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My TV is possessed by silly possession stats

Hunter Davies' "The Fan" column.

Iam sitting shouting at the screen. It’s playing silly buggers again, cutting off the player when he is taking a corner or a free kick, hiding him from my view, like blind man’s buff. I have to guess who is taking the set piece and from where, which is so annoying. At the top of the screen, it has also obscured the names of the teams, the score and the time. Oh gawd, modern technology! Who needs it, eh?.

Yes, I know, the picture just needs altering, so it’s properly centred, or whatever. I have asked my children and grandchildren, and can they do it? Can they buggery. Even the one with a Cambridge first. What is the point of them? That was the object when I had them: to help me cope with all the complicated stuff in life.

My dear wife sits upstairs in her room, sans phone, sans computer, sans anything later than about 1880, writing away with her pen and ink, as lady novelists should. I can sense her smiling to herself when she hears me effing and blinding at the computer, the iPhone, the scanner, the photocopier and, most of all, at myself. When there is a power cut, I can almost hear her smiles seeping through the house.

It is an up-to-date, flat-screen Sony how’s-you-father and it doesn’t play tricks all the time. On ESPN I usually get the whole screen. But mostly I don’t.

Football is the only thing I ever, ever watch on TV. I’ve never seen a film or a play, except my own. Oh yes, I once wrote a Wednesday play, back in the 1960s. It was very good, people said.

I have just stood up, got close and looked sideways, convinced that if I peer into the corner of the telly I will see what is hidden there. Ah, I can now see a bit more, the screen has widened and I can read – oh, bloody hell – the possession stats, which is the last sodding thing I need.

You know what they are – the percentage of possession for each team, the most pointless statistic among the shit loads of stats they now pour at and over us. Because they can do, thanks to modern technology, so they do it. No reason.

It’s goals that count, which was the title of my fave story in the Wizard (or was it the Rover?) It is the only stat in football that matters. The rest is flimflam. Corners, yes, you can tot them up, no argument about them. But they don’t mean a lot either way, unless they lead to a goal.

Assists are quite interesting, and sometimes revealing, but you can see with your own eyes who is making all the goals. Telling us that the midfield dynamo ran 19.9 miles during the game or that the sullen striker managed 1.9 miles is bollocks. It’s quality that counts, not quantity.

Nine-tenths of the law

That is my main objection to the possession stat. Having possession of the ball in the modern game doesn’t tell us what happened. Barcelona 69 per cent, Real Madrid 31 per cent in El Clásico –wow, what a difference! Yet the score was equal, 2-2. Barça were at home, urged on by the crowd, while Madrid had set out their stall to counter attack. Plus they each had a genius. That’s what happened.

England 90 per cent possession, San Marino 10 per cent – yet the half time score is 0-0. How can that be, if England have dominated? Because they are useless bastards. Our tortoise could lead the line better. (I have just made that stat up. As I write, that game hasn’t happened, but I bet it will be roughly that.)

How do they make it up, the clever clogs who skulk in the corner of my telly with the bank of monitors shovelling out this drivel? How do they define possession? Obviously, if a player has the ball at his feet, he is in possession. But when it is a high ball from the goalie, or a wild clearance from a lumpen defender or a useless free kick, no one is in possession. Yet the possession stat always says “48-52”, “36-64”. In other words, it adds up exactly to 100 per cent. Weird. Or suspicious.

I can see how they calculate areas of play, telling us in which half the ball is, as that is a verifiable fact, though just as meaningless as possession. But with possession, that surely includes a lot of guessing, opinion and judgement. I don’t believe computers can do that.

The Premier League does have a Dubious Goals Committee, which adjudicates on who really scored goals. I think there should also be a Dubious Possession Stat Committee. And I am willing to serve on it. I just kicked the screen of the Sony in, so I should have a lot more spare time.

Hunter Davies’s latest book, “The John Lennon Letters”, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£25).

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.