Why football remains the most unpredictable game, even for the experts

Whether in the stands, as a scout or in a previous life working for newspapers, I’ve regularly been asked the question: ‘How come TV football pundits, even good football pundits, regularly get their pre match analysis of a game totally wrong?’

It is a great and difficult question, but the best way to answer it is with an extended anecdote.

Back in 2001, I was introduced to the elderly former Leeds, Man United and England scout Tony Collins via an introduction from Sir Alex Ferguson. I was writing an extended feature on the great Scottish scout John Barr for The Sunday Times and at the back of my mind the plan was forming to write a book on the great super scouts of yesteryear and the present.

To digress slightly, John Barr was a great mentor to Sir Alex when he was a young manager at St Mirren and Barr and Jimmy Dickie, John Barr’s dear friend and rival for the great Scottish youngsters of the day, was Sir Alex’s first Scottish scout at Man United. John Barr regularly popped into Love Street for a cup of tea with the ambitious young boss, from his home in nearby Bishopton.

Tony Collins as Leeds Chief Scout was also a friend and colleague of John Barr at Leeds as a right-hand man of Don Revie. Later, Tony was Ron Atkinson’s Chief Scout at Man United and also briefly worked for Sir Alex.

The important point of context here is that Tony Collins was renowned as a fantastic reader of a game — arguably a better reader of the game than he was a talent scout — but his endorsement of signings at Leeds speak for themselves, so that is no criticism whatsoever.

In the process of writing my feature, I spoke to Tony a number of times and as tends to happen with football people, the conversation inevitably drifted to games and players we’d seen or were going to see, and players he was keen on (or not as the case may be).

At the time Tony was set to look at Rodney Jack, a record signing for Crewe at £650,000 and a player who largely flattered to deceive thereafter after an excellent debut season.

I’d just witnessed the end of season Scottish Youth Cup Final. And this is where the story gets interesting…

A scouting legend’s party trick

So, remember this is 2001, 16 years ago and as hard as it is to believe a world where mainstream people still kept phone numbers in a Filofax or address book, where emails were the white heat of technology and where the world of football, live, in play and at your fingertips 24/7, was still a long way away.

The idea that Tony Collins, a man in his seventies, would be at home in Huddersfield, looking online for a report of an obscure Scottish U19 game was a total non-starter.

And this is absolutely crucial to the story because you need to bear this all in mind while you are considering how events unfolded.

So, what happened next? Well, Tony Collins, said he would next demonstrate his party piece and describe in minute detail what I had just seen live the evening before at Hampden Park as Aberdeen u19 faced Celtic u19.

His breakdown went something like this — and over a decade and a half after the fact I am paraphrasing a little — but I am trying to do him real justice now.

So here goes, my best Tony Collins impression:

“Both sides lined up in a fairly conventional 4–4–2 shape and the first thing you noticed was the clash of styles.

The Aberdeen boys were clearly not as gifted as their Celtic counterparts but they worked hard for each other in and out of possession, and the good team spirit in their side was very evident — especially so, as Celtic came flying out off the blocks at the whistle and put Aberdeen under severe pressure.

Celtic were absolutely battering them in the early exchanges. Both fullbacks were extremely progressive for Celtic, very attack-minded but the right full back was significantly better than the left back and got forward at every opportunity. If he’d had a better final ball or cross Aberdeen might have been in serious trouble. However, this did not prevent Celtic conceding an early goal as they looked to take the game to Aberdeen — overconfidence and inexperience probably played a part in them conceding and the goal helped Aberdeen settle although the early pattern of Celtic attacks continued at 1–0 to the young Dons.

The two Celtic central defenders were tall, strong and pretty perfunctory. Neither was especially good in possession and they struggled against the movement of two clever and persistent rather than dangerous Aberdeen strikers who wanted the ball played in front of them into space, rather than into feet, or with their backs to goal.

And it was in this way that Aberdeen extended their lead in the game probably from a breakaway after a sloppy cross-field pass and a Celtic loss of possession at the start of the second half. The more advanced Aberdeen striker was played in and finished low into the corner to lead 2–0 — very much against the run of play.

The key man for Celtic in the attacking build-up was an eye-catching central midfielder. Wearing number 8 and with a fantastic range of passing short and long. Everything went through him and he demanded the ball at all times. He immediately formed a positive impression and stood out as the best looking player on the park with some fantastic moments of vision, composure and great technique. He reminded you a bit of Paul McStay when passing and he also looked like a real leader in the team, a player that his teammates looked to for inspiration.

However, as the first half wore on, and with Aberdeen leading and resilient, his quality became less and less apparent. The early goal had rattled him and his Celtic teammates and the midfielder’s lack of mobility became an obvious negative as he was regularly caught in possession. He seemed now to be a selfish player in possession — needlessly so. And there were a number of players in the Celtic ranks that though they were clearly talented were really playing for themselves. The better players were losing to a better, more cohesive team.

Celtic’s front players were small, tricky types: very expressive, quick, good improvisation but physically slight.

The wide midfielders were lively but struggled to impose themselves against Aberdeen’s competitive, attack-minded full backs and they didn’t enjoy having to defend, doing all their best work on the ball.

Individually the Aberdeen side were not as gifted. But they had a real identity and a clear team spirit.

Neither front player wanted to play with his back to goal but they excelled in this game with good opportunities to regularly play them into scoring positions with through balls. As Celtic chased a goal, the open state of play allowed the Aberdeen front players to test two hard but fairly slow central defenders’ mettle in breakaway situations.

The substitutions made no real impact on the game. The weakest player in the game was Aberdeen’s keeper who looked the part physically but appeared to be quite soft and unreliable dealing with back passes in particular. Nerves played a part in a couple of unforced errors early on. That set the tone for him, and he never convinced thereafter. The Aberdeen central midfielders were quite classy on the ball but both wanted to play the game at their own pace.

On the face of it an Aberdeen win looked like a harsh result but the winning side used their resources far better. The fact that there’s a team ethic there means that a few of these players could get their chance and flourish in the first team.

It will be harder for the Celtic youngsters. Technically they are very good but they will struggle for opportunities in the first team due to the players ahead of them. When they look elsewhere for first team football, the culture shock will likely be too extreme for most of them to cope.

Probably one or two of the Celtic players will have a good career at that top level and maybe as many as six Aberdeen players will get a chance with two having good careers.

Around 5–8 of the players on show will fall off the radar completely with the remainder having good careers lower down.”

“So how did I do?” Tony asked.

I confirmed that the analysis was incredible — only the time of the goals was a bit off. I asked him how he’d done it without seeing or reading about the game?

He said he’d seen so many Celtic v Aberdeen youth games over the years that the patterns in them and key themes were always quite consistent. The names change but the action and types of players recur season on season.

And then for the punchline, that addresses the initial question…

Why is football the most unpredictable game, even for the experts?

I asked him: “Do you ever bet on football Tony?”

He said, without any hint of irony: “No, son, it is far too unpredictable.”

How did Tony Collins’ analysis work out?

As Tony had predicted, the game finished 0–2 for Aberdeen.

Fergus Tiernan scored in the 2nd minute and Scott Michie scored in the 20th minute.

Both goals coming earlier than anticipated. Other than that though, it would be hard to quibble with any of it.

And looking back on the careers enjoyed by these players in the intervening 15 years he definitely got far more right than wrong.

For Celtic, Shaun Maloney was the hyped player ahead of the game and though he only showed up in flashes at Hampden, his career speaks for itself for Scotland, Celtic, Aston Villa, Wigan (where he won the FA Cup), Chicago Fire and Hull. He played 215 games for Celtic winning five Scottish Premier League titles and five Scottish Cups. Maloney was the first player to claim both the SPFA Players’ Player of the Year and the SPFA Young Player of the Year awards in the same season, doing so in 2006 during his first spell with Celtic.

Shaun Maloney and Stephen McManus went on to enjoy successful careers with Celtic and Scotland © BBC.co.uk
Of the other Celtic youngsters, Stephen McManus had a better career than predicted with Celtic (150 games), Middlesborough, Motherwell and Scotland. John Kennedy, his defensive partner was highly rated until severe injury, sustained on his Scotland debut, effectively ended his career. He is now a coach at Celtic.

The talented number eight was Mark Fotheringham, a player who never really found his niche. Fotheringham played three times for Celtic. At the time of his debut, he was the youngest player ever to play in Celtic’s first team. A roster of 13 clubs in 15 years underlines the fact that no-one has ever really unlocked that talent for any club, for very long. Fotheringham, now 33, played for Norwich, where he was briefly club captain, Dundee, SC Freiburg, Fulham, Anorthosis Famagusta, Ross County and others. He played out his days at Livingston in the Scottish Championship before taking the role of assistant coach German side Karlsruher SC. David Van Zanten (St Mirren and Hibs) and Craig Beattie (Celtic, Scotland, WBA, Swansea, Hearts) would be the two other notable successes.

For Aberdeen, a number of players went on to represent the first team with Scott Morrison, Kevin McNaughton (Cardiff and Scotland) and Darren Mackie standing out. Ross O’Donoghue, the game’s scorers Scott Michie and Fergus Tiernan, Bob Duncan and Terry Kidd all looked like they’d have a greater impact at various times in their early careers without ever fully breaking through.

The teams on the day were:

Celtic 0–2 Aberdeen:

Celtic: Allan Morrison, David van Zanten, Stephen McManus ©, Peter Flynn, John Kennedy, Stephen Jack, Anthony McParland, Mark Fotheringham, Bryan Prunty, Shaun Maloney, Graham Fyfe. Mark Casey replaced Stephen McManus and David Murphy replaced Stephen Jack.

Subs not used: Stephen Pinkowski, Craig Beattie and N/A. Additionally named in the squad were Troy Douglin, Simon Lynch, Chris Millar and Mark Molloy. Willie McStay was this Celtic side’s coach.

Aberdeen: Mark Peat, Stephen Payne, Scott Morrison, Terry Kidd, Kevin McNaughton, Murray McCulloch, Darren Mackie, Ross O’Donoghue, Scott Michie, Fergus Tiernan, Bob Duncan. Alan Carella replaced captain Terry Kidd.

Subs not used: Murray Watson, Calum McKenzie and Calum McHattie. Not stripped were Duncan Jones, Kevin Souter, James Pritchett, Steven Turner, Richie Fraser. Drew Jarvie was Aberdeen’s coach.

by Greg Gordon

This is a version of an article that originally appeared on the PFSA website. The Professional Football Scouts Association (PFSA) promotes and protects the interests of professional football scouts at all levels of the game, worldwide.

Links: Author 

Greg Gordon is a Next Opponent analyst and journalist whose work has appeared in The FT, The Observer, The Sunday Times and leading international publications.


Leave a Reply