Dundee United in Europe 2012/13

Dundee United will enter the draw for the 3rd Qualifying Round of the Europa League on Friday at 12:30pm.  Their matches will take place on the 2nd and 9th August.  United will be taking part in the tournament for the 3rd consecutive season, and will be keen to improve on their performances in the last two years, having narrowly lost their first tie on each occasion.

The club have a proud European tradition  – they are one of four Scottish clubs to have reached the final of a European trophy.  This will be their 26th season taking part in European competition of some sort.  Famously, the Arabs have a 100% record against Barcelona in European competition, having won 4 matches out of 4.  The only other club with a 100% record against the Catalan giants are Slovan Bratislava, who only faced them once.

Dundee United are quite well travelled, having played teams from 29 different countries.  The only Western European nations they haven’t visited are Wales, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, San Marino and the Faroes.  They have made surprisingly few trips to Eastern Europe, and have never played in Russia, Moldova, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Belarus or any of the Baltic nations.

The countries Dundee United have travelled to on European duty.


Dundee United made their first journey into Europe in 1966/67, playing in the Fairs Cup after a 5th placed finish in the previous season.  After receiving a bye in the 1st Round, they were given a daunting tie against holders Barcelona.  The first leg saw Jerry Kerr’s side travel to the Nou Camp, and they pulled off a sensational upset, winning 2-1 thanks to goals from Billy Hainey and Finn Seeman.  They finished the job in front of 28,000 supporters at Tannadice, with Ian Mitchell and another goal from Hainey securing a 2-0 win on the night.  Their next opponents were no more straightforward – they were drawn Italian giants Juventus.  A 3-0 defeat in Turin meant the writing was on the wall, but United managed to restore some pride with a 1-0 win at Tannadice thanks to Finn Dossing.

They competed in the UEFA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup with some regularity over the next 15 years, but failed to progress through more than one round until the early 80s.  1981/82 saw the start of a sensational period of success in in Europe under Jim McLean.  That season saw them start off their UEFA Cup campaign in style, thumping Monaco 5-2 in Monte Carlo in Round 1.  A 2-1 defeat at Tannadice in the 2nd leg barely mattered.  In the next round, a 2-0 away deficit against Borussia Monchengladbach was overturned with ease at Tannadice, with 5 different scorers on target in a 5-0 win.  They defeated KFC Winterslag by the same 5-0 scoreline at Tannadice after a goalless first leg to reach the quarter-final against Radnicki Nis.  A 2-0 home win seemed to put McLean’s side in the driving seat, but a 3-0 defeat in Yugoslavia dented their hopes of European success.

They were eliminated at the same stage of the UEFA Cup the following year.  Having beaten PSV, Viking Stavanger and Werder Bremen in the earlier rounds, Bohemians Prague proved too strong in the last 8.  Progression looked possible after a 1-0 defeat in Prague, but couldn’t find a way through at Tannadice as the 2nd leg finished goalless.  They put the disappointment behind them though, securing their only league title with a 2-1 win at Dens Park a couple of months later.
That title success gave them their first, and so far only, shot at the European Cup.  Hamrun Spartans of Malta were easily dispatched in the 1st Round, and a 4-0 win at Tannadice helped them see of Standard Liege in the 2nd Round.  That set up a quarter-final against Rapid Vienna.  A 2-1 defeat away from home set up a nervy night at Tannadice, but Davie Dodds scored the crucial goal which put them through on away goals.  Dundee United thus emulated rivals Dundee in reaching the semi-final of the European Cup – making Dundee the smallest city to achieve such a feat, and also making Scotland the only country with two cities with two European Cup semi-finalists.

The semi final against AS Roma is notorious for the treatment that the United players and staff – especially Jim McLean – received in Rome before, during and after the match, and also for allegations that the Italians bribed the French referee.  United looked on the verge of the final after a 2-0 win at Tannadice, but froze in the hostile atmosphere of Rome, going down 3-0 to bring back memories of the Radnicki match two years earlier.  Roma would end up losing the final on penalties to Liverpool.  McLean still hasn’t forgiven, or forgotten.

Some nice banners welcoming Jim McLean and Dundee United to Rome.

Roma’s players commiserate with Jim McLean and Walter Smith.

The following season, United returned to the UEFA Cup, where they eased through to a 3rd Round tie against Manchester United.  A 2-2 draw at Old Trafford should have given them the springboard to win the tie at home, but instead they went down 3-2.  They suffered an even more disappointing exit at the same stage the following season, losing out to Swiss side Neuchatel Xamax.

They made up for those defeats in the following season’s UEFA Cup (1986/87).  Lens, Universitatea Craiova and Hadjuk Split were eliminated in the first three rounds to set up a quarter-final tie against Barcelona.  A young Kevin Gallacher scored the only goal of the game at Tannadice to give United a lead to take to the Nou Camp.  Barcelona took the lead before half-time, but late goals from John Clark and Iain Ferguson secured a victory on the night, and a place in the semi-final.

Semi-final opponents Borussia Monchengladbach were seeking revenge for that 5-0 defeat a few years earlier, and would have been confident of reaching the final after holding United to a 0-0 draw at Tannadice.  But Dundee United turned in a sensational performance to win 2-0 in Germany courtesy of goals from Iain Ferguson and Ian Redford.  That set up a two-legged final against Swedish side IFK Gothenburg.  The final proved to be a step too far.  McLean’s side lost 1-0 in the first leg in Sweden, and couldn’t overturn the deficit at Tannadice, drawing 1-1.

That would prove to be the final hurrah for that talented United side, and they have not progressed through more than one round in any season since then.  Their most notable achievement since then was a crushing 17-0 aggregate win over Andorran side CE Principat in 1997/98 UEFA Cup, with Robbie Winters and Gary McSwegan each scoring 6 times over the two legs.

Their last three campaigns have ended nearly as quickly as they started.  In 2005/06 they were embarrassed by Finnish side MyPa, throwing away a two-goal lead at home to go out on away goals after a goalless first leg.  In 2010/11, they were handed a tough draw against AEK Athens, and looked out of it after a 1-0 home defeatSome farcical circumstances in Athens meant that the away leg was played without any Greek fans, and United almost took advantage, missing a couple of late chances as they drew 1-1 on the night.

In last season’s UEFA Cup, they were again given a tough tie against Slask Wroclaw (who would go on to win the Polish title).  A 1-0 defeat in Poland gave United a good chance of progression, and they raced into a 2-0 lead within 5 minutes thanks to goals from Keith Watson and David Goodwillie.  The Poles struck back 10 minutes later, but a Jon Daly penalty on the stroke of half-time gave them a 3-2 aggregate lead.  Despite having the bulk of the play, United couldn’t find another goal to seal things and, inevitably, Sebastian Dudek lashed in a 25 yarder to give Slask a crucial away goal.

2012/13 Campaign

Dundee United will enter this year’s Europa League at the 3rd Qualifying Round as a result of their 4th place finish in last season’s SPL.  They will need to win two ties to make it through to the lucrative group stage.
Europa League 3rd Qualifying Round

Matches: 2nd August & 9th August

The draw for the 3rd Qualifying Round is made before the 2nd Qualifying Round is completed, so the seedings for this draw are based on the assumption that every seeded team will win in the previous round.

In advance of the draw, the teams have been allocated (presumably randomly?) into smaller “draw groups” containing 10 or 12 teams.  This is done to prevent clubs from the same country meeting each other, and also to cut down on the draw time.

UEFA have already released the draw groups, so we know that Dundee United will be in Group Two.  That means that their possible opponents have been narrowed down to the following clubs.

Bursaspor are the only ones who Dundee United have met before in European competition.  That meeting was back in the 1974/75 Cup Winners’ Cup, and the Turkish side came out on top thanks to a goalless draw at Tannadice and a 1-0 win in Bursa.  Dundee United would be making their first visit to Moldova, Russia, Bulgaria or Slovenia should they end up facing the sides from those countries.


Celtic FC in Europe 2012/13

The draw for the Champions League 3rd Qualifying Round will take place on Friday at 11am, with Celtic entering the “Champions section” at this stage.  They will be hoping to make it to the group stage for the first time since their 2008/09 campaign under Gordon Strachan.  Their matches will take place on 31st July/1st August and 7th/8th August.

Celtic will be taking part in Europe for the 18th consecutive season, and their 48th season overall.  Only 12 teams have competed in European competition in more seasons than Celtic.  Rangers (51) are the only Scottish side with more appearances, though that record is likely to be surpassed by Celtic in the next few years.  It will be the Parkhead side’s 27th participation in Europe’s elite competition, a tournament which they famously won in Lisbon in 1967.

There are still a few countries which Celtic have yet to visit on European duty – most notably Sweden, Bulgaria, Turkey, Cyprus & Northern Ireland.  Spanish clubs have provided the opposition most often – 28 times in total.  Their most frequent opponents are AC Milan, Barcelona and Basel, all of whom have faced Celtic on 8 occasions.

The map below shows the countries which Celtic have visited.  Unlike the St Johnstone and Motherwell blogs, I haven’t included the towns/cities they’ve visited due to time constraints (100ish cities is harder than 8 or 9)  – if anyone fancies doing that then let me know and I’ll send you the map! There are a few countries shaded in light green – these  countries have never actually been visited by Celtic but were part of USSR/Yugoslavia when Celtic played there.

The countries Celtic have visited in European competition.


The club have played 270 matches in European competition, winning 125, drawing 51 and losing 94 (this tally includes the actual on-field results for matches against Rapid Vienna and Sion which were later annulled/changed by UEFA).  It will come as no surprise to anyone that the vast majority of their defeats were away, and the vast majority of their wins at home.  Celtic have only lost 17 of their 133 home games in Europe, but have won just 33 out of 131 away from home.  This record has been taken to extremes in recent years, with a formidable home record often cancelled out by abysmal away form.  Henrik Larsson is Celtic’s record European goalscorer – with 34 goals he has scored more than twice as many as any other player.

2012/13 will mark the 50th anniversary of Celtic’s first ever season in Europe.  They took part in the 1962/63 Fairs Cup after finishing 3rd in the previous season’s Scottish First Division, and were drawn against Valencia in the 1st Round.  They travelled to the Mestalla for their first match, and came away with a 4-2 defeat, having trailed 3-0 at half-time.  Bobby Carroll scored both goals, becoming the club’s first ever European goalscorer.  The 2nd leg at Parkhead finished 2-2, meaning the Bhoys crashed to a 6-4 aggregate defeat in their first ever European tie.

The following season saw a more impressive run, this time in the Cup Winners’ Cup.  Basel, Dinamo Zagreb and Slovan Bratislava were dispatched on the way to the semi-final, and a 3-0 win over MTK Budapest at Celtic Park put them within touching distance of the final.  But an amazing turnaround in the 2nd leg (not uncommon in those days) saw Jimmy McGrory’s side lose 4-0 in Hungary to miss out on a chance of their first European trophy.

Two years later, with Celtic now managed by Jock Stein, they lost out at the same stage of the same tournament, having again won at home in the first leg.  Liverpool were beaten 1-0 at Celtic Park, but won 2-0 in a controversial 2nd leg at Anfield, which saw Celtic denied a late goal which would have taken them through to a Hampden final against Borussia Dortmund.  Celtic fans rioted after the final whistle, with cans and bottles raining down from the stand.

The next season, 1966/67, Stein took his side into the European Cup for the first time.  Victories over FC Zurich, Nantes and Vojvodina took Celtic into the semi-final, and this time they managed to hold on to a first-leg lead against Dukla Prague.  After a 3-1 win at Celtic Park, they drew 0-0 in Czechoslovakia to become the first British side to reach the final of Europe’s elite competition.  Stein took his side to Lisbon to face Helenio Herrera’s Internazionale side, famous exponents of the defensive Cattenaccio system.  Despite falling behind to a Sandro Mazzola penalty, Celtic fought back with goals from Tommy Gemmell and Stevie Chalmers to win their first, and so far only, European trophy.

Stein’s side were the first side outside of Spain, Portugal and Italy to win the trophy, ending the era of Southern European domination.  Only 1 of the next 17 trophies would go to clubs from one of those nations, but unfortunately Scotland weren’t amongst the winners again – 16 of the next 17 went to clubs from England, West Germany and the Netherlands.  Stein’s achievement was all the more remarkable given that all of his side were born within a 30 mile radius of Celtic Park.  1967 was an annus mirabilis for Scottish football – on top of Celtic’s win, Rangers reached the Cup Winners’ Cup final, and Killie made the semi-final of the Fairs Cup.  That same summer, Scotland recorded their famous 3-2 win over England at Wembley.

Celtic continued to be competitive in the European Cup during the remainder of the “9 in a row” years, regularly reaching the quarter-finals and semi-finals, and making it to another final in 1970.  This time, Stein couldn’t lead them to glory, as they lost 2-1 to Feyenoord in the San Siro, with Ove Kindvall scoring with less than 5 minutes of extra-time remaining.  Future Celtic manager Wim Jansen played in the Feyenoord midfield that night.

The end of the “9 in a row” era led to a huge downturn in fortune in European competition, something that wasn’t properly remedied until the eras of Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan.  Between 1974/75 and 2000/01, Celtic failed to progress through more than two ties in any season, suffering embarrassing defeats to the likes of Wacker Innsbruck, Politehnica Timisoara, Neuchatel Xamax and Croatia/Dinamo Zagreb.

In O’Neill’s 2nd season in charge (2001/02), he took Celtic into the Champions League group stage for the first time, thanks to an impressive 3-1 win away to Ajax.  In the group stagea they were drawn gainst Juventus, Porto and Rosenborg.  Celtic won all 3 home matches, but could only finish 3rd after losing each of their away games – something that they would become used to over the next few years.

The following year, they suffered a disappointing elimination in the Champions League qualifier against Basel, but it would prove to be a blessing in disguise, as they dropped down into the UEFA Cup.  Heavily inspired by 11 goals from Henrik Larsson, they eliminated Suduva, Blackburn, Celta Vigo, Stuttgart, Liverpool and Boavista to reach the final in Seville against Jose Mourinho’s Porto.  Despite a double from Larsson in the final, Porto came out on top, winning 3-2 after extra-time.  Mourinho’s side would go on to win the Champions League the following season.  Celtic were awarded the FIFA Fair Play Awarded for the behaviour of their supporters before, during, and after the final.

O’Neill got his side into the Champions League group stage on two further occasions, but again failed to get them into the knock-out stages.  In 2003/04, they were heading through with 5 minutes to go, before Bobo Balde decided to play basketball in his own box, giving Lyon a penalty and progression.  That led to another UEFA Cup run, with 19 year-old David Marshall turning in a sensational performance in the Nou Camp to eliminate Barcelona in the last 16, before Villarreal eliminated them in the quarter-final.

Gordon Strachan would succeed where O’Neill failed, but only after an ignominous start.  In his first match in charge, they suffered a 5-0 defeat away to Artmedia Bratislava in the 2005/06 Champions League.  Despite a battling display at Celtic Park, they failed to overturn the deficit, winning 4-0 but losing out 5-4 on aggregate.

Strachan would redeem himself the following season, squeezing through a Champions League group containing Manchester United, FC Copenhagen and Benfica, courtesy of 3 home wins.  Again, they lost all of their away matches, but it didn’t matter this time.  Progression was secured with a game to spare after a Shunsuke Nakamura free-kick and an Artur Boruc penalty save secured a 1-0 home win over Man Utd.  They were drawn against AC Milan in the last 16, and turned in two outstanding defensive displays to keep things goalless after 180 minutes, before Kaka broke their hearts in extra-time in the San Siro.

The following season, they again reached the last 16 with 3 home wins and 3 away defeats in the groups – this time against AC Milan, Shakhtar Donetsk and Benfica.  Barcelona lay in wait in the knock-out stages, and Lionel Messi inspired them to a 3-2 win at Celtic Park, although Celtic led twice thanks to Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Barry Robson.  Xavi scored the only goal in the Nou Camp to see Barcelona comfortably through.

Since then, Celtic have achieved little in Europe.  Strachan’s side failed to make an impact in the group during his last season in charge, and all Tony Mowbray had to show for his short spell in charge was a 2-0 away win against Dynamo Moscow, which was rare and impressive in equal measures.  Neil Lennon has struggled in Europe so far, losing out to Braga and Utrecht in his first season in charge, then failing on the pitch last year against Sion before being reprieved by UEFA.  They gave a better account of themselves in a tough group containing eventual winners Atletico Madrid plus Rennes and Udinese, but ultimately failed to progress, finishing 3rd.

2012/13 Campaign

Celtic are guaranteed two ties in Europe this season – even if they lose in their Champions League qualifier, they will drop down to the Europa League play-off.  They are only two wins away from the Champions League group stage, and they will be seeded in both qualifying rounds.  If they win one of their first two ties in Europe this season, they will be guaranteed a place in the Europa League group stage at least, securing European football until Christmas.

Champions League 3rd Qualifying Round

Matches: 31st July/1st August & 7th/8th August

Celtic will enter the “Champions path”, which means they will face the champions of other smaller leagues.  The draw on Friday will be made before the 2nd Qualifying Round is complete, so UEFA assume that every seeded team will win.  The teams listed below will enter the 3rd Qualifying Round draw.  All of the unseeded opponents will have to navigate their 2nd Qualifying Round tie, so Celtic will not know exactly who they will play until a few days after the draw.

Champions League Play-off

Matches: 21st/22nd August & 28th/29th August

The 10 winners from the previous round will enter the Play-off Round.  This round is drawn after the 3rd Qualifying Round is completed, so the seedings will not be completely known until then.  If Celtic make it through to this round, they will definitely be seeded.  The table below is speculative, and assumes that the 10 seeded sides make it through from the previous round.

Motherwell FC in Europe – 2012/13

The draw for the Champions League 3rd Qualifying Round will take place on Friday at 11am, with Motherwell making their debut in the competition.  Stuart McCall’s side qualified as a result of their 3rd placed finish in last season’s SPL, with Rangers being ruled ineligible due to their failure to submit accounts (and their later liquidation).  Their matches will take place on 31st July/1st August and 7th/8th August.

While Motherwell are playing in Europe’s premier competition for the first time, they have competed in Europe on 6 previous occasions (5 times in the UEFA Cup/Europa League, and once in the Cup Winners’ Cup).  They made their debut in 1991/92, and have become regular qualifiers in recent years, with this season’s campaign being their 4th in the last 5 seasons.  In total, they have played 11 ties against opposition from 11 different countries, including a complete tour of the Nordic nations (even the Faroes).

The countries and cities/towns Motherwell have visited in European competition.


Their first taste of Europe was in the Cup Winners’ Cup after that famous 1991 Scottish Cup win, and their campaign started inauspiciously with a 2-0 defeat to GKS Katowice in Poland.  That made it a tough ask for the 2nd leg at Fir Park, but Stevie Kirk scored their first ever European goal to give them a 1-0 half-time lead.  Unfortunately, Katowice scored just after the hour mark, and despite two goals in the last 5 minutes the Steelmen lost out on away goals.

They had to wait 3 years for another chance, this time in the UEFA Cup.  HB Torshavn were thrashed home and away in the Preliminary Round, setting up a glamour tie against Borussia Dortmund.  The first leg in Germany finished just 1-0 to the Germans, but any hopes of a shock result were extinguished by a 2nd half Karl-Heinz Riedle double at Fir Park.  The Motherwell midfield for those games featured Paul Lambert, who impressed enough to win a move to Dortmund, where he would go on to win the Champions League.

The following season saw Motherwell qualify again – as Premier Division runners-up – but the Preliminary Round tie would see one of the club’s most embarrassing European defeats.  They were drawn against Finnish side MyPA, and despite taking the lead through Shaun McSkimming after 9 minutes at Fir Park, things swiftly unravelled, and they lost 3-1 in front of a shellshocked home crowd.  In the 2nd leg in Finland, they restored a bit of pride with a 2-0 win, but it wasn’t enough to prevent a defeat on away goals.

After a long 13 year wait, they returned to European competition in the 2008/09 UEFA Cup – the final season before it was rebranded.  They had a tough draw against Nancy, but a 1-0 defeat away defeat gave them a fighting chance at Fir Park.  Their hopes were short-lived though, as future Celtic striker Marc-Antoine Fortune scored an early goal in a 2-0 win for the French side.

They redeemed themselves the following season in the first ever Europa League, but only after suffering early ignominy.  Their qualification came via Fair Play, so they had to enter at the 1st Qualifying Round, which started on the 2nd July.  Due to pitch improvements at Fir Park, their opening match at home to Llanelli was played at the Excelsior Stadium, Airdrie, but even the early start and unfamiliar surroundings couldn’t excuse an embarrassing 1-0 defeat.  They rescued the tie with a 3-0 win in the 2nd leg in Wales.

The 2nd Qualifying Round saw a 1-0 defeat in Albania against Flamurtari Vlore, but they turned things round emphatically in Airdrie with an 8-1 win.  Jamie Murphy scored their only European hat-trick (to date), as they rushed into a 6-0 half-time lead.  The next round was a step too far, as a Steaua Bucharest side featuring Dorin Goian crushed them 3-0 in Romania and 3-1 in Airdrie.

A 3rd consecutive qualification was secured for the 2010/11 season, and the European experience from previous seasons paid off.  After a 1-0 win over Breidablik at Fir Park, they secured a nervy 1-0 win in Iceland through a Jamie Murphy goal.  The following round saw them comfortably defeat an Aalesunds side which had Anders Lindegaard in goals.  Murphy scored his 6th European goal in a 1-1 draw in Norway, making him the club’s all-time top European scorer, and he took his tally to 7 with another goal in a 3-0 2nd leg win at Fir Park.

Despite being unseeded for the play-off round, they were handed a winnable tie against Odense which gave them a chance of making the lucrative group stage.  After going 2-0 down in Denmark, Tom Hateley scored a stoppage time free-kick to secure a crucial away goal ahead of the match at Fir Park.  A crowd in excess of 9000 turned out, but Odense scored a crucial goal midway through the first half.  Despite dominating the 2nd half, and seeing their opponents reduced to 9 men, Motherwell couldn’t find any way through, even squandering a penalty as Jamie Murphy hit the post.

2012/13 Campaign

Motherwell are guaranteed two ties in Europe this season – even if they lose in their Champions League qualifier, they will drop down to the Europa League play-off.  They are only two ties away from the holy grail of the Champions League group stage, but that would require two wins over seeded opposition.  A place in the Europa League group stage could be slightly more attainable.  For that to happen, they would only need to win one of their two guaranteed European ties, albeit still against seeded opposition.

Champions League 3rd Qualifying Round

Matches: 31st July/1st August & 7th/8th August

Motherwell are in the “non-Champions” path, which means they will face the lowest ranked qualifiers from the bigger nations.  Their 3rd Qualifying Round contains just 8 teams, with 4 seeded and 4 unseeded.  Motherwell are unseeded, so their only possible opponents are Dynamo Kyiv, Panathinaikos, FC Kobenhavn and Fenerbahce.

Champions League Play-off Round

Matches: 21st/22nd August & 28th/29th August

The 4 winners from the previous round will join 6 clubs from the nations ranked 2-7 by UEFA league coefficients (England’s 4th entrant, Chelsea, get directly into the group stage as holders).  If the previous round goes by seeding, then Motherwell will not make it to this stage, but that outcome isn’t worth including in a piece which is exclusively about the Scottish side!

Let’s assume that every other match in QR3 goes by seeding, but that Motherwell make it through.  In that case, Motherwell’s potential opponents would be Braga and Spartak Moscow plus the other 3 seeded teams from the previous round.  I’ve illustrated this below by assuming that Motherwell face and beat Fenerbahce in the 3rd Qualifying Round, but the same applies if they beat Dynamo Kyiv, Panathinaikos or Copenhagen (simply replace the beaten side with Fenerbahce).

If any the other ties in the previous round go in favour of the unseeded teams then Motherwell could potentially face Udinese or Lille.  It is not possible that they could face Malaga or Borussia Monchengladbach though – both of these sides are guaranteed to be unseeded in the Play-off Round.

Europa League Play-off Round

If Motherwell lose in their Champions League 3rd Qualifying Round match, they would go into the Europa League play-off round, one match away from the group stage.  Motherwell will almost certainly be unseeded in this round.

This round is drawn after the previous round is completed, so the seedings will only be known at that stage.  The table below is merely speculative, and assumes that every single seeded side wins in the previous round, and that every single unseeded team loses in the Champions League 3rd Qualifying Round.  The teams who have to win an earlier Europa League match to reach this stage are in white italics, while the sides who would drop down from the Champions League are coloured in blue.

How to Lie With Statistics

“Statistics are like mini-skirts – they give you good ideas but hide the important things” (Ebbe Skovdahl)

Statistics is a broad discipline with lots of applications in everyday life.  If you check a weather forecast, invest money in a bank or take out insurance then you are relying on the forecasts provided by statisticians.  Any food, drink or prescription drug you buy and consume will have gone through testing and quality control procedures which involve statistical analysis and sampling techniques.  Fortunately, these are usually carried out by skilled statisticians who have high professional and ethical standards.

But as Darrell Huff pointed out in his fantastic book, “How to Lie with Statistics”, statistics can also be dangerous in the wrong hands.  If someone misuses statistics (either unwittingly or unscrupulously), then people can easily be misled.  This is true in all walks of life, but this piece will look at some examples from football.

Using ambiguous figures

The inspiration for writing this piece has come from the official statement released by Kilmarnock FC on the results of their “newco” consultation.  At first glance, the headline “36% in favour of No to Newco” suggests that 64% of Killie fans consulted were in favour of the newco Rangers being admitted to the SPL.  But if that were the case, surely a headline of “64% say Yes to Newco” would have been more striking.  When something doesn’t seem quite right, it usually isn’t.  A closer read of the statement notes that 2500 supporters and shareholders were consulted, and that 36% of these were against the “newco”.  Rather than giving a percentage of respondents, it has suited Johnston’s agenda to give a percentage of people asked, disregarding the fact that many of those asked didn’t respond at all.

There are many reasons for people not responding to any survey.  In this case, some of the surveys were sent via email, and others were sent in the post.  They were sent out a week before the deadline, but some of the letters didn’t arrive until 3 days before the deadline, leaving little time to respond and then post them back.  In addition, some people would have moved house or changed email address, and wouldn’t have received their survey at all.  Some emails may have ended up in spam folders.  There would also be many people on holiday, given that the survey was sent out in late June.  This is normal for statistical surveys, and standard procedure is to draw conclusions from the received surveys.  With 36% of people voting no, at least 900 responses were received – more than enough to draw statistically significant conclusions.  The only concern about the validity of these results would be the potential existence of “selection bias” (more on this later), but the number of responses makes that unlikely.

Johnston did not (and probably won’t ever) release any further information about the survey, so it is impossible for anyone else to draw conclusions on the true outcome of the survey.  We know that 900 “No” votes were received, but the number of “Yes” votes was not revealed.  Given the lengths he had to go to in order to give the impression that the supporters backed a “Yes” vote, it seems unlikely that was actually the case.  It seems more likely that the Killie supporters’ vote would be broadly similar to that of other SPL clubs (ie >75% saying “No”), which would put the true number of “Yes” votes at 225 at most.

Compare the Kilmarnock statement with that of Motherwell FC on the same issue.  The number of votes for and against the newco proposal are listed, along with the percentage of votes not returned.   The percentages given only cover those who actually voted.  Statistical information should always be displayed clearly and unambiguously, and that is exactly what Motherwell have done.

This is along similar lines to the Scottish devolution referendum of 1979, where 51% of votes cast were in favour of devolution, but the referendum didn’t succeed because of an additional rule which required 40% of the total electorate to have voted “Yes”.  The turnout was only 63.8%, which meant that only 32.9% of the electorate voted “Yes”.  To break the 40% barrier would have needed either a 77.5% turnout with the same voting pattern, or for a 63.3% “Yes” vote on the same turnout.  This was obviously highly controversial, particularly given that there was evidence that electoral registers were out of date, and included people who had died or moved house. It took 18 years for another referendum on devolution, this time without the additional rule, which was passed with a 74.3% “Yes” vote.

Percentages without raw numbers

Johnston is a clever man, and it seems unlikely that any of that was anything other than a deliberate face-saving tactic.  He has previous on quoting unqualified percentages.  Over the last week he has been quoting season ticket sales as being “up 15%” compared to a similar time last year.  Any percentage value not backed up by solid numbers should be treated with suspicion.  What he fails to mention is that this time last year, Killie fans were considering a boycott of season tickets after lax security arrangements allowed thousands of Rangers fans into the home end on the last day of the 2010/11 season.

If only 50 tickets had been sold last year, that would mean that just 58 sales this year – a tiny fraction of last season’s final sales.  Without the numbers, we don’t know how well the sales are doing – but if the sales were really going well then it would seem more likely that the numbers would be given.  When you see statistical information displayed, sometimes what you don’t see is more important than what you do see.

Selection Bias

Michael Johnston’s statement did, in a round about way, manage to touch on a potentially valid point which can often be missed in surveys – the issue of “selection bias”.  People who are passionate about an issue are more likely to take the time to answer a survey than those who aren’t particularly bothered.  To see the potential effect of selection bias, consider a newspaper asking the question “Do you respond to newspaper surveys?”, and giving a phone number to call in with your answer.  The next week, the newspaper could draw the false conclusion that 100% of people responded to newspaper surveys.

That is obviously a contrived example, but polls on football forums can fall victim to the same issues on a lesser scale.  The posters on these are often the most opinionated supporters of the club, and as such may not be completely representative of the fanbase.  However, in Killie’s case,  it would seem incredibly unlikely that this could be responsible for the type of swing Johnston claimed.  On the killiefc.com forum, 460 people voted on the newco issue, and 97% of these said “No”.  Selection bias could not reasonably account for a swing from that figure to something as low as 36%.

Regression to the Mean

One of the enduring cliches in football is the “curse” of the Manager of the Month award, which dictates that anyone receiving the award will see their side suffer a downturn in form.  In reality, the “curse” can more or less be account for by “regression to the mean”, the phenomenon where an extreme value for a variable is likely to be followed by a value closer to the average.  A manager is likely to win the award as recognition of a better than usual run of form for his side, so it shouldn’t really come as a huge surprise when they return to their usual level the following month.

It is also possible that this could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, where a manager and his players, can be adversely affected by media discussion of the potential effect of the “curse”.  There is also a reporting bias inherent in this “curse” – people are primed look for a pattern such as a downturn in form after winning the award and will often forget about examples which do not fit into their hypothesis.  Indeed, reporting bias is a major issue in a number of similar footballing phenomena – most notably the claim that players will always score against their former clubs.

Unequal Comparison

In recent years, statistical analysis of football has become a lot more advanced, with information such as passing percentages and average positions becoming more prevalent (though not in the SPL yet, unfortunately!).  While these statistics can be very powerful if used to supplement your instincts when watching the games, they can also lead to some questionable conclusions if they are blindly quoted out of context.

When you read about a player’s pass completion, there is no distinction made between a simple 5-yard pass and a 60-yard diagonal to a winger.  The best passers of the ball won’t necessarily have the highest pass completion percentage, because they may take on more difficult passes in an attempt to create goalscoring opportunities.  At Euro 2012, Andrea Pirlo impressed us all with a masterful performance against England, but his passing percentage of 88% was bettered by 5 of his Italian teammates who started that night (Buffon, Bonucci, Balzaretti, Marchisio and de Rossi).  Pirlo’s 87.2% for the tournament was only 43rd best, while Nigel de Jong was ranked 2nd with 94.5%.  The Dutch had the highest passing accuracy of the 16 teams at the tournament, but failed to pick up a single point.

The only way to solve this problem would be to have some form of difficulty rating for each pass completed, thus allowing each player’s passing score to be adjusted suitable.  This would be very difficult in practice, given the amount of time which would have to be spent on the analysis.  Until such complex methods are available, the best approach would be to accompany any percentage with a “chalkboard” displaying each individual pass.

A similar issue can arise when it comes to the number of shots a side has in a game.  Often, managers or supporters claim that their side were unlucky to lose because they had more shots than their opponents.  But again this statistical fails to take into account the differences between different types of shots.  You are less likely to score with a speculative 40 yard effort than you are with a clear shot from 10 yards, but both are counted in the same way.  To illustrate the point, we again look to the Dutch performance at Euro 2012.  They averaged 20 shots per game over their 3 matches (more than any team in the tournament), but only scored 2 goals in total.

Again, these stats are not much use on their own, and even a chalkboard will not provide information about the position of the goalkeeper or the amount of pressure from defenders.  Perhaps a slightly more useful statistic to accompany it would be some measure of average shooting distance.  It may even be possible to combine this with the number of shots in order to come up with a single “Shooting Index” for each team.

Selective Statistics

In the lead up to matches, you will often read stats like “Team X have lost just 1 of their their last 13 matches against Team Y”.  Apart from being an unlucky number, 13 would seem like a very odd choice for a number of matches.  Why not choose their last 10 matches or their last 15?  The answer to that is an obvious one – these statistics are picked for maximum impact.  When you read something like that, you can guarantee that had you gone back to 14 matches ago, Team X would have lost.  And “Team X have lost 2 of their last 14 matches against Team Y” isn’t quite as impressive.

Small Sample Sizes

Small sample sizes are frowned upon in statistics, but they are what makes football so watchable.  Every match can be considered as an experiment with a sample size of 1, which means the “expected” result isn’t always achieved.   Consider the example of Team X and Team Y, where the former will win 80% of matches.   If the teams had to play each other 100 times to decide who was best, then Team Y would have virtually zero chance of coming out on top.  But in a cup competition, the sides will only meet once, and Team Y will progress 20% of the time.  In spite of what the cliche might say, the better team doesn’t always win.