The First and the Worst Sports Analyst in the World: Charles Reep

Football analysis may sound like a 21st century thing, but it is really older than World War II.

Charles Reep was an accountant who won the first prize in an entrance competition for the Accountancy Division of the RAF in 1928. He became the Wing Commander.

The right-half (in a WM formation of 2-3-5, it meant he was the very wide man) of Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal named Charlie Jones was giving lectures at the Accountancy Division. Reep was fascinated by the long-ball game that Arsenal employed.

He was hit with inspiration: he would implement accountancy into football by recording every action on the pitch in order to unearth truths and conclusions about football with proof.

However, what delayed him was the Second World War. He was posted in Germany and didn’t return till 1947. He was disappointed to find that the long-ball game had reached nowhere since Herbert Chapman. He watched a match between Bristol Rovers and Swindon Town in 1950. He was annoyed when he saw a slow game that led to 0-0 at halftime. He came out for the second half with a notebook and pencil. He wrote down everything that happened on the pitch down to the shortest pass.

‘The continuous action of a game is broken down into a series of discrete on-the-ball events, such as a pass, cross or shot. A detailed categorization is made for each type of event, for which shorthand codes have been developed. For example, each pass in a game is classified and recorded by its length, direction, height and outcome, as well as the positions on the field at which the pass originated and ended.’ explained Reep about his system, according to Chris Anderson and David Sally in The Numbers Game.

Reep recorded the events of more than 2,200 games. For night games, he would wear a miner’s helmet with a headlamp, to see his writing.

His findings came to the attention of Brentford manager Jackie Gibbons. His side was battling relegation. Reep was appointed advisor. They had 14 games left to play. They took 20 points out of the 28 available (a win was 2 points then). His side easily survived. Their goals to game ratio went from 1.5:1 to 3:1 under the analysis of Charles Reep.

However, despite his successes, Reep is scapegoated when he should be regarded a pioneer. Here’s why.

He found that passing moves with more than three passes hardly lead to any goals. He held that moving the ball up quickly with one long aerial pass is the key to scoring. This was what was called a long ball. Ceding possession close to your own goal generally meant a goal conceded. This strategy worked at Brentford. He published his theories in the News Chronicle.

This attracted the interest of Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Stan Cullis. Reep worked as an analyst there.  Reep led them to great success in the 1950’s, which influenced Graham Taylor at Watford and Wolverhampton and Charles Hughes, the FA boss. But the duo’s reliance on the long ball game led to England failing to qualify for the World Cup 1994 in the United States. Jonathan Wilson in particular lambasts Reep for his crude findings (and I partly agree with him).

However, his successors are what earn him a place on this list. Egil Olsen, a Norwegian ex-footballer and manager of Norway, briefly took Norway to second place in world rankings. He collected game data in a computerized format. When Olsen became AFC Wimbeldon’s manager, 95 year-old Reep offered his services as analyst, writes Jonathan Wilson.

Olsen isn’t the only one to have used Reep’s methods. Damien Comolli, the ex-Sporting Director at Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Saint-Etienne; Mike Forde, statiscian at Bolton Wanderers and later Chelsea; Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal, Valeriy Lobanovskiy, ex-manager of Dynamo Kyiv and various sports data companies like Opta, Prozone and StatDNA have all put statistics to good use on the pitch.

Image Attribution

Featured image : By Tiresais – engl. Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2390215

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