Pointless Punditry? What do the ‘experts’ really know?

By Neil Evans. One of the things many football fans enjoy at the end of every season, is looking back at what the “experts” predicted before the start of the season.

My team, Swindon Town, was predicted to finish sixteenth in League 1 by a well-read and respected football magazine, who shall remain nameless. For the record, we finished seventh, one place outside the play-offs.
Swindon Town were promoted from League Two in 2012 and reached the play-offs in their first season back in the third tier

Swindon Town were promoted from League Two in 2012 and reached the play-offs in their first season back in the third tier in 2012-13

Whilst the World Cup rages on, quietly under the radar the fixtures for the 2014/15 season have been released. It’s a warm welcome back to the Football League for Cambridge Utd and Luton Town and commiserations to fans of Bristol Rovers and Torquay.

 

But for any fan, the fixture release date is one that creates anticipation. You find out whether you may be required to head to Bury away on a Tuesday night in February and when that eagerly awaited local derby is.

 

So, in amongst all the World Cup mayhem, I thought I’d take a closer look at the accuracy of the ‘so-called pundits’ and test their accuracy over the last two campaigns. Let’s just see if their thoughts were worth the paper they were written on.

 

The results make very interesting reading for any fan. So, to paraphrase the famous “J’Accuse” by Emile Zola, I will present the “charge” against the tendency for football journalists to make predictions.

 

Football writers, pundits and other ‘experts’, you stand accused of ill-founded research, wasting fans’ time and money, and of having no more knowledge than “Paul the Octopus” in your field of expertise!
Naturally, any accusation requires both a prosecution and a defence. So let’s consider the evidence.

 

Firstly, my criteria is that an inaccurate prediction constitutes an error of more than three places in any of the main English Leagues – Premier League to Conference.

 

Jamie Carragher managed to predict four of the eventual top five in the Premier League. The only exact match was in forecasting Arsenal’s fourth place finish. However, outside of the Champions League places, his predictions were, frankly, hopeless; only three were within three places of their final league position (Spurs, Southampton & Newcastle).
Arsenal staved off a strong challenge from Everton to secure fourth spot in 2013-14

Arsenal staved off a strong challenge from Everton to secure fourth spot in 2013-14

 So a mere seven out of a possible 20 from an expert in the most analysed league on earth.
Perhaps the experts could redeem themselves lower down the pyramid? Neil Warnock cast his eye of over The Championship. Only Ipswich’s final league position was remotely close out of ALL the clubs in the top half. In fairness, the accuracy improved the further down the league.
But, anyone with a basic knowledge of the game would have seen Yeovil, Doncaster and Barnsley battling the drop. Warnock got two of the three spot on but it is at the top where questions must be asked. Reading were the team backed to return, along with Bolton, to the top table of English football; they were nowhere near the automatic positions. Surely the play-offs would be easier to predict? Not a bit. Published predictions did not get a single play-off team correct.

 

League One was a little more fruitful, with regular league pundit, Don Goodman, getting Brentford’s second place spot on. He thought Peterborough would be champions but surely, with all that parachute money, Wolves had to be nailed on as champions – I predicted that to my friends – and anyone else who would listen! – that they would be a shoo-in for the title. Of the twenty four teams in League 1, sixteen finished outside of the criteria that would ensure a relatively successful prediction for a pundit. Don did get three sides bang on though! Certainly, the expert(s) did not see Orient’s outstanding season but Walsall to finish twenty third? Do me a favour!

 

Perhaps League Two and the Football Conference might rescue the reputation of punditry? Well, Chesterfield’s title apart, only seven out of 20 other clubs were anywhere near their final positions. Accrington Stanley and Dagenham and Redbridge were meant to be the bottom two. Only one play-off contender, Fleetwood, was right and, given their financial backing, this wasn’t a difficult call to make!

 

As for the Football Conference only three of 24 teams were within three places either side of their final league position which, it could be argued, you could achieve by placing the names in a hat and drawing them out.

 

Maybe this was a statistical blip, a one-off, a tad harsh. Certainly, the Premier League’s 2012/13 season predictions were far better.  
A number of factors may contribute to the inaccuracy of many pundits’ predictions. A bias regarding the name and reputation of a club rather than a consideration of the reality. This was certainly the case with Leeds and Bolton. Laziness is the only explanation behind Accrington and Dagenham’s predicted demise, with no account of what a young manager can inspire.
Claims that Portsmouth would go straight back up were fanciful. After Pompey’s schism, realism meant being happy to remain in League Two.
After an uncertain start to the season, Portsmouth finished 13th in 2013-14

After an uncertain start to the season, Portsmouth finished 13th in 2013-14

Is There A Case For the Defence?
The case for the defence depends on how forgiving you are, I guess. The most worrying aspect of my research was the fact that experienced, paid, knowledgeable football people have been horrendously wrong. Admittedly, my work has been largely concentrated on one single publication but the theory does (largely) hold up across other pre-season guides.

 

Print deadlines are, in my opinion, the best defence. It may say September 2014 on the front of your glossy magazine or guide but, in reality, the research has to be gathered no later than early to mid-July and that factors out the comings and goings associated with the summer transfer window. This is an important consideration as squads can be bolstered and raided in equal measure in the build-up to any new season. So, next time you find yourself purring with smug satisfaction or boiling in a sea of rage regarding a projected league finish, spare a thought for the editors and pundits who are trying their best to entertain and inform – often without full knowledge of all the facts.

 

Two examples of the unknown here. One, I never saw the spectacular, post-Fergie fall from grace of Manchester United, from title winners to not even qualifying for Europe. You would have got long odds on the speed and the dramatic nature of the decline. I didn’t think they would win the league, but not even qualifying for European football? No way. Everyone thought Liverpool would improve, but nobody saw a sustained title challenge that would take the title down to the wire. Perhaps the experts should have, but if even the most optimistic of ex-players and regional and national journalists didn’t see this coming, so who are we to argue?

 

Example two: clubs are free to change their managers throughout the season – perhaps too often, in my opinion. It didn’t work out for Fulham but was a master-stroke for play-off winners Crystal Palace FC. Before Pulis, Palace were performing as was predicted; they were bottom of the league and looked doomed. With Pulis at the helm, the team was transformed. A similar case could be made for the appointment of Gus Poyet at Sunderland. However, pundits are not mystics and they could not have seen any of the above coming. Neither could your average pundit put an empirical measure on team spirit.

 

My final argument in defence of football’s ‘experts’ is that it’s incredibly hard to predict anything in this world; football included. People, even football people, are fallible when it comes to their own profession. Perhaps the best way to treat any prediction is with a pinch of salt. Just regard the predictions for your team as a bit of fun, ignore the expected highs and dismiss the soothsayers. Chances are the pundits will be wrong. Enjoy each match as it comes and worry about the league position later.

 

Pundits only have the previous season’s results and information to work with… no more than you or I. It is possible that some may have links to a particular club and insider knowledge but, more often than not, they are just fans. And, at the end of the day, they’re only human.

 

What are your predictions for the rest of the World Cup and the upcoming Football League season?

 

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