You do not know his face nor his name but you will have experienced his work many, many times while watching televised football. As a freelance broadcast journalist and assistant producer Dave works for, amongst others, BT Sport and Premier League Productions – the company responsible for broadcasting the Premier League around the world. He is one of an army of statisticians who provide a vast array of facts and figures for those working in front of or behind the camera. When Peter Drury or Martin Tyler seemingly plucks a choice statistic out of thin air to throw into the mix there is a fair chance that he will have done so from his Stat Pack.
Dave describes it as the perfect job for a football geek, and Drury confirms that these statisticians “are of a certain kind”. Having started his career as part of his Sports Journalism course, Dave worked for Real Madrid TV, whilst living in Spain, before joining Sunset & Vine who are the production company behind BT Sport when it first launched its coverage of football in 2013. He has been working with them, as well as other broadcasters, ever since. His focus is primarily on assembling the Stat Pack for each match.
“The Stat Pack is not just for the main commentators,” Dave says. “It is also used by the presenters and guests in the studio, the pundits and even the producers.” It is the bible for a whole host of people involved in the broadcast. “Some people use it religiously and go through it with a fine-tooth comb whereas others use it as a point of reference, as and when they need something.” The Stat Pack is a massive dossier with a huge amount of data that goes into granular detail on every aspect of the game, including information on each team including their history and recent form; each meeting between the two teams; every player in the squad; the managers’ records and so on. A typical Premier League pack for a single match can run to 25,000 words and the commentators might use only 1% of the material.
Dave quite enjoys the anonymity but has received the occasional mention. “James Richardson gave me a namecheck during BT’s Champions League UCL Goals Show a couple of weeks ago, which was nice, but very rare.” By strange coincidence, he was also mentioned by Julien Laurens this week when he helped the French journalist track down the less than prolific Andreas Christensen’s last goal before his strike against Malmo in the Champions League on Tuesday.
As Laurens, and many others watching would have been aware, it was the Dane’s first goal for Chelsea after a wait of 137 matches. But very few would have known much about his previous club goal. Although he has scored twice for his country in the last few years, including one in the Euros 2020 against Russia, his last club goal was scored on 16 March 2017 when he was playing for Borussia Mönchengladbach against Schalke in the Europa League. Strangely Christensen had been in a bit of a purple patch at the time, having scored four days earlier in the Bundesliga against Hamburg adding to his goal a few weeks before that against Fiorentina also in the Europa League. Very few people would have that information at their fingertips but Dave does.
During a match there is plenty of interplay between the commentator and the producers/stats people, starting with the build-up, throughout the match itself and perhaps most importantly in the post-match analysis and it is those hidden nuggets that make all the difference. So when a rarity such as a Christensen goal occurs there is a reliance on the speed and accuracy of the fact. “You can do all the preparation in the world,” Drury says. “But when something crops up that you could never have anticipated I push what is known as ‘the lazy button’ which allows me to ask for things to be checked off air. That’s when they come into their own as an essential resource.”
All commentators undertake their own extensive research with slightly different approaches in their preparation but when the games come thick and fast, such as at Christmas, with not enough time to dig too deep there is a degree of greater reliance on the tried and trusted Stat Pack. Verification is important and each company has access to Opta material, which is easily searchable via their Query Tool that allows the stats people to roam the database and find facts which have been checked multiple times. Despite this almost foolproof system the odd mistake may slip in as a result of a typo but generally this is an error-free process.
“In an ideal world I like to do all my own prep,” Drury says. “But there’s never a game when I don’t refer to the Stat Pack, as I go to it for one final check and sometimes I think to myself now that’s a good line and then follow up with further research myself. It’s a question of extrapolating, so hypothetically say Norwich have their worst run in the top flight since 1953, that gets me checking on what happened all those years ago, if time allows.”
As Opta only started collecting extensive statistics in 2006/07 Drury relies on other sources when dipping back into history. “I subscribe to the English National Football Archive, which has every single line-up from the very beginning of league football and is my trusted source for historical information,” Drury says. The ENFA is a vast resource that contains detailed information on, at the latest count, 234,182 matches and 46,151 players, going all the way back to the first Football League season of 1888/89.
“I often use such information for those poignant moments after players have died,” Drury says. “So recently when we lost Jimmy Greaves everyone knew about Greaves’ incredible goalscoring record but I wanted to find out a little more detail on his goals specifically in Spurs-Chelsea matches. Similarly with Roger Hunt, who I discovered almost sixty years ago scored his first top flight goal for Liverpool against Manchester City, who they were playing that day when they held the minute’s silence in his honour.”
Co-commentators are slightly different. “While some are keen to know every single detail as they want to avoid being ripped to shreds on social media, others are not particularly interested.” Dave says. “One of the co-commentators is the loveliest bloke in the world but he would struggle to name the left back of a major side in Europe facing an English club. It’s very much each to their own.” As Drury points out there’s a balance between the two roles. “It is not their job to know the minutiae, as ex-players they are there to provide the how something happened, an insight that only those who have played the game at the highest level can provide. While as commentators we describe the who, where, what and when.”
Like Dave, Chris Moore has been working for Sunset & Vine since BT Sport first started eight years ago. From his angle, as the producer, Moore views the Stat Pack as his comfort blanket. “It helps me pick up on something I might have missed and additionally it acts as a reference point throughout the game.” Moore will always read the first few pages as they provide a summary that gives him plenty of material to feed in at the most opportune moment. The remainder of the Stat Pack he might skim through but he emphasises the importance of the introduction. “The magic of the front page/s is that it contains all the nuggets, the main stories which we can look out for during the show,” Moore says. “Those nuggets set the game up from a numbers point of view and over the last few years football has very much become a ‘numbers game’.”
Moore points out that the real crux of success is once the game is underway. “The live angle is the hardest part where we have to earn our money. That’s when we really need to be clued up.” As an example, Dave and Moore worked together on Leicester’s Europa League game at Spartak Moscow on Wednesday. When Patson Daka scored his second goal just after half-time there was a rush on to look at the quickest hat-tricks with Dave asking Opta. But within six minutes he had completed his treble which did not allow Opta time to verify what turned out to be the fastest in Europa League history. “We will never say something unless we are 100% sure,” Moore says.
However, Dave did dig out the fact that this was the first hat-trick scored by an away side at Spartak since July 2008 when Vagner Love scored for CSKA Moscow and so midway through the second half he WhatsApped that to Adam Summerton, who then mentioned it on commentary. Moore was also delighted that there was another startling statistic to be revealed. As the Zambian striker scored his fourth goal of the night he became Leicester’s joint highest scorer in European football, in what was only the 23-year-old’s third appearance for the Foxes in the Europa League.
Talking of players scoring four goals on an away ground, another example of the interplay between stat man and commentator was when Dave was working alongside Drury. “Myself and Peter did Liverpool Swansea a few years back [January 2017] and Fernando Llorente scored a quick brace. As not many score a hat-trick against Liverpool at Anfield Peter buzzed through asking me the last time it happened. Thankfully I’m a Liverpool fan so I could tell him immediately it was Arshavin in 2009.” In fact the Russian got all four in a 4-4 draw on that memorable evening and remains the only player in Premier League history to score four at Anfield for the away side. As Michael Caine might say – “And not many people know that.”