Don’t shoot the messenger. The first football analyst was a pioneer 50 years ahead of his time

Charles Reep's findings brought success but have been discredited by critics working to their own agendas.

By Alan Campbell

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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What Reep observed at the old Highbury was to spark his life-long interest – some might say obsession – in finding the most efficient way to score goals and thus win football matches. To paraphrase crudely, he discovered that the more passes that were involved, the less likely were the chances of scoring goals. Although this finding was entirely based on fact, it was treated by his armchair critics as if it was outdated theory.
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His paper in 1968 with Benjamin is the most important document in football. It tells you firstly that football is controlled by chance, and secondly it outlines these invisibles you can't see. You can't see chance, so people have difficulty recognising it.

The sale of Opta Sports to the Perform Group for £40 million in 2013 is financial proof that performance analysis in football has become big business. The company was then less than 20 years old, having been founded as Opta Sportsdata in 1996.

Opta’s first role was to analyse Premier League matches in England for Sky Sports. It quickly became the official statistics provider for the league and has continued to mushroom, providing analysis for the top clubs, the media and the betting industry. At a recent count it was providing data for 30 sports in 70 countries.

How Charles Reep must be revolving in his grave. Almost half a century before Opta Sportsdata was founded, the English accountant pioneered football performance analysis at the ground of Swindon Town. The date was March 18, 1950, and at the start of the second half of the home game against Bristol Rovers, Reep took a pencil and notebook out of his pocket.

With these simple tools he started to invent a method of recording what happened to every possession by both teams. His eventual conclusions, based on the data from more than 600,000 passing moves, were scorned by those within football blindly tied to the merits of possession football – but a handful of English managers, including Graham Taylor and Dave Bassett, based their style of play on Reep’s findings with spectacular success.

Reep died in February 2002, at the age of 97. One of his analysts, Neil Lanham, observes: “I went to the funeral and I’ve always said it was similar to the one of Karl Marx. There were only nine at his, and only about 20-30 at Reep’s.”

That’s the problem with dying at an old age. Most of your friends have already made their own arrangements. But the small congregation was also testament to Reep being a prophet who died without the recognition he deserved. Even worse, some in the media and academic worlds – people not fit to lace his boots – are now taking advantage of his death to traduce and distort his work and findings.

I first read about Reep in an Englishbased newspaper. As a journalist I’ve always tried to support the underdog where it’s justified, and it was obvious from this report that the English football establishment hated – and I mean hated – Charles Reep. At the time I was employed by as a news reporter and feature writer by the (then) Glasgow Herald. Newspapers didn’t have today’s constraints, and so, after setting up a meeting by phone, I pointed the car in the direction of Devon to meet the great man. As one did in the 1980s.

Thorold Charles Reep trained as an accountant after leaving Plymouth High School in 1923. Rather dauntingly – and of course this was used by his opponents to denigrate him – he had achieved the rank of wing commander in the RAF. He remained in the service until 1955, but his interest in football performance analysis had been piqued in the late 1920s and early 1930s when he attended Arsenal games. The Gunners’ manager was the legendary Herbert Chapman, who introduced modern tactics and training methods to the English game. What Reep observed at the old Highbury was to spark his life-long interest – some might say obsession – in finding the most efficient way to score goals and thus win football matches.

To paraphrase crudely, he discovered that the more passes that were involved, the less likely were the chances of scoring goals. Although this finding was entirely based on fact, it was treated by his armchair critics as if it was outdated theory.

I had no preconceptions of Reep on the long drive to the south-west of England. The man who met me graciously, introducing me to his second wife Evelyn, was not at all ex-military (he had been in the RAF’s newly-formed accountancy division), and didn’t take himself over-seriously.

My article duly appeared in the Herald – the features pages of course, as sport wouldn’t have touched it with a goalpost – and aroused a fair bit of interest.

My main recollection of the reaction is that Reep referred to the position of maximum opportunity (POMO) in the feature at one point. This was something he had spotted with his naked eye at Chapman’s Arsenal, but was later confirmed by the countless passing moves and goals he had recorded over the years.

Basically the idea was to have a player positioned as close to the far post as possible without being offside when an attack was being mounted on the opposite side. But “position of maximum opportunity” was too much for one of Scotland’s most opinionated but least illuminated football writers. He derided the concept – not because it might be correct (and it was because of the mountain of data accumulated by Reep), but because it was called POMO. Yes, really.

Later, in what was to be an (enjoyable) act of folly, I founded a football magazine called The Punter. The first issue was in July 1989, and as well as a section in the middle called Private Punter – a none too subtle attempt to attract the thriving fanzine audience – the columnists included a heavily moustached Tony Higgins and Charles Reep. The magazine also used another Reep disciple called David Hollingshead to analyse Scotland games at Hampden – much to the chagrin of the then manager, Andy Roxburgh. His assistant, Craig Brown, acted as peacekeeper on at least one occasion when the findings didn’t go down too well.

Reep, to be fair, warned me from the outset that employing him would hasten the publication’s demise. In actual fact, he was The Punter’s main talking point. His articles often ran to four A4 pages, peppered only by the occasional graph, and a deep breath was often required before plunging in. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t change offering him the opportunity to patiently (and painstakingly) explain his research and findings, the academic highlight of which was a joint paper with an eminent statistician, Dr Bernard Benjamin. It was published in the Royal Statistical Society’s Journal in 1968, accepted worldwide, and proves that goals scored by any team, in any country, come at random within that team’s framework of probability.

All of which might have been of obscure interest had it not been for the startling success of two unfashionable English clubs in the 1980s. Reep wasn’t directly involved with either, but two of his analysts – Lanham and Simon Hartley – were. Lanham worked with Dave Bassett with no input from Reep, while Hartley was Reep’s man working for Graham Taylor.

The two recorded games using pencil and paper (Lanham was later the first person to put the data on a computer) before feeding the results back to the managers.

This is what Reep himself had to say in Issue 3 of the magazine.

“When the editor of The Punter invited me to become a regular contributor he knew I was regarded as something of a revolutionary heretic in English soccer.

“My crime seemed to be that of seducing certain English Football League managers away from the virtuous path of possession football which has long been established as the ‘true gospel’ for World Cup play, and is universally praised by the media. By promising near-certain success in gaining promotion, merely by adopting an unorthodox style of play derived from comprehensive performance analysis, I had persuaded a number of managers to break away from the pack and strike out boldly on their own.

“Worse still, these managers had been surprisingly successful, and included both Graham Taylor and Dave Bassett, who had the audacity to lift their teams, Watford and Wimbledon, from obscurity to the First Division (now the Premier League). Not only that, but once up there they had astounded pundits by finishing near the top, instead of struggling to avoid relegation as they had forecast.

“Watford finished second to Liverpool in 1982-83 and Wimbledon sixth in 1986-87. Wimbledon’s players, loyal to Dave Bassett’s style of play, refused to deviate from it after he moved to Watford to replace Graham Taylor. In the next season, with Bobby Gould as manager, they proceeded to win the FA Cup by beating Liverpool 1-0.

“All this was extremely disturbing to those well respected leaders in soccer matters who believed they could speak with authority on what was, or was not, beneficial in the long term to the game.”

Reep could be, according to some of those who knew him best, a difficult man to bump along with. Lanham, who worked for a number of managers in England, is now 80 but is working on a tome of his experiences in football which he hopes Orion Books will publish.

Also a noted local historian, Lanham lives in a large Elizabethan Tudor house in Suffolk which, he says, was entirely paid for by successful bets on Wimbledon and other clubs, including Cambridge United, which used him as an analyst.

“I first met Charles Reep in 1962 when I was an auctioneer,” Lanham recalls. “He used to play tennis with my guv’nor. Then he showed me something about his football analysis, and I couldn’t wait to get away.

“At the time I had season tickets at Ipswich. I noticed the crowd were cheering the aesthetically beautiful things that were contrary to match winning. This was going on every game and it began to annoy me. I said to my wife: ‘I think I’d like to see old Reep – we’ll find out where he is.’

“The following summer we combined a holiday with going to see him at his home near Plymouth and he told me a little bit about what he did. He tried to persuade me to take a game down in shorthand. When I got home I followed games on Match of the Day and found what he claimed was correct. Eight out of ten goals did come from moves of three passes or less.

“I began to believe it. It took me well over a year to get a hang of the shorthand. Then I wanted to get involved. Simon Hartley was a pupil (of Reep’s) like myself. Richard Pollard, a statistician, had also been to see Reep and believed in him.”

Pollard, who now lives in California, introduced Graham Taylor to Reep and as a result of that conversation it was agreed Hartley would analyse Watford’s games and give copies of his report to both the manager and Reep. So continued an incredible run of success which saw the future England manager guide the Elton John-owned Watford from the Fourth Division to the First (Premier League) in only five seasons.

“When Simon started with Watford I had a little bet on them getting promotion which won me £600,” Lanham explains. “They were then in the old Second Division. The following season I put £500 of the winnings on a handicap bet in the First Division (Premier League). Almost everyone said that type of football would not cut any ice in the top division. Watford were huge outsiders and the bet won me £8000.”

That was the start of a number of betting coups for Lanham as he backed various teams using his analysis. Three were for £25,000, £42,000 and £45,000. You can more than double these figures in today’s money.

Lanham was making substantial sums of money, but Charles Reep continued to find himself to be football’s largely unacceptable outsider. However, another Charles – Hughes – was taking great interest in his methods. Hughes was at the time director of coaching at the Football Association, and went on to publish a book without Reep’s permission which included many of his key findings. Lanham recalls the tension between the two.

“There was a meeting at Graham Taylor’s house,” he recalls, “with Charles Hughes from the FA, who was now getting very interested in it all. At dinner Charles Hughes announced that Charles Reep wanted so much money for the use of his findings, but he said he was going to use them in any case – at which point Charles Reep got up and walked out.

“I have a letter from Hughes saying he would have nothing whatsover to do with Reep because he was somewhat persona non grata at the FA. Then when he published his book, he wrote: ‘I met a wonderful old gentleman called Charles Reep . . . ‘”

The reason that Reep (and ironically by association Hughes) was vilified by the self-ordained sophisticates in the English footballing media was because he was seen as the arch-proponent of the long ball game. When Taylor was appointed England manager in 1990 the critics would never have allowed him to use the tactics he’d employed so successfully at Watford – and in any case no England manager could expect to significantly change the style of football which highly paid players are accustomed to at their clubs. It wasn’t a good fit, and ended in ignominy for a decent man, although both Norway, under Egil Olsen, and Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland used variations of the long-ball game with significant success.

“Reep left us with certain principles,” Lanham says. “If you look into them, they amount to a higher level of thinking. In other words, they enable you to see the invisibles. It’s what the team collectively does that counts, and that is what this type of analysis allows you to do.

“I gave a talk to a Premier League manager the season before this. He told me: ‘Nobody does analysis the way you do.’ My reaction is that if you don’t, you won’t see the big picture. The laws of chance control the game, and what Reep left us is an ability, through measurement, to see the invisibles.

“His paper in 1968 with Benjamin is the most important document in football. It tells you firstly that football is controlled by chance, and secondly it outlines these invisibles you can’t see. You can’t see chance, so people have difficulty recognising it. Yet almost everybody who gives an interview about football will say something about chance. When I see a manager I tell him there is no conjecture, no guesswork. Everything is recorded. The analysis is, as Reep said, rock solid.”

Unfortunately that’s not how Reep’s work is viewed now in many quarters. Whereas his problems had been confined to journalists and pundits when he was alive, an academic paper published in 2005, which claimed Reep’s work was fundamentally flawed, has been quoted extensively by websites, other academics and authors.

Richard Pollard, who it will be recalled first introduced Reep to Graham Taylor and now lives in California, has taken up the cudgels on behalf of his former mentor. He has a PhD in statistics and is trying to have an academic paper of his own published. It will point out that the 2005 authors, Mike Hughes and Ian Franks, misrepresented Reep’s research – although not out of any malice – and that their paper contains verifiable inaccuracies.

“Most people in the football world have been only too eager to denigrate Reep and firmly believe his work to be flawed from the beginning,” Pollard points out. “Hughes and Franks gave them extra ammunition, especially to serious journalists and authors who accepted what they wrote without really looking at it in more depth. In fact, Hughes and Franks were quite cautious in the implications of what they found. I met Franks a long time ago in Vancouver, where he worked as a professor. At that time he was a big fan of Reep and firmly believed in the merits of direct football.”

Pollard’s first contact with Reep is revealing. It demonstrated how even distinguished journalists weren’t prepared to give the founder of football performance analysis the time of day.

“I met Reep in 1960,” Pollard recalls. “He had written some articles in World Sports and a school friend, John Goodbody, contacted him.

“Reep invited us to spend the day with him. I had just passed my driving test and we drove up from London to his old house in Haverhill. I was a Wolves fan and was delighted at what I heard. John went on to work at The Times (he was the sports news correspondent for 21 years) and later won a Sports Journalist of the Year award.

“He was a Real Madrid fan and rejected what Reep had to say from the start. He wrote a letter to Reep telling him what was wrong with his theories. Reep was incensed at what he considered the insulting tone of the letter and they never spoke to each other again.”

So, to recap, Charles Reep gave twoenterprising young men a generous amount of time to explain his work in detail. One is enthralled and, having since applied rigorous academic standards to the body of work, continues to believe in the accuracy of the analysis and conclusions. The other hears something he doesn’t want to hear and writes to Reep telling him his “theories” – the word in itself is an insult – are wrong. Unfortunately, but all too typically for Reep, the disbeliever goes on to become an influential sports journalist.

Neil Lanham is, meanwhile, scathing of a recently published book by another prominent journalist, Michael Cox, called The Mixer. “On page 142 he mentions Charles Reep,” Lanham points out. “What is stated has to be questioned. It says Charles Hughes worked with Charles Reep. That’s not the case. Reep hated Charles Hughes. The book says Reep’s figures are generally misleading, sometimes illogical and occasionally entirely selective. That’s wrong. Everything Reep did was cross-checked. It was not selective – everything was taken into consideration.

“The author says Liverpool were the most successful team in the 1980s and that they developed a passing game which was admired across Europe. Yet Simon Hartley told me that whenever Liverpool played Watford they played as many long balls as Watford did. When Wimbledon won the FA Cup they played 32 long midfield balls. Liverpool played 35.

“The book is described as ‘one of the most entertaining, rich and knowledgeable football books ever written’. A clock that doesn’t work is right twice a day.

“Football is made up of conjecture. Reep established the facts and truth about football. They’re still the same, because the rules haven’t changed, apart from the back pass to the goalkeeper.”

Not that Lanham, in his Elizabethan Tudor house, has much cause to complain about the work of Charles Reep being so unfairly maligned. “I used to hear these things being said all the time,” he says wryly. “It just made it easier for me to make money off the bookmakers.”

Opta Sports, too, must be making plenty of money off football performance analysis. The company, which has offices in London and Leeds, has access to every advantage afforded by new technology. None of that was available to Charles Reep, a genius ahead of his time who deserves far, far better than to be remembered as a crank who got it all wrong.

Reep once told me that football managers, in general, were ex-footballers who kept repeating the mistakes they’d picked up from their own managers – and that this had been repeated for generations. Football coaching has evolved since the 1980s, but the fact that so few managers have been willing to even test the methods that were used so successfully by Taylor, Bassett and a handful of others tells you all you need to know about closed minds in British football.

The last word goes to Lanham, who says: “Charles Reep invented a method of telling you the truth of what happens on the field of play, of recording what actually takes place. He didn’t invent any system of play. He told you what happens and people didn’t like it – so they wanted to shoot the messenger.”

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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