Tuesday, 27 November 2012

An Aspiring Performance Analyst's Journey

I haven't updated my website for a while. A combination of working within Performance Analysis and finding the time to sit down and write something for it is the excuse behind this! I want to keep my blog going and keep it informative and I’ve already got a few plans on things to write about and I'd already come up with the idea of doing a "performance analysts diary" a couple of months ago and a piece byRichard Hughes has spurred me on to continue with this.

This post got out of hand a little bit and turned out to be quite long so thanks for taking the time to read this and I hope to write more blog posts over the coming months. Any feedback is very welcome!

The Beginning 

Most people getting into Performance Analysis these days seem to follow a very structured path. University, Internship, then a paid role within a club.

When I went to University (I graduated in 2003) there was barely any concept of using performance analysis in football, indeed Prozone didn't start up as a company until 1999, which is when I started uni.

I did a Business Management degree and worked in accounts until 2007 when I decided this wasn't the career for me. I wanted to do something with sports that still suited my skills and after qualifying to FA Level 1, spending a year scouting for Barnsley FC's Academy and working with the Association of Football Statisticians on a voluntary basis I got a job working with Activity Sheffield, part of Sheffield City Council, as a Sports Project Officer. This department delivered sporting sessions to 5-18 year olds and 65+ across Sheffield. The role I was doing was essentially a reporting role. Over the 5 years I was with Activity Sheffield the role changed into a performance analysis role, working with systems to capture information and reporting on this information and using it to make strategic decisions.

A couple of years before I left I'd decided I wanted to pursue performance analysis as a career and around this time the role of the analyst was emerging within football. I'd heard a lot about Prozone as Brian Laws spoke very highly of this when he was Sheffield Wednesday manager and investigated how to get a career within this field. I did the Prozone Level 1 course in March 2011 at Derby University, using MatchViewer and learning how to use the software to it's full potential. It was a great experience and really confirmed my interest in pursuing this as a career.

I spent the next 6 months sending emails to the generic club email addresses asking for some voluntary work hoping to hear something back and got….nothing. This is the first major lesson I learned, you have to knock on a LOT of doors to get a job within football. The majority of the people in the country have some kind of passing interest and I'm sure most men would love to have a job working for a club. Unfortunately this means that jobs are either not advertised (a lot of clubs use headhunting for staff) or massively popular with hundreds of applicants.

One thing I did notice was that most jobs asked for a Sports Science degree, looks like my Business Management one wouldn't be much use!

I continued to keep my eye out but had been thinking for a few months about how to make myself stand out. I attended the Performance Analysis conference set up by Rob Carroll and the Video Analyst website at Loughborough in August 2011 and spoke to Paul Boanas of Prozone who was at the event. I mentioned to him that I was planning on producing my own report on a game and he said this was a great idea and told me about how a scout at Crystal Palace had done something similar, submitting it to Neil Warnock who immediately hired him.

So with renewed enthusiasm I began to plan how to produce the report and what it would contain. I chose the game I was going to focus on (Manchester United vs Manchester City at Old Trafford in the October) and worked extensively on this, doing my own coding, setting up spreadsheets to capture the information and editing the video I had recorded of the game to reflect my analysis.

The report was very weighty and again thanks to feedback from my Dad, my colleagues at work and once again Paul at Prozone, I streamlined the report into a piece of concise analysis. Next job was to shop this around.

One thing I had been doing in the time previously was building up my connections through LinkedIn and Twitter. Both of these are immensely powerful tools for networking. I'd never really been into the social media side of things before, I have a Facebook account but don't care at all what you're having for tea or where you're going on a night out! LinkedIn especially allowed me to focus on people with a similar job to what I wanted to do and make some valuable contacts within the industry.

Getting a Break

So I began to shop the report around to a selection of contacts at local clubs. I had worked out which clubs were within a reasonable commuting distance to my home in Sheffield and based it around this. Although a couple of people contacted me and gave me feedback, it was at Rotherham United where I got lucky.

I'd sent the report to Alasdair Lane, who was the Strength & Conditioning coach. He'd replied back to me and told me he would show it to Andy Scott, the manager at the time and see what he thought. He came back very quickly saying that Andy, who had used Amisco at Brentford in his previous role and was massively into this side of the game, liked what he saw and invited me in to come and meet with him the next day.

I went to the training ground to meet with them, unfortunately I didn't get to see Andy (he was signing a player, I suppose that takes priority!) but met with Al, Darren Patterson (the Assistant Manager) and some of the other coaches. They were very receptive to the report and gave me a couple of pointers on what they'd like to see included and what they weren't bothered about.

They asked me to go to the clubs next couple of games and produce a report and we'd take it from there.

The first game I went to was against Accrington Stanley on a Tuesday night at the beginning of February. Played at Don Valley, which is a terrible ground for football, it was absolutely freezing; something if you want to be a performance analyst you definitely need to get used to! Sitting from a high vantage point to get a good view of the game also usually means braving the elements!

I was introduced to the cameraman who was recording the game for Rotherham (he was actually employed by the BBC but provided copies of the DVD's he recorded to Rotherham as well) and spent some time chatting with him and also met the analyst for Accrington who I had actually been on the Prozone Level 1 course with. At the end of the game I collected the DVD from the cameraman and took it home to analyse.

Now, I'd been given no guidance on what Rotherham really wanted so I'd been left to my own devices to come up with something. I'd set up a few spreadsheets mainly based on Opta's information and what they provided through their Statszone app. Using this as a base and trying to tailor it to what I thought Andy would need while adding my own areas in took a lot of work to think about but I was pretty happy with what I had. I used the DVD to go back over the game (no software, just Excel and a DVD player at this point) and proceeded to record every action from the game on individual basis for the Rotherham players and as a team for Accrington (for comparison purposes). It was very time consuming (bearing in mind I was doing this on top of my full time job) but when it had all been pulled together by the Thursday and sent through to Al to pass on the feedback I got was very positive!! Apparently it was everything they had been looking for and more besides.

This spurred me on to make the process as streamlined as possible and through discussions with Al about what the gaffer used it for and what use they could get out of it the time it took to produce reduced as the games went on.

Getting into the middle of March Andy asked me to come in for a meeting at the training ground. I was looking forward to meeting him properly rather than communicating via his staff and hopeful of I could get a better idea of what he wanted from the reports. Alasdair had spoken to me and said that they were looking into using a proper performance analysis system from next season called Vis.Track so I’d done a bit of research into it and was prepared with my latest reports as I went to meet him. The meeting went even better than I expected. He said he was very impressed with the work I’d been doing, Alasdair had bigged me up a lot to him about the type of guy I was and we spoke about the different aspects of Performance Analysis as well as what he did and didn’t want in the reports and what he was getting out of them. He was impressed with the level of detail I was providing given that all I was using was a DVD of the game and Excel! He said that they’d set some money aside for next season to use an analysis system and he’d like me to be in charge of it! I was ecstatic! I was thinking this would finally be my break!

I went away for the weekend for my wife’s birthday and when I went back into work at the council I was buzzing and was telling my friends how well it went. Then on the way home I was checking Twitter and I got some bad news. Andy Scott had been sacked!! I was devastated!! I quickly text Al and he said that he didn’t know what would happen now, not just with the work I’d been doing but also with their jobs. As much as I wanted to get into the business I felt incredibly for Al, he’d moved up to Sheffield less than a year previously as he’d worked with Andy at Brentford so for him to now get the sack must have been incredibly worrying for him.

Darren Pattison took over as caretaker manager. He was a sound guy, knew about performance analysis and I agreed to continue doing the reports, even if it was just for experience rather than it leading anywhere. Patto had a good run, although it could be argued that it was an easier run of games and Rotherham got within sniffing distance of the play offs, then some more bad news. I’d been checking Rotherham Mad, the fansite, to see who the favourite was to take over. Lee Clark, Brian Laws, Mark Robins even Mick McCarthy were all mentioned and I knew all of them had used performance analysis before to varying extents. Then Steve Evans got the job. Without wanting to say too much, in my opinion he’s one step above a pub team manager and Rotherham deserved better. I spoke to Al and asked him the situation and he said they would see how they went but it was quickly clear that he wouldn’t be staying there and a week before the end of the season he was told he wouldn’t be kept on (he’s since got a job as Head of Sports Science at Oxford United and is loving it, I couldn’t be happier for him, he’s a genuinely decent guy and the time I got to work with him was brilliant). I tried to get in touch with Steve, sending my reports by email, mailed it including a DVD highlighting the points I was making and even rung to try and speak to him and never even got a response from him or Paul Raynor, his assistant. To say I was annoyed not to even get an email back saying he wasn’t interested is an understatement after the work I’d put in over the previous 6 months.

Bouncing Back

But I moved on. I did my Prozone Level 3 course, completing the qualification to the highest level, which only 10 other people in the country can claim (only 2 of which have a paid job within performance analysis from what I can gather – very disappointing) but it gave me a greater resolve to continue looking for jobs over the summer.

Early on in the summer I heard back from a casual job I had applied for with Onside Analysis. Rob Esteva and David Hastie had recently started up the company with a view to expanding into bespoke analysis for football clubs. I met with Rob and was very, very impressed with what they were intending to do. Within a few weeks they had provided templates and DVD’s for me to analyse on games from around the world. This was great to work on games from different leagues (I covered MLS, Norwegian Tippeligean and the Euro U17 Championships). More recently this role has evolved to collecting information on a specific league (in my case League 2) to provide analysis of particular managers (if you get chance have a look at the prospective work that can be done on the website – it’s ahead of it’s time in my opinion and something that I think could take off in a big way)

I continued looking for a full time Performance Analysis role and got a few knock backs (including a business analyst job at Derby which combined my work at Sheffield Council with a performance analyst role I would have been perfect for – I didn’t even get an interview and later found out they had given the job to somebody who’d been working as a physio for 6 months!). It seemed almost all jobs require a Sports Science degree. I’m gonna save this blog post for another day but not having this degree was definitely holding me back so I applied to do one through Distance Learning at Manchester Metropolitan University. To get an unconditional offer was fantastic and I knew I would be on the right path. Unfortunately I didn’t think I would get half as much problems with Student Finance England. After speaking to somebody on the phone that told me they couldn’t see it being a problem that I’d already taken out a student loan as I’d been paying it back (every month for 8 years!) I applied only to be refused on the grounds I’d already got a degree in “a related subject”. That’s the related subject to Sports Science of Business Management! I didn’t even get a reply to the 2 appeal letters I have sent and found Student Finance England to be one of the most appalling sets of customer service I’ve ever had to deal with.

Despite this, I finally got another job, an internship with Coventry City Ladies.

I’d seen the job advertised on UK Sport and applied the day before the closing date. The manager, Paul Cudby, rang me a couple of hours after I’d put my application in informing me they wanted to take me on and given my experience that they wanted to change what they’d been looking for previously.

Initially they wanted 1 analyst to see how it went. With the applications they’d received, he now wanted me to lead a team of analysts. This was great news! Coventry was probably at the edge of where it was reasonable for me to commute to (around hour and a half drive from Sheffield) but hopefully this would also show my ambition and was a great opportunity to be in charge of other analysts and pick things up from them as well as be able to pass on things I had learnt through my previous work.

I went down to meet Paul and the rest of the team for a preseason friendly and he told me there would be 5 other analysts working under me. From first impressions I could tell we would have a great working relationship, he’s very bright and switched on to all aspects of management and I honestly think he could go as far as he wanted within football.

Before the first league game of the season I met up with the other analysts at a preseason friendly. I’d already spent around 3 weeks working on the things I wanted to work on for the club. With there being 6 of us it gave a lot of scope for doing a fair bit of work and despite not having any money for systems (despite being as progressive as they are as a club, there is no money within the women’s game and even less within the FA Women’s Premier League than in the Women’s Super League) it provided the opportunity to start from scratch and use my own initiative to build the Performance Analysis function.

For the first few games we captured the play from 3 different cameras (one showing the full game, one showing set pieces and one specifically for the goalkeeper), as we went along it became unnecessary to have all three and we went to 2 and then to 1 as we could capture almost all the footage needed.

There were several minor problems to overcome early on, from people not having enough battery on their cameras to record a full match (we had to provide our own as the club didn’t have the funds for one) to struggling to upload the footage. I’d intended to use Dropbox and each person who’d recorded the game would upload to there so everybody could work remotely and have access to the same footage. Unfortunately Dropbox didn’t meet our needs for this and wasn’t a reliable solution in the end so we used an FTP server. At first I had no idea how to use this but with a great deal of help from Shaun Green, who was the clubs Goalkeeper coach, we managed to get it sorted.

Working with the club was a great experience. What we were providing evolved rapidly to suit the needs of the management team and in a short space of time we managed to make ourselves very valuable and greatly respected by the coaching staff and players.

Within this time we went from providing key stats, to pass completion percentages, shot analysis, goalkeeper analysis, set piece analysis, attacking 1/3 analysis, possession/loss regains, specific player analysis to help with movement and confidence, team motivational videos and opposition analysis. I still had bigger plans after talking to Paul and had begun to use specific performance analysis software, LongoMatch (everything previously had been done via Excel, PowerPoint and iMovie) along with in game feedback and more comprehensive looks at things like trend information. It was all going very, very well and then I got another opportunity.

New Beginnings

I’d been speaking to Barnsley and an opportunity came up within the Performance Analysis department within the Academy. I went for an interview, which went well, and I knew I’d got a good chance of getting it but had to weigh up the pros and cons. I’d be a smaller cog at Barnsley and wouldn’t get the opportunity to get anywhere near as much wide ranging experience, but it was within a professional club, which looked much better and meant I can learn more from professional coaches.

I ended up taking the job. While it’s been quite a slow start, I am enjoying it. I still feel I can put my own stamp on things and the areas I can bring my expertise to they aren’t using at the moment so I can provide things they want. Part of the clubs philosophy is on playing through the thirds and keeping possession, so whilst the hot topic of possession might not be a game winning stat, for the development of young players it holds significant importance. The way this had been captured previously didn’t look right to me so I’ve done some work on making a way to record this figure. I’ve also done some work on passing under/over 15 yards as short passing is encouraged within the clubs style of play.

I’ve had the opportunity to work more with Sportscode GameBreaker and learn from some of the Under 18’s coaches who have been around the professional scene for a while and I hope the role turns into something I can really get my teeth into. I don’t want to be a performance analyst because I expect to get paid millions or because it’s a great skive from my 9-5 job I work within Sheffield Council but because it’s something I am passionate about, I’m good at and can make a difference by doing.

I’ve hit many obstacles already in my goal and I expect there will be more but I’ve had some great opportunities and some great experiences and I hope there are also many more of these to come too. Hard work does pay off and I hope to update my blog much more in the future with a variety of topics and hopefully to update you on how things are going at Barnsley!!

Thanks for taking the time to read this; it got quite long in the end!!