Behind empty punditry sport remains a true test of character
John Giles is a a rare beacon of such sense and he’s right: play each game on its merits
How much effort went into calculating the impact of home advantage in the weekend’s league matches, quantifying the plus of Croke Park to Dublin, or the supposed terror of having to travel to Tuam to play Galway at football? Photograph: Inpho
It doesn’t matter what the sport is, statistical proof abounds that playing at home provides an automatic advantage, which only proves that whatever the sport, 72.4 per cent of the statistics about it are made up on the spot.
It’s as deeply entrenched a piece of sporting faith as the one that the ref is a w****r, this latch-on blankey of home-field advantage: and maybe in the faith does come an advantage. But what it is mostly is a convenient cop-out for the away crowd.
There’s no more feeble-minded admission of inadequacy than the “playing away” excuse. It chooses to hand secondary elements a relevance they don’t deserve, because unless the stewarding is particularly shoddy, what happens between the lines remains inviolable, and that doesn’t matter if the game is played home, away or on the moon.
What players are essentially saying when fretfully talking about “away cauldrons” or fortress “Anfield” is that a lot of people yelling at them somehow makes a concrete difference out on the pitch. And that is an excuse, a lame one too.
So what if the San Siro, or Pairc Uí Chaoimh, or Loftus Versfeld becomes noisey. After all, it’s just noise.
So what if the locals speak Italian, Cork or Afrikaans; it’s just talk.
Moreover, unless the grass has been dug up and replaced with cheese, so what if the surface isn’t the exact same as the one on which you practice.
Sport’s big plus is always that it comes down to you and the other guy, or your team and the other team, squaring off to see who is better. And all the other stuff that goes on around that is mostly irrelevant. Or at least it should be to those properly tuned into the business of competing and winning.
But so much of sport, especially professional sport, instead revolves around excuses. There’s always a reason for defeat and rarely is it the truthful one, which is that the other crowd might be better. And when careers and livings are tied up in it, you can see why the excuse game is important.
An especially convenient one is the supposed difficulty of playing away.
It’s no coincidence either that what’s essentially a piece of wishful thinking is then justified by blizzards of statistics and quasi-scientific sounding jargon of a sort that can be pliably wrapped around whatever prejudice might be convenient.
The 2011 book Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Play and Games Are Won outlined how soccer in the US has the most extreme home-team advantage with home teams winning 69.1 per cent of the time. In basketball the home team wins 68.8 per cent of the time and in college football the winning percentage is 63 per cent. The NBA percentage is 60.5 per cent while it is 57.3 in the NFL.
Impressed by that percentile calculation? By the mathematical precision? Well don’t be. Nothing can be case closed on the back of figures which really only continue to help propagate a largely self-fulfilling prophecy.
It can’t be coincidence either that football comes out on top, a game with a higher percentage of spoof merchants than any other. In football the “win your home games and get a result away” culture is so ingrained that otherwise intelligent people get sucked in.
How many punditry hours have been devoted over the years to the wise-old credo of keeping the crowd quiet for the first 20 minutes? And how many punditry invoices over the years have been justified by such cant?
It isn’t just football though. This ingrained juju has penetrated everywhere, even the GAA. How much effort went into calculating the impact of home advantage in the weekend’s league matches, quantifying the plus of Croke Park to Dublin, or the supposed terror of having to travel to Tuam to play Galway at football?
Seriously, Tuam? I’ve stayed there. It ain’t Las Vegas sure enough, and yes the long winter nights must just fly. But the town is unexceptional in its ordinariness and I’m guessing the pitch is too: no secret gullies towards goal, no geometrical oddity, no maniacal local with a slash
hook hiding behind the gents. In fact how alien can any GAA ground be to any player?
It’s not like we’re talking about the sort of cod-psychology Chelsea famously resorted to by making the away dressingroom at Stamford Bridge smaller, with tiny lockers at ground level forcing players to get on their hands and knees in a simian display of submission that supposedly locked the opposition into a subliminal state of defeat even before the first whistle.
Such behaviour is routinely praised as a cunning appreciation of the role of psychology in sport rather than the rank display of crass bad manners it actually is, but there’s nothing quite like a dollop of psychobabble to further thicken a bullshit stew that keeps shrinks in consultancy fees.
In reality there is one genuine home-field advantage, but it’s a non-statistical, hopelessly non-Jungian piece of human nature that revolves around referees wanting to be liked.
We’re communal beasts after all, and even the w****r in black can be prone to making split-second calls based on popularity rather than judgement. That’s why home teams get more penalties. There now, you can have that one for free.
However, what it shouldn’t be is a convenient cop-out. And certainly not one to justify an essentially spurious mindset which has burrowed its way so deeply into sport that common good sense faces an uphill battle to survive against it.
John Giles is a usually a rare beacon of such sense and he’s got it right. Play each game on its merits. And that’s the same, wherever it’s played.