, frantically looking for some bizarre fact to cling onto, put up on a pedestal and show off to everyone; thus proving how much I know about football.
In this quest Twitter was an obvious outlet. Alas nothing leapt off the screen.
Finally inspiration struck in the most unlikely of locations.
I was at the Carlisle Grounds on Friday night to see the hosts put on one of the most impressive performances of the season. They held the reigning Premier Division champions to a 2-2 draw, and quite frankly Shamrock Rovers had a lucky escape.
However the match was overshadowed by some interesting refereeing decisions or, perhaps more accurately, the crowd’s reaction to these decisions. One such decision saw the Bray assistant manager being sent to the stands. Another resulted in a retaken spot kick which was saved and then hammered home by Billy Dennehy, only for the man in the middle to award a free kick because the young Kerryman was deemed to have encroached on the box as the penalty was being taken.
The abuse that followed for Paul McLaughlin for the remainder of the game was deplorable and ultimately he shouldn’t be judged until Monday night when we all get to see what exactly happened.
Regardless I decided that referees, so often the bug bearer of fans of the League of Ireland would be the target of my stat attack for this week’s column.
I set to work calculating how many yellow and red cards had been brandished by the men in the middle in the opening eight weeks of this year’s Premier Division campaign. Despite accusations from countless supporters and pundits alike that LOI refs are too card happy, I was surprised to discover that the opening 48 games of this season have produced only three yellow cards per game, with one red card every two games.
My efforts to find a statistic that would highlight our referees’ over-indulgence in producing cards had backfired spectacularly. Now what was I to do?
Well actually, that statistic says more than I had anticipated or immediately realised because, by comparison, referees in Britain are also averaging three yellow cards per game for the 2011/12 season. While this does not fundamentally prove anything other than the fact that Irish and English referees have similar takes on what deserves a booking and what does not, it does suggest our referees are being harshly criticised due to a lack of technological resources – basically instant replays.
What is different between the two countries is that we do not have the resources enjoyed by our friends across the water. Over there, multiple camera angles means every tackle, offside, hand ball or off the ball incident is caught on camera to be scrutinised endlessly in the days and weeks that follow. It is a luxury we simply do not have here.
In our case we have one camera at a game (and none in the case of the First Division). Just like a referee cannot be expected to see absolutely everything that happens on a football pitch over 90 plus minutes, neither can we expect one camera to pick up everything.
The result of all this is that referees receive undeserved verbal and sometimes physical abuse (a plastic bottle narrowly missed Paul McLoughlin on Friday night) by fans and managers who speak in the heat of the moment, and with impartiality shoved to one side.
Referees will never get every decision right. But neither will anybody else. We should all try to remember this the next time a questionable free or offside decision goes against us. If random statistics and mundane figures are anything to go by, let’s give the benefit of the doubt to the man in the middle until proven one way or another.
Now having dismissed the use of them, let me hit you with one more fact. A referee in the Argentinian fifth division last year saw fit to produce 36 red cards in one game sending off all the players, coaches and substitutes.
There’s hope yet.
*English Premier League yellow card statistics courtesy of http://www.statbunker.com/football/btb/index.php?PL=competition&Code=EPL&statType=ref_report
Sam joined Extratime for the 2011 season and is now the site's features editor. He is based in Dublin and covers all the clubs in the capital. He is also prone to the odd Drogheda game. If you would like to contact Sam, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.