Liam Fox: somebody give this man a new job. Photo: Oli Scarff - WPA Pool/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Commons Confidential: The fantastic Liam Fox

The North Somerset MP’s wife calls his phone “Teddy” – he takes it to bed with him.

Labour’s wannabe leaders are accusing the party of profiteering in the scramble to wear Ed Miliband’s tarnished crown. One of the four grumbled that it’s daylight robbery to charge candidates £5,000 to access the party’s 240,000-strong membership list.

Another moaned that the costs add insult to injury when the official hustings seem designed to prevent debate. Rigid rules and stopwatch answers favour prepared lines over free discussion. Banning clapping, hissing and booing by members – to save time – turns political meetings into church congregations.

The party counters that the hustings are fully booked, but the sense that an important competition is a sideshow, failing to engage most of the electorate, doesn’t augur well for Labour’s future.

Liam Fox, the Tory former defence secretary, is putting out feelers to find out if David Cameron will reward his loyalty by making him chair of the intelligence and security committee. The backbencher has rarely rocked the Tory boat since his cabinet resignation in October 2011 over his unofficial adviser Adam Werritty’s access to the Ministry of Defence and Fox remains plugged in to US defence networks.

Colleagues mutter that the restless Fox, who apparently continues to use a BlackBerry instead of an iPhone because the email is considered more secure, needs a job. The North Somerset MP’s wife calls his phone “Teddy” – he takes it to bed with him.

George Loveless and the Tolpuddle Martyrs would be thrilled. The Trades Union Congress museum in the Dorset village has a wedding licence. Unison’s Lynn Barrer is to tie the knot with Gary Kilroy of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association at this month’s festival, then pose for photos under the sycamore tree where Loveless, a Methodist preacher, and his fellow agricultural labourers met in 1834 before landowners had them transported to Australia. A honeymoon closer to home, in Spain, will follow.

The Blackpool North and Cleveleys MP, Paul Maynard – the parliamentary bag carrier for the Energy Secretary, Amber Rudd – is not the brightest spark in the department. The Tory’s dimmest idea was to ask Labour MPs to contact his office “to share your supplemental or topical question” before quizzing Rudd in the Commons. The opposition, unsurprisingly, declined.

Tessa Jowell’s friends (as we call them in the trade) whisper that her hubby, the corporate lawyer David Mills, would prefer her not to run for London mayor. Mills was burned by the public fallout of a conviction, subsequently quashed, for allegedly receiving a £380,000 bribe from Silvio “Bunga, Bunga” Berlusconi. The Labour couple separated but are reconciled and Mills shuns the limelight. This contest could get tasty.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Crisis Europe

Getty
Show Hide image

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