Man Booker Prize shortlist announced

Hilary Mantel and Will Self are the favourites.

The hour is here. At a press conference this morning, the final shortlist of the six novels vying for the 2012 Man Booker Prize was announced. They are:

Tan Twang Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon Books)

Deborah Levy, Swimming Home (And Other Stories)

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate)

Alison Moore, The Lighthouse (Salt)

Will Self, Umbrella (Bloomsbury)

Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis (Faber & Faber)

This year the judging panel is comprised of the actor, editor and columnist Dan Stevens; the historian and best-selling author Amanda Foreman and two academics: Bharat Tandon and Dinah Birch. It is chaired by Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement.

Mantel is the bookies’ favourite to win with her sequel to Wolf Hall, which took the prize in 2009. Bring up the Bodies, the second in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, is popular with readers and critics alike and seems to be a safe bet to receive the prize. Of course, the fact that she has already received the top honour once before, as well as being longlisted in 2005 for Beyond Black, may work against her. The odds, however, seem to suggest that many are confident she can pull it off again.

The inclusion of Will Self’s Umbrella – which the New Statesman’s reviewer referred to as a “complexly textured, conceptually forbidding thesis about the modern” - may be a nod to correcting the controversy that seemed to follow last year’s prize. When the 2011 selections were made public, the judging panel were criticised for pandering to populism. They admitted to rejecting “experimental” books, instead prioritising the readability of the novels above any other quality throughout the judging process. The chair of the 2011 judging panel, Stella Rimington, was quoted as saying that “we want people to buy and read these books, not buy and admire them.” Will Self, described by this year’s panel as a “radical of contemporary literature” and Umbrella, with its modernist echoes of Joyce and Eliot, may be the perfect way of signalling that the prize is ready to take itself seriously again, and is no longer afraid to include more conceptually challenging books.

Sir Peter said that it was “the pure power of prose that settled most debates. We loved the shock of language shown in so many different ways and were exhilarated by the vigour and vividly defined values in the six books that we chose - and in the visible confidence of the novel's place in forming our words and ideas.” This marks a significant departure from the explanations given last year, when Judge Chris Mullin prompted some raised eyebrows by declaring that he liked to choose books with storylines that ‘zip along’. In fact, a renewed interest in the fresh and innovative appears to mark out the shortlist this year - the list includes two first novels and three small independent publishers.

The winner of the Man Booker Prize will be announced on 16 October 2012, at a dinner at London’s Guildhall. The announcement of the winner will be televised by the BBC.   

Will Self in 2006. Photo: Getty Images.
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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times