The season is less than six months old and yet fans already know something very special is happening at Sincil Bank. From the manager to the players, from the bar staff to the support staff it seems attitudes have changed, approaches have changed and most importantly results have changed as well.
A glance down the club directory in the programme will take you through ever Tom, Dick and Jimmy currently helping to grease the wheels of success. When you get to the bottom of the coaching staff entry you’ll find yourself reading the names Matt Page and Toby Ellis next to the heading statisticians.
Even the most ardent of fan cannot know everything that happens behind the scenes, even in the current climate of openness and approachability. You could be forgiven for passing over these two names without much thought, and they’d probably prefer that you did. You might just be passing over another pair of unsung heroes, with designs on achieving much more than helping a football club to promotion. They want to revolutionise the way we approach Physical Education in this country, and from what I’ve seen, they might just be able to do that.
I met the guys in the executive boxes at Sincil Bank on a pretty dire Wednesday night in December. I had been able to prepare for the meeting in the hours before, but Matt and Toby had done a full day’s work as teachers at a local school. From there they intended to meet Danny and Nicky to present some analysis to them, and after that they planned to meet me to show me what they do. At some point I guess they also wanted to grab a bite to eat and maybe an hour’s sleep, but it became very apparent to me there was little time for them to do any relaxing at all. They’re driven to push their iCoach4sport programme in any way they can, and if that means meeting with the likes of me and showing me their two programmes in the evening, then they’ll do that.
Let’s focus on what they do for the football club first, after all my blog is about Lincoln City and that’s why you come along and read what I have to say. Matt and Toby will sit down in the hours after a game and put together some analysis for the management team. This isn’t just ‘number of passes’ or ‘shots on target’ though, this is really in depth stuff. They track every pass, every run and every little movement made by all the players on the pitch.
“It does depend on the game as to how long we have to spend putting the data together,” said Matt “for example a lot happened in the Oldham game, so analysis for that took us about eight and a half hours”
That’s eight and a half hours between the two of them to analyse and input the data from one game of football. Just hearing the amount of time it takes gives you some idea of how in depth the analysis is. Although there are other pieces of software available, they feel theirs is worth the time and is unique in the market place.
“This is very unique, our system. A lot of other systems give you loads of data, like GPS data. Our system can rate the team, and give much more feedback. Other systems give you raw data and a user has to sift through it to find out what they need. Those programmes start big and you have to drill down, whereas our programme starts with the end data and from there you can make it as big as you need to. Ours provides the answers to questions immediately, but also allows you to ask more if you wish to.”
It isn’t just after a game the guys are involved though. They’re ensuring Danny and Nicky get on the spot analysis every single match day.
“We basically do some stats live and take them down to the dressing room straight away. We look at crosses, shots, and patterns. Danny and Nicky get the immediate numbers and it allows them to make changes based on what we see. Sometimes we’re scared to actually give them the stats as we think they’re not going to believe us!”
It became really apparent that what these guys offer the club is a key component in us growing as a team. It’s not always straight forward though, and delivering the stats isn’t always quick or comfortable!
“If we’re doing analysis on a full game it can take a couple of hours. They (Danny and Nicky) usually want to go over every detail, and they have a serious attention to detail. I think we’ve put the wrong figure in a column maybe once, but Danny will spot it in a flash. On a match day it isn’t quite as in depth, but they’ll often spend five minutes with us at half time before they go and see the team in the changing room. That wasn’t the case at Wrexham though, we gave them the stats and left as quickly as we could, the sending off changed the game too dramatically!”
The guys gave me brief access to their stats programme. They’re quite rightly very guarded about what they let me see and what they didn’t. Some interesting stuff came out about patterns of play and habits the team have, but they asked me not to use it. They take their role very seriously and the level of data they hold would be incredibly useful to the opposition. I wanted to use one particular statistic, but an immediate sucking of air through their teeth signalled I was on dodgy ground.
“We would prefer you didn’t use that. The opposition might read it.”
Firm but friendly. I moved swiftly on.
The level of the stats available was frightening. They drill down to show chains of passes for Lincoln and for the opposition, they show individuals stats for the games and can work out which types of passes are more effective than others. They identified a passage of play in an early season game which wasn’t working, and then showed me how that had been altered to better effect later in the season. They even broke down how we performed against different types of team, showing success rates against direct teams, possession teams and pressing teams. I thought Football Manager was detailed, but these guys take it to a whole new level. It was no real surprise to find out they’re also becoming involved with the popular computer game, helping shape, and define the Lincoln City team for the January updates of Football Manager 2017.
It’s not the first time they’ve worked for the club, but it is the most they’ve been involved. As university students, they’d had worked with The Imps back in 2012 under David Holdsworth.
“Holdsworth was a dinosaur in terms of football, he had three zones, red, yellow and green. You could do some things in the green zone, but couldn’t have the ball in the red zone. We did a bit of work with him, but it came to nothing. When we heard about Danny and Nicky we thought they would be more receptive to what we could offer. We sent them an email and Nicky rang me up the same night. We came in and had an interview and it’s gone from there. As the season has progressed we’ve become very comfortable now with them, they’re helping us fine tune the software and the data it provides.”
There is no doubt that what they offer the club is light years ahead of what other teams in our league will have. At present we are the only football club using their software, and although the programme looks easy from an analysis perspective, it is no easy task to collate and input all the data. Their second programme, Icoach4sport is far more easy to input, and it has to be. They might be helping revolutionise a National League football club, but their long-term goal is the change the face of Physical Education in the county, and perhaps the country.
Toby picks up the story
“The original idea was a coaching company that brought the idea of analysing the children and helping to get them into the right sports clubs outside of school. We grew the idea further and developed software that can go into schools.”
They gave me a demonstration of their software. Essentially it allows a teacher to grade pupils against a range of key skills as laid down by the national curriculum. From there it generates data on the children to show patterns, progression and it even makes suggestions as to the types of sports they might be excelling at. It will even help plan lessons for the teachers.
“A lot of primary school teachers these days are History or English teachers, and PE is such a different type of lesson. A lot of them don’t want to be out on the field teaching a subject they’re not comfortable with, and they struggle to plan an effective lesson to the national curriculum.”
It’s a fair point. I know a couple of primary school teachers and they’re swamped without trying to encourage the sports participation, and from what I’m told PE isn’t at the top of their priorities list.
“The curriculum has changed recently. It used to be based on, say, you throwing a ball into a bucket from a certain distance. Now it’s a much more formulate approach with a list of key stage criteria. You are now assessed more on progression than a level of achievement.”
At present this change is only just being rolled out, and in some places, it still hasn’t been fleshed out sufficiently to be effective. Matt and Toby feel they have done a degree of the hard work already.
“It’s not completely structured out yet. There’s no template or guidelines from the government, and we believe we’ve structured it out as much as we can. We believe we have structured our programme towards the new guidelines though.”
As with their football club software I was given a demonstration of how their second system worked. It was obviously much more user friendly, something I’m certain would appeal to under pressure teachers. The teacher essentially marks the pupil against the key stage criteria, and the software puts that data together and produces performance charts for the children. Perhaps most importantly it can (if needed) notify parents when data has been changed, and the parent can log in themselves and look at their child’s development. That isn’t just one single graph based on performance though, it can show team work, social skills and will even show their data against that of their class mates. It isn’t meant to be used as a stick to beat children with though, it can be used to perhaps spot individual problems as they begin to occur or if the whole class have an issue.
The programme will even suggest certain sports or activities that a child is excelling at, and can recommend local clubs and societies where the child can pick that sport up out of school. The programme I saw showed ‘Jimmy’ (not a real child) was doing well at cricket. The parent may not be a cricket fan, but the programme will show cricket clubs in the area, when they train and if they support disabilities or certain age groups. The guys have worked extensively with Lincolnshire sport to bring this information together.
“This is the biggest end-product we want from this system. We want the kids to be able to go to school, excel in certain areas and that in turn can empower PE teachers to work towards making these recommendations. Our software can then help parents get their children into these clubs, that club can perhaps get more funding and enhance their provision. Lincolnshire is quite poor in terms of its sports provision. You only have to look at how many really high quality sports teams we have.”
The amount of work that has gone into both programmes is truly astounding. I spoke to the guys under the impression that they were offering their services to the club for free in order to promote their iCoach4Sport software. Once I came away from the meeting though I felt very differently, I felt they have two really strong and unique ideas that they are developing side by side. The schools software has a far reaching appeal and is looking to capitalise on the changes to physical education structure and delivery in the county. The football club stuff is really different, far more in depth than I had previously imagined and, in my mind, far removed from the user friendly iCoach interface.
The iCoach software can be sold and used without Matt and Toby, but the quality and effectiveness of the work they do for the club hinges entirely on the effort they put in. I got the impression that these are two guys who want to make a difference, whether it is at the local football club or whether it is within the wider reaching field of sporting development for young people.
Having spent just under an hour in their company I don’t doubt that they can achieve both, given the exposure and the opportunity. We, as a football club, missed that opportunity four years ago, but we are reaping the rewards in the present day. I just hope the county as a whole can reap the rewards for years to come.