Terrace Chatter: Boston v Nuneaton

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No sooner had Lincoln City tweeted an appeal last week for information about the whereabouts of some stolen GPS tracking vests than they were inundated with snarky replies pointing out that there shouldn’t be anything easier to track down than a vest equipped with GPS.

With over three hundred retweets, the theft certainly got people puzzling over what exactly the culprits intended to do with their ill-gotten bounty. Given their limited appeal, it’s difficult to imagine the vests going down well as a romantic gift, particularly as they were on their way to the laundry and presumably smelled worse than a Lincolnshire pig farm. Nor are they the kind of thing you can really shift at a car boot, or in a dark corner of some dodgy club. And yeah – surely the moment they’re turned on, they’ll give away their location… right?

Apparently not.

“If only we’d have thought of that!” honked Lincoln’s stoically sarcastic press officer, before local media chimed in to ask if they could speak to Lincoln’s First Team Sports Scientist about the incident.

Yes, you read that correctly. Our rivals down the road employ a First Team Sports Scientist whose job it is to handle the GPS and heart rate data collected by said vests, not to mention their atrocious smell. How that data is used is no doubt a closely-guarded secret, but it will inform real-life decisions made at the club by the Cowley brothers.

I know what you’re thinking. “Stop talking about Lincoln City”. And “all this data stuff is witchcraft.” But wait. Before you scoff at the Imps, what with all their “numbers” and “pie charts”, it’s worth remembering that Boston United have also started to use stuff like this behind the scenes. And yes, that involves stinking vests as well.

Indeed, earlier this year the Pilgrims advertised for an analyst to join the Performance Analysis Department. I had no idea such a department existed at York Street, although now I do I desperately want it to be a kind of WarGames-style underground bunker, in which rows and rows of technicians sit beside blinking computer terminals as a giant screen plays all the worst bits of Tamworth away. It’s probably just some youth team kid with an iPad, isn’t it?

The sports data movement turned mainstream in the early 2000s, mainly thanks to the Oakland Athletics and a revolutionary approach to baseball statistics that ended up as a book called Moneyball. The race to turn football into a game that can be analysed as accurately as baseball is one that is never likely to be won, but data analysis tools have still changed the way some (but not all) people think about sport in general.

At 35, Adam Murray – like the Cowleys – is one of the new breed of coaches who has grown up with technology: he’s comfortable with it, knows its benefits and is eager to utilise it. And as it has become better, smaller and cheaper, clubs like Boston United can afford the kit to analyse their football in greater detail than ever.

It’s something our manager obviously loves. Speaking to the Boston Standard last week, Murray proudly called himself a ‘nerd’, and while you’re unlikely to find our manager cosplaying as Princess Leia at a comic book convention (now there’s something to mull over with your pre-match pie) he did confess to spending more time than he should watching videos on his laptop, which is what most of us do anyway, especially at work. Except these aren’t videos of squirrels playing bagpipes but truly terrible things you really wouldn’t want your kids to see, like corners at North Ferriby that fail to beat the first man.

Murray even tags some of his players into these clips and emails them directly to the players themselves, which must be the footballer’s equivalent of the humiliation of being tagged into a photo of you partying slightly too hard at a bad Wetherspoons. In any other context, sending young men video clips late at night would be a bit weird, but for Murray it’s all part of a big data arms race. Why would you want your rivals to know more about your own squad than you do?

Of course, data analysis has its detractors. And when you see a team like Spennymoor roll over the Pilgrims as easily as they did last Tuesday, some will wonder what the point of it is. But even if data doesn’t thrill you, or you think it’s modern nonsense, you can at least appreciate the hard work going on behind the scenes to try new things in an exceptionally strong league.

And if you spot – or smell – those missing vests around the area, just steer clear. They’re probably lethal now.

Enjoy the game.

Follow Trail of Dead on Twitter @TrailOfDebt. All content and tweets by Pete Brooksbank (@petebrooksbank)
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