Finally – proof that being tall is no guarantee of success

I had never heard of the PFPO until last week. It sounds like an advertising agency or a liberating army. Turns out it stands for Professional Football Players Observatory and is a Fifa-backed group of academics who publish reports on European football.

Football academics? Loads of them these days, churned out by universities all over the shop, giving degrees and funding PhD research. And about time, too.

The study analysed details of players at 534 clubs in 36 European nations. What got the sports section of the Sunday Times excited was the PFPO's revelation that Man United has the most settled squad in Europe - the average Man United first-team player having been at the club for nearly six years. Barcelona came third for stability, while Chelsea also ranked high.

It led the ST to the triumphant conclusion that "the longer players stay at a club, the more stable first-team success becomes". This stability appears to give them "a competitive edge over their rivals".

Now, we all know that poor old, rich old Man City is the Prem's least stable club, with most of the team still strangers to each other - no idea which country they are in, what they are supposed to do, where the lavatory is - and they have won nowt for ages. But to say that lack of stability is the cause of their lack of trophies is bollocks. It's the other way round. Lack of success has led to instability - made worse by their having trillions to throw around, and madly, wildly trying to put things right.

Secrets of success

Successful clubs can afford to be stable, because they are obviously doing something right. They don't need to sell their best players, who don't want to leave anyway, though of course players grow old, stale, lame and useless and there has to be a continual process of regeneration at even the most stable of clubs.

The other revelation, hum hum, is that the English Prem has the biggest number of expat players - 58.4 per cent - of any major league in Europe. Tell us something we haven't noticed. Actually they did. The country with by far the biggest number of foreign players is Cyprus, with 72.3 per cent.

They also analysed heights and found that Chelsea is the tallest team in the Prem, averaging 6 ft ½ ins. At least they acknowledge this has no correlation with success, as Barcelona are all titchy, averaging 5 ft 9 ins.

According to the Sunday Times, "the big English clubs are gobbling up the data" provided by PFPO, presumably hoping for further amazing insights that will help them succeed. As if. Football stats have always been with us. For well over 100 years we footer fans have been fed fascinating facts - whether from the backs of cigarette cards, the small print in programmes or football mags. Places of birth, weight and height have always been publicly recorded, which has enabled small boys and sad old men to create patterns and then come up with theories, most of them rubbish.

My favourite football fact is the make-up of the Spurs team that won the FA Cup in 1901. How many of them do you think came from London or the south? None. Five were Scots, two Welsh, one Irish, one from Maryport in Cumberland, one from the Potteries and one from Grantham. I always use this fact to prove that football mercenaries are not new.

What I'd like to learn from a football survey are not the basic facts about our heroes, but their habits, beliefs, opinions. How many are gay, how many have suffered from depression, or drug and alcohol abuse? They are not likely to tell, but they might, anonymously, if their club or Fifa was backing the survey. I am sure they would reveal less contentious things such as religious beliefs, number of cars, number of girls shagged last month, how much their agent has earned, how much they have sent home.

The survey shows that Brazil has 577 players playing in Europe - an amazing, if well-known fact - but what have they done with their money? Is it keeping the Brazilian economy going? Or does it go on girls, clothes and cars?

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 04 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who are the English?