Not all revolutionaries are fondly remembered. Barney Ronay examines the controversial legacy of Charles Reep, football’s first tactical statistician
Wing Commander Charles Reep has been called many things. Twenty years ago the Times dubbed him “The Human Computer of the Fabled Fifties”; an obituary described him more simply as “a football analyst”; while a slightly empurpled Brian Glanville once declared him a member of FA coaching director Charles Hughes’s “band of believers and acolytes”, the archangel of “a fanatical credo, a pseudo-religion”.
Few figures in English football history have attracted as much vitriol or as much ideological zeal. The lothario of the long ball, Reep has remained unfathomably seductive to a roll-call of many of the most influential coaching figures in post-war domestic football. He is the national game’s deep dark secret; we know he’s bad for us, but we just can’t help ourselves.
In fact, as the Journal of Sports Sciences remarked after his death last year, Reep was the first “professional performance analyst of football”. His shorthand notes – details of nearly 2,500 matches survive – provided coaches with a comprehensive set of match data at least 20 years before any similar process emerged. But while Reep’s obituary lists a medley of his greatest hits – “over 80 per cent of goals result from moves of three passes or less”; “60 per cent of all goalscoring moves begin 35 yards from an opponent’s goal” – only brief mention is made of the vilification attracted by the various interpretations of “direct football” induced by his analysis.
Thorold Charles Reep was born in 1904 and joined the RAF at 24 after training as an accountant. It was in 1933, at a talk given by Arsenal captain Charles Jones, that he was captivated by a description of manager Herbert Chapman’s use of statistics to orchestrate attacking play. Reep subsequently put into practice some of these theories with RAF teams, no doubt spurred on by the continued success of the Gunners in carrying out Chapman’s mantra of “the shortest route to goal” and employing a revolutionary “static” central defender (insert Sol Campbell joke of your choice here). Like many great innovators, though, Chapman was frequently misunderstood. Bernard Joy heads one of the chapters of his classic, Soccer Tactics: “Imitation of Arsenal’s Tactics Brings in Kick-And-Rush Football”. Or as some might choose to put it, enter Charles Reep.
Reep documented the exact time he first implemented his notational system at a professional match – 3.50pm on March 18, 1950, the moment a new method of rationalising the science of the game came into being, one that would intoxicate those at the highest level of the English game and lead a wild-eyed figure some 40 years distant, the initials GT at the breast of his tracksuit, to shout the words “Send it long Carlton!” into the warm Norwegian air. But a lot happened first.
In 1953 England suffered the greatest shock in its history, losing 6-3 at Wembley to an overwhelmingly superior Hungary side. The effects are hard to overstate. Reep shared the mood of national humiliation, but not the general prognosis that traditional English methods were outdated. Almost 30 years later Reep wrote an article in the Times entitled “The Great Magyar Myth Exploded”, in which he claimed to have “all the relevant facts and figures” necessary to demystify the Hungarian team’s apparent complete technical superiority.
The urge to debunk footballing complexities was a force behind much of Reep’s work. Among his published articles are the jaunty “This Pattern-Weaving Talk Is All Bunk!” (1961), the po-faced “Skill And Chance In Association Football” (1968) and the downright aggrieved “Are We Getting Too Clever?” (1962). In this article Reep goes on to recount his first meeting with Wolves manager Stan Cullis, shortly after the Hungarian demolition in 1953. Cullis, perhaps impressed by Reep’s work in helping Brentford avoid relegation in the spring of 1952, requested his assistance in devising a style of play that would borrow from the Magyars while reaffirming the “wholly English” principles of “direct passing”.
The Cullis/Reep methodology met with immediate success as Wolves defeated Hungarian champions Honved 3-2 at Molineux in December 1954. Retiring from the RAF a year later, Reep spent three years working as a performance analyst for Sheffield Wednesday. But with the advent of the flair-friendly Sixties and against a background of World and European Cup triumphs there seemed little demand for a statistically robust analysis of why George Best really ought to stop holding on to the ball and – ideally – get his hair cut too. A series of articles for the Daily Mail assessing the performance of players – a kind of biro and notebook prototype of the current vogue for Opta-style statistics – was ridiculed by the sports editor of the Times, and Reep abruptly disappeared from the scene.
It took ten years of World Cup humiliation – and a crisis of confidence in its ability to coach a game that had suddenly become difficult – for English football to turn to Reep again. In 1980, sensing a sea-change in tactical thinking, Reep contacted Graham Taylor, then manager at Watford. Taylor would remark after England’s World Cup exit in 1982 that “possession and patience are myths. Goals come from mistakes”; he was ripe for Reep, and before long the ex-Wing Commander was providing match-by-match performance analysis as Taylor’s no-nonsense Hornets marched towards the top of the First Division.
Within six months Reep was working with Charles Hughes, soon to become FA director of coaching and the staunchest advocate of the “direct football” mantra of the time. To Hughes and his associates, football was most definitely a science, and the findings of Reep’s 30 years of notebook-scribbling and calculator-bashing permeate both his FA coaching manual (reprinted 11 times since 1980; dedication page mentions Graham Taylor and Howard Wilkinson) and his more theoretical Winning Formula (1990). Hughes’s FA manual contains seven pages under the heading “Passing Techniques – Lofted Passes”, while what he describes as “Improvisation and Inventive Play” merit just two. Whether Reep intended to nurture such extremes of utilitarian football has never been clear, but the influence of his findings had never been so pervasive.
Reep’s influence began to dwindle with the approach of the Premiership and the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of domestic players and coaches. English football was starting to feel good about itself again; sophisticated even. However, for Reep, at the age of 89 there would be a bizarre final call to arms. Performance analysis had been used in Norwegian football since the 1970s – pioneered by Egil Olsen – and in 1993 the octogenarian ex-Wing Commander was flown to Oslo as guest of honour of the Norwegian FA for a World Cup qualifier against Graham Taylor’s England, thereby creating one of the most bizarre tableaux in the history of English international football. Reep watched from his box as Olsen’s Norway, schooled in his long-ball theory, out-muscled an England XI marshalled by the man responsible for resurrecting his methods nearly 15 years earlier. But this was to be Reep’s last stand. The man who had inadvertently given birth to such footballing catch-alls as “playing the percentage game”, “putting it in the mixer” and the Sunday morning classic “just get rid of it” would have no further involvement in the professional game.
Although in many ways Charles Reep’s influence at the highest level is as great as ever. Humiliating defeat at Euro 2000 led to perhaps the third great crisis of confidence in the recent history of English football. “I don’t think you can question our commitment – but you can question our ability to pass a football,” remarked national coach Kevin Keegan. And so English football did what it always does in times of crisis; when the game seems to have become mysterious, a confusing, foreign-accented thing that can no longer be mastered, it goes back to basics.
“The continental teams have conned us into believing the way we play has no chance. They have made us ashamed of our own style,” explained Graham Taylor during TV punditry duties in Belgium. Taylor knew what was coming.
In time for qualification for the 2002 World Cup the England team would be led by a Swedish pragmatist, who would announce at a press conference just three months before Charles Reep’s death: “If you look at the statistics in big club games or internationals, more than 80 per cent of goals are scored with fewer than five passes.” Now who does that sound like?
From WSC 196 June 2003. What was happening this month