The End of a Beginning – the launch of Footballistics

Usually in pissing contests about national pride there are many ideas on what the most Australian thing is. HPN won’t indulge in that debate, but there is little doubt that the humble suburban football club is one of the key markers of 20th century Australia.

For the past two years, James Coventry and a host of other extremely talented people have been working on a project. A book called Footballistics (working title). Those involved included Matt Cowgill at The Arc, Rob Younger at Figuring Footy and Port Adelaide FC, Daniel Hoevenaars at Insight Lane, Ryan Buckland from The Roar and sometimes here, Tony Corke at Matter of Stats, Darren O’Shaughnessy from Hawthorn, Ranking Software (and let’s face it pretty much everywhere sport is), and Dr Liam Lenten. Oh, and us.

Standing in the outer of Norwood Oval, on a chilly Thursday night, we finally realised that the title was no longer a working one. For it was the launch night of the book.

James grew up five minutes down the road from Norwood Oval, and for him it was the greatest ground in the country if not the world. Naturally, it made sense to have the launch for the book in the Premiers Bar at the club. While the book was a group effort, James well and truly drove the ship.

James went around the footy twittershpere in 2016 and discretely messaged most of us, one by one, on a potential new project, without much more information to begin with. There were a few of us who were aware of James’ stellar previous work with Time and Space – Sean from HPN was, Cody wasn’t.

All of us bought into the project pretty much immediately when it was explained to us. A book, by smart footy people but for everyone. Using data and common sense to investigate some of the key issues of the modern game.

Without going into the minutiae, Footballistics was a lot of work for everyone involved. But it was also fascinating, especially to read what everyone else was doing. For two blokes from Canberra who met on a bus talking about footy and other sport, who started blogging together on a whim, it was the big leagues of intellectual thought about the game.

Norwood Oval has a square wing – a straight line, parallel to Woods Street. It’s a relatively common feature in Adelaide, according to Mike Hugo, one of many great twitter people at the launch. Adelaide Oval itself used to almost fit the pattern too. The grounds were built around the expanding suburbs, and not the other way around, and were constrained by Adelaide’s planned grid.

During the launch the standard Thursday night training session was underway, the faint smell of liniment in the air, and the sound of boys getting around the boys. Two kids on the rehab stint were doing quick hands on the boundary, while the forwards were working on leading patterns with dummies. For a book about footy the backdrop was not just appropriate; it felt necessary.

Only one half of HPN was able to make the journey westwards to Adelaide (Cody), while the other (Sean) remained holed up in the winter paradise of Canberra. Joining Cody at the launch were James and Rob Younger, a familiar name to regulars here. Rob’s moved on to greener pastures from his Figuring Footy days, and is now the Performance Data Scientist for the Power. He was somewhat concerned about showing his club gear at the launch. This was the wrong side of town for someone in black and white.

Rob and I holed up at the bar to begin with, and had several conversations about the state of football today, and what (if anything) was wrong with it. Just like any clubroom of any code in Australia. At the other end of the bar were ex-AFL and SANFL players, journalists and club admins alike.

Two or three years ago, it would have been crazy to think that these types would honestly listen to the opinions of a couple of internet footy analysts, but that in of itself is a sign of the progress of the book. Talks about a bonus point, 16-a-side and removing or extending the running bounce (Cody’s favourite) were discussed and dismissed at will. The return of the curtain raiser was perhaps the most popular suggestion from all corners of the room.

After the pleasantries, beer and cheese, we were soon down to the business part of the night. Neil Cross (or Crossy), a veteran ABC sports broadcaster and commentator in South Australia, was here to MC the night for Coventry (or Covo). Rob and I soon realised we needed to get nicknames, and fast.

About a hundred or so people filled the room; friends, family, media, interested onlookers and even some clubland types. That bit was fine, more concerning was the fact that we had to speak shortly after. Crossy soon turned to us, with some pointed questions.

I can’t remember every detail of what I said, let alone what Rob said, but I can remember talking about Ben Edwards, Geelong’s golden period, the state of the game, and the Wayne Carey trade. I can also remember egging Rob on to take off his jacket and expose his Port vest, because apparently I am a terrible person.

I am not terrible enough, however, to call him Robbo, the best nickname I could come up with in fifteen minutes.

After we were all done speaking, we had to move on to the signing part of the night. I’ve heard from other writers that signing books can be an arduous experience, and maybe over time it is, but the hour or so I did it for was a blast. It was less about signing books and more about talking about footy and data to people, things I could do all day.

To all those whose books I signed, I apologise for devaluing your asset. I also apologise for writing “hope you enjoy the book” on each copy.

As the event was starting to wind down, I retreated to the bar where the barman Geoff gave me a beer. He’d been holding the last stout for me, something I was extremely grateful for at that point. Geoff wasn’t just a barman; he was also a decent footy player himself. Later research showed that he played over 200 SANFL games for West Torrens, South Adelaide and Woodville in the 70s and 80s,and won three straight best and fairest awards at Souths. Geoff also wasn’t just an ex-player, he also used to run the whole club, from 2011 to 2016. That was also arguably the Redlegs’ greatest ever era, encompassing three straight flags between 2012 and 2014.

Never underestimate a barman at a footy club.

Geoff mentioned that it was getting harder and harder to make a footy club to work these days, which makes sense with the increasing nationalisation of the game. It’s hard to spend a few hours at a place like Norwood and not want the club to work long term, and to prosper in the future.

As Geoff swept us all from the rooms, we all slowly went our own ways. James headed home sleepily ahead of an 18 hour day on Friday, while Rob and I (plus a few others) headed to Tex Walker’s pub (home of the Ricciuto Prosciutto pizza, amongst other things) to watch Australia gallantly draw with Denmark.

For me, the event felt like the end of the beginning; the culmination of the outsiders coming inside club walls to discuss real ideas. To grapple with the next step for HPN and similar fan analytic pursuits is tough, but getting a foot in the door is much better than the situation two years ago.

Our contribution to Footballistics is along the lines of what you have read on HPN over the years; drafting, trading, free agency, club finances, club administration. We even snuck a bit about the tribunal in there, because Col Hutchinson at the AFL was kind enough to pass on data about charges and results.

If you like HPN, you’ll probably be interested in Footballistics.

All photos courtesy of Megan Leahy

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