Book Review: Pay As You Play

Posted by on Feb 18, 2011 in Book Review, Uncategorized | One Comment

Pay As You Play
Paul Tomkins, Graeme Reilly and Gary Futcher
Published by GPRF Publishing
2010, £10.99, 978-0955925337

If a book analyzing the finances of Premier League clubs may seem slightly beyond the remit of this website, the presence among its contributors of two of our Unfortunates, Ben and William Abbs naturally attracted our notice, as well as the coverage of several teams now competing in the football league. In order to avoid accusations of bias, we enlisted the outside assistance of Liverpool fan Gerschenkron, a regular commenter on our site as well as Beer in the Evening. Gerschenkron, named after one of the greatest ever economic historians, trades on twitter under the moniker of @RoutledgeEditor. Here are his thoughts:

Absorb most coverage of football these days and it will be very tempting to assume a number of things must be self-evidently true. Such-a-player X was a bargain brought in by a wheeling-dealing manager, such-a-player Y was hugely over-priced and demonstrated a lack of class/judgement/sense on the part of club Z. Since you have taken the trouble to digest a well regarded non-mainstream source of soccer information, it is largely safe to assume that you are likely to have been as frustrated as I have often been by the average standard of analysis when it comes to assessing the performance of a player/manager/club.

You will — then — be pleased to discover that a team of authors have taken the trouble not only to statistically analyze the performance of each and every club to have performed in the English supreme league (since the redistribution of its television money was changed in 1992/93) but also to summarize some of the lessons that this information provides.

The keystone tool for making their analysis is what the authors term “Current Transfer Purchase Price” which is calculated by multiplying the current price of a player by the increase in average transfer fee in the seasons since the player was purchased. In doing so (in combination with calculating the average cost of each team’s starting eleven and squad), the authors of this thought-provoking — if flawed — book provide the reader with an antidote to the poisoned outpourings of the tabloid (and often broadsheet) media.

The first seventy pages of the book provide an eye-opening account of the nature and effects of increasing transfer fees during this boom period. Managers and teams who are or have recently been or soon shall be au fait with the more honest English football leagues are featured heavily. It is enlightening to learn that a team whose average first eleven (Blackburn under Hodgson and Kidd) cost a staggering £68M, were relegated whilst John Lyall’s Ipswich team (costing a mere £8M) achieved an impressive 52 points (albeit early on in the boom). As a rule though, whilst expensively assembled teams can and will regularly fail, cheap teams rarely succeed for very long.

Although Sam Allardycà© comes out of this analysis well — with his successful Bolton sides having been built on the back of relatively low transfer fees — one of the flaws (flagged up by the authors) of this methodology is its unavoidable tip-toeing around the elephantine wages in the room. “Big” Sam’s former colleague Phil Brown also slides into the top ten cheapest sides (in terms of cost per point) — though their subsequent financial problems suggest that either their wages were well above what they could afford or that even with relatively low transfer spending they could not afford to compete. One wonders how Bolton’s finances could have coped with relegation after the Allardycà© era. Other managers who would have been pleased to get this book in their Christmas stockings include Steve Coppell, Dave Jones, Iain Dowie, Dave Bassett, Jim Smith and Paul Jewell — though the likes of Mourinho would doubtless be questioning whether there are some “ghost” zeros in there — it seems that as his Chelsea teams got more expensive, results got worse.

Illegible diagrams notwithstanding, this book is an impressive achievement and — though many readers will struggle to work their way through every page of the club-by-club analyses — is worth the price of admission for the various statistics which will disarm mindless and over-confident (armchair) pundits in workplaces everywhere — though perhaps only for a minute.

The book features many seeming paradoxes that would blow Alan Green’s mind but I’ll restrict myself to a few here: Arsenal’s championships came when they had a particularly expensive side; Bradford would be better off today had David Wetherall not headed Liverpool out of the top four (and themselves to safety) in the final game of 1999/00; Everton’s poor seasons more than wipe out the credit David Moyes deserves for their good ones; and previously successful managers should never — under any circumstances — answer the phone if Mike Ashley’s name appears onscreen.

The Two Unfortunates
The non-partisan website with an eye on the Football League

1 Comment

  1. Stanley
    February 21, 2011

    The methods of Pay As You Play are interestingly at odds with another recent acclaimed publication, Why England Lose…/Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski. The latter suggests that player remuneration is the determining factor in sustained success, and that the size of transfer fees is largely irrelevant.

    Putting aside concerns that statistical analysis is ill-suited to assessing some of the more fuzzy and indefinable factors in football success, I must admit I find Kuper and Szymanski's view more compelling. Not wishing to denigrate the work of the esteemed contributors to PAYP, the ratio of points won to money paid out in transfer fees was Burnley's stated reason for hiring Brian Laws, and look how that ended up.

    Overall, though, I would celebrate the insights provided by both works. Despite their flaws, such attempts to view the game from a new angle are to be welcomed.


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