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Charles Reep: The Military Accountant Who Revolutionized British Football
By: Tristan Sun
RAF Henlow, a military airfield in Bedfordshire that was used in World War One, was only a decade old when Charles Reep arrived to train as a military accountant in 1928.
Oddly enough, this new recruit would go on to become a controversial figure in English football history, bringing data analysis to the British game and creating the long ball game, which characterizes English football even today. Even in today’s data-rigorous sporting landscape, Reep’s impact can be felt; he is seen by some as the godfather of modern football analysis.
Reep attended a series of lectures given by Arsenal captain Charles Jones at RAF Henlow in 1932. Jones’ speech encouraged Reep to use his background in accounting to analyze what he was watching on the football pitch. He began to develop an algebraic notations for matches, calling his first attempt a “Tactic Crime Chart”.
Reep learned the fundamentals of Arsenal’s style of play under the wing of Herbert Chapman, the manager of Arsenal. He became fascinated with Chapman’s style of functional wingers capable of fast tracking back and forward surges. Inopportunely, Reep was transferred to Germany at the end of World War Two and returned to England in 1947 to find that none of Chapman’s ideas had been adopted. Frustrated by what he considered slow and ineffective play during a Swindon Town match at The County Ground in 1950, Reep decided to record notes during the second half of the match.
He arrived at several observations: seven of nine goals come in packages of three passes or fewer; moves starting with a long pass from your own half meant a goal was twice as likely to be scored when compared to using only short passes to progress up the field.
His analysis caught the attention of Jackie Gibbons, Brentford manager. Brentford’s Second Division side was in trouble; with a squad low on confidence and no money to spend, Gibbons visited Reep and two days later, he was on the team coach to Doncaster. With only 14 games left to play, the club was in danger of relegation, but after his arrival, their goals-to-games ratio improved from 1.3 to 2.9, and they won 9 of their last 13 games.
Reep’s journey continued at several other English clubs, most notably the Wolves at RAF Bridgnorth. Shortly after being brought in closer in the 1952-1953 season, Wolves were top of the First Division following a 7-3 win at home against Manchester City. What Reep offered was the 1950s equivalent of the data obtained by top teams today, and at the time, it was considered just as cutting edge.
Reep left the Wolves for Sheffield Wednesday in 1955. He had never been formally employed by the Wolves and the job at Sheffield offered security and money. For the next 30 years, Reep would cycle from club to club, including Plymouth, Stoke City, and Cambridge.
However, never again would he find a position at the top of the English game. Reep’s simplistic methods were, and continue to be, criticized by many fans and analysts. One critic noted that while his study assessing passing distribution reported that almost 92% of goals were constituted of less than 3 passes, his dataset only reported that 80%, and not 92%, of goals came from these short possessions. Additionally, most movements in football (92% from his dataset) are short possessions, thus it would be understandable that most goals would be scored in this manner.
His last major influence on the world of football was at the 1994 World Cup, but not for Britain. Reep was held in high regard by Norway's manager Egil Olsen, who was a sports scientist for 20 years before taking charge of the national team. For their game against England, Norway played a modified version of Reep’s preferred style. The emphasis on offense won Norway the game 2-0.