Small pleasures: Late-season unpredictability

Daniel Storey

Unless you’re a dedicated follower of other sports, it’s easy to forget what rare commodities goals are in football. Score once every half an hour, and you’ll batter most of the teams that are put in front of you; see two teams exchange goals every 15 minutes and you’ve seen an absolute belter.

While on average the better teams will rise to the top of the league table, any given game in any of England’s four divisions sits on a knife-edge. The worst side in the country (in terms of points gained in their division) this season has been Rotherham United. The Millers were relegated over a month ago and have lost 33 of their 45 league matches. If you need a barometer of just how bad they have been, they have just one more point than David Moyes’ rotten Sunderland, despite having played 11 league games more. Now that’s damning.

Yet Rotherham’s average score, after rounded, is a 2-1 defeat (2.16-0.87, for the pedants), which is obviously not good, but is hardly a scoreline to provoke disbelieving headshakes down the pub.

Accordingly, it doesn’t take much to upset any one particular result – a dodgy lasagne, an extra day’s travel back from a European jaunt, or the opposition’s decision to rotate key players out of the side – so the complaints against Huddersfield Town for fielding a weakened team against Birmingham on Saturday are understandable. Birmingham are fighting against relegation, and if you were a Blackburn or Nottingham Forest fan, you might well feel aggrieved by David Wagner’s decision to prioritise his side’s upcoming playoff campaign. And yes, of course Birmingham won.

But there is a flip side to this. With so little room for error, it’s eminently understandable that managers get upset about fixture congestion or a pile-up of multiple difficult games in a row. Yes, everyone plays one another home and away, and yes, over time, the cream rises to the top. But for each individual game in isolation, it can have a huge effect.

Gabriele Marcotti recently wrote about how little time managers actually get to spend on the training pitch with their players. Taking fixture congestion, travel time, injuries, suspensions, and international breaks into account, Marcotti eventually arrived at a number of just seven-and-a-half hours per month – and that was for Bayern Munich, with their 34-game league season and winter break.

As a manager that must be enormously frustrating, and only serves to magnify the effect of what would otherwise be tiny little external factors. The manager doesn’t care that those factors theoretically apply to everyone else too. To them, it just feels inherently unfair that so much of his side’s performance comes down to random chance, regardless of how good a job he does.

A few weeks ago, Huddersfield’s Jonathan Hogg broke his neck in a collision with his own teammate early on in a game against Bristol City. The Town players were clearly traumatised by it and went on to lose 4-0. Without those points and goal difference, Bristol City would also be involved in the Championship relegation battle going into the final day.

To me, that is every bit as random as Birmingham happening to be the beneficiaries of the fixture calendar putting them against a side preparing for the playoffs. But if Birmingham avoid the drop the weekend, you know which incident will create the most noise. There will have been hundreds of similar incidents over the course of the season that have shaped the final league table. Any statistician can tell you the final standings are only ever a “well, yeah, broadly this is the order of how good the teams were”.

That’s exactly why such complaints rarely hold water when you step back and look at it as a whole, because you can easily point to this player being suspended or that player being injured earlier in the season.

But I totally get why an individual manager, whose continued employment often rests within those razor-fine margins, would reach the point of expressing that irritation publicly, even if to everyone else it comes across as the most butt-hurt expression of self-pity imaginable. I think any of us would feel the same way, and indeed would wager that most of us feel that way in our own jobs too; the only difference is that we don’t have national newspapers asking repeatedly us to explain ourselves several times a week. I for one would find it next to impossible not to scream “ABOUT 30% OF FOOTBALL IS RANDOM CHANCE” at every press conference.

Although all of this is clearly bad news for the poor managers and fans who find themselves mired in a relegation battle (hi, Daniel Storey), it’s bloody fantastic for the neutral football fan at this stage of the season. It’s the perfect confluence of the top clubs either resting players or going all-out, the midtable clubs being on holiday and the strugglers belatedly realising they need to put in a heroic level of effort.

Sometimes this leads to just four goals in five Saturday games, but it also has the potential to produce hugely entertaining results: From ten-man Birmingham’s aforementioned win over Huddersfield, to Crystal Palace’s 3-3 comeback against Liverpool in 2014 or Middlesbrough’s 8-1 win over Manchester City in 2008.

All bets are off at this time of the season, a situation only taken to a greater pitch of excitement by every point feeling so important. It’s hard luck for those affected, but isn’t it that excitement worth the occasion controversy over team selection and fixture congestion? Isn’t that glory and agony what sport is all about?

Steven Chicken