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Sports Book Chat: Paul Tomkins

Paul Grech Saturday, May 21, 2011 , ,
Few Liverpool fans will need telling who Paul Tomkins is. Those who are not might know him for his co-authoring of ‘Pay as You Play’, a groundbreaking book that uses statistics to analyse the performance of clubs and managers.

For those who have not heard about him, however, a brief introduction. Paul Tomkins is a blogger’s dream or, rather, what he has achieved is what most bloggers dream of. He started off writing (very long) posts on a Liverpool forum that were so good that the moderators started posting them as separate articles. So well received were these that he eventually decided to author and self-publish a book which immediately became a best seller on Amazon.

More books followed along with invitations to write for the club’s official publications and, eventually, the setting up of the Tomkins Times, his subscription based site. By his own admission, through this, he is now earning as much as a regular job.

Writing has been Tomkins full time occupation all along, although not through choice. For someone who is incredibly prolific and analytical with his writing, the revelation that he suffers from M.E. – a disease that is also known as the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – is a surprising one. Yet it is a disease that has had a devastating effect on Tomkins life, forcing him to quit what was a well paid job as graphical designer.

By his own admission, writing for him was initially a way to do something he liked purely for the enjoyment that it gave him and, also, because he could structure it according to how he felt physically. And, in full proof of Albert Einstein’s claim that in the midst of every difficulty lies opportunity, he has managed to build a career out of it.

How did you come into writing?
I first became interested in writing in my late teens, which was the first time I read a novel of my own accord. It made me want to be a novelist, but as it had taken three attempts to get my English O’ level, that was unlikely! As an art student, I had the imagination, but not the technical ability. I continued to write fiction in my spare time, which helped hone my writing skills. In late 1999 I was diagnosed with M.E., and as I had to give up my career as a designer, I was looking for something to fill my days.

With my other passion in life being football, I eventually combined the two, and just over a decade ago began sending my work to an independent LFC site. Before long I was asked to write for a few others, and for the next four or five years I wrote hundreds of pieces for fan sites, obviously for free. I self-published my first book in 2005, shortly after Istanbul, and was asked to write for the official LFC website later that year.

What have the high points of your writing career been?
The first was when my debut book, “Golden Past, Red Future”, topped the football charts on Amazon in June 2005. Not bad for a self-published work. I was already writing a book about Liverpool’s 2004/05 season, so it became the first to deal with Istanbul.

The second was being asked to be a weekly columnist on I was honoured to be asked, and remain grateful to Paul Rogers and Mark Platt for choosing me, and also to Jimmy Rice and Paul Eaton for their support over the years. I held the position for half a decade, and while it ended in a bit of a regrettably sour way – with the likes of Hicks, Gillett, Purslow and a few others leading me to question the kind of club I was writing for – I think it was a mutually beneficial situation for the most part.

Getting to spend one-to-one time with Rafa Benítez and John W Henry were also high points, with the former telling me I knew my stuff – and talking to me as if I did – and the latter saying he’d really enjoyed reading my books in the process of buying the club. If anyone had told me this lay ahead when I was suffering depression after I’d lost my career and my marriage broke down almost a decade earlier, at a time when I thought I had no future, I’d have never believed them. That doesn’t mean that it’s all been plain sailing since then – I’ve had some low points, too – but overall it’s been a rewarding time. I’ve had praise from relatives of Shankly and Dalglish, and it’s stuff like that which makes it feel worthwhile, even if I do attract my share of criticism and spite.

Most recently, being asked to write for Jonathan Wilson’s excellent Blizzard Magazine was another high point.

Is there a piece of work that you’re particularly proud of?
“Dynasty” is my favourite out of my Liverpool books, because I think it’s a unique history of the past five decades of the club. But overall, the “Pay As You Play” project garnered the most attention, and rightly so, even if its appeal was a bit more limited in commercial terms. The work Graeme (Riley) and Gary (Fulcher) did on the book, along with countless other contributors, made it feel like a real team effort. Graeme’s transfer database is outstanding, and it gave me lots of ideas.

Do you often (ever?) re-read your own books?
No, never. I hate reading anything after it’s been published, either online or in print. There’s always a sense that something will be wrong, and you can’t go in and edit it again. Also, your opinions change with time, with the aid of hindsight or wisdom, but certainly in books, it remains there, in black and white. I’m going to have to re-read parts of “Dynasty” in order to update it this summer, but at least I can then attend to any minor mistakes.

You’ve been very open about your illness: do you still get people who accuse you of simply wanting to skive off ‘real’ work or of simply being lazy?
I had that thrown at me recently, on Twitter. “Get a real job”. What I do feels pretty real to me. And after years of scraping by, it now pays like a proper job, too.

The issue with mentioning my illness was always to explain where I’m coming from: why I no longer go to games every week, how it limits my options in life and employment, and how it’s affected my philosophies on life and sport. But writing has been a godsend, in that it’s something I can do on the days when I feel okay, and maybe even do for an hour or two on those when I don’t. I just can’t work office hours, or office weeks, because of the unpredictable nature of the illness. If you overdo it on the days you feel fine, it can take a week to recover.

At least in relation to my energy levels, I think I work harder than many able-bodied people. M.E. actually mostly affects people who are often too driven for their own good: the kind of people who aren’t very good at relaxing and resting when they have a virus, which leads to the genetic damage scientists are now discovering. In many ways, it’s like having a virus constantly switching itself on and off.

Why, in your opinion, do people feel that your writing is so special that they agree to pay to read it?
Well, everyone pays to read other writers’ work: in books, magazines, newspapers, and so on – it’s just not usually a direct transaction between reader and author. I’ve spent a decade writing about football, and feel I’ve been fairly prolific in that time. I’ve also challenged a lot of lazy mainstream media myths on the game, and people appreciate that. I’m not always right, but feel I try a bit harder than the average pundit, and try to back up my theories with evidence.

Some people accuse me of being only about stats, but I try to bring an understanding of the game (as an ex-semi-pro), and understanding of being a fan (as an ex-season ticket holder), my understanding of history (from research) and my understanding of aspects of life, such as psychology and physiology. I aim for a holistic approach, and stats are just part of that.

Yours must be one of the few success stories of paywalls on the internet. How much of a surprise has that been?
I guess there aren’t too many paywalls yet established, but equally, I don’t know that there have been that many failures. We were aiming fairly modestly with numbers on TTT, and it’s now far exceeded that, and passed a level of subscribers that I thought was totally impossible at the outset. It’s less than the cost of a monthly magazine, and there’s lots more to read, given that like-minded people post comments on the site. As I had an established readership who were happy to pay, why not?

I also get a lot of abuse for charging for my work, from people who think the internet should be free, or who think that by charging there’s some kind of deception involved. No-one is forced to subscribe, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to make a living from what I do. People can cancel anytime they want via their Paypal account, but thankfully most choose to stay.

About a year ago, you were quite skeptical about writing new books. What made you change your opinion and led you to co-write Pay as You Play?
Two things. First, the idea was too good to ignore, as I had been growing increasingly interested in the relationship between spending and success. And second, I wasn’t writing it in order to make a living; TTT was providing adequate income, so it was a case of doing something to be proud of.

The stress of writing books to earn your crust – particularly if not a big-name author, or doing so as a second job – is that they sell sporadically, and in limited quantities. My Liverpool books would sell well on release, and after that only really shift a decent amount of units when the team was doing well. Some years I didn’t even make the minimum wage, and having self-published them all, at times I made a loss. Although, looking back, it was all part of the process that led me to where I am today – building up a trusting readership, and a body of work. If you put in the work and it doesn’t reward at the time, it may do further down the line.

I believe that I read that PAYP came about in six months despite a somewhat complex statistical model underlying it. One word: Wow!
We had Graeme’s database in 2009, but didn’t get started on anything book related until spring 2010, after updating it for the 2009/10 season. It was finished by the autumn of 2010, in time to be published in November. The three main authors were working pretty solidly on it for those six months, amongst regular jobs and other commitments, and others were helping to contribute with ideas. Thinking back, it was an incredible effort.

With hindsight, there are further things we could have done had we had more time, but the 2009/10 transfer figures obviously weren’t calculated until after the January 2010 transfer window closed, meaning that we got going around March of that year. Either we got it finished and released in 2010, or delayed it until it was close to when the 2010/11 figures would be ready, and all the data would need updating.

While most of the book doesn’t necessarily date as a piece of history, in that it’s a record of 18 seasons, the CTPP (Current Transfer Purchase Price) alters in relation to the present season’s values. As the whole point was to see what players and teams from previous seasons cost in ‘2010 money’, it would work less well if we were already dealing in ‘2011 money’.

As it happens, after a couple of years of deflation, coinciding with the global recession, 2010/11 has seen a sharp rise in the average cost of a transfer.

Books like ‘Why England Lose’ have obviously had an impact on you as well as most of us. Will football end up like basketball where there is a sub-genre of statistics driven publications?
Football is a good sport for statistics, but not a perfect one; not like cricket or baseball. It’s a fluid team sport, rather than a sport where individuals within the side face of against each other in isolated duels. But there are lots of things that can be quantified, from the obvious – shots, goals, etc – to passes, movements, and so on. But you need to be able to interpret the data, and take stats as part of the whole picture. A player’s penalty conversion rate, for example, is far more straightforward than his pass rate because a successful pass needs another team-mate to be on the same wavelength, or to not totally miss the ball when its sent his way.

An interesting bi-product of our project was that Stefan Szymanski was really positive about ‘Pay As You Play’, given that his ‘Soccernomics/Why England Lose’ was an influence on our work. We exchanged databases, and he found that our transfer findings were very similar to his wage findings.

For all the work that you have done in building your database, there isn’t a predictive side to it. Is that the next challenge: identifying elements of the game that can indicate and lead to better performance?
Zach Slaton of the blog A Beautiful Numbers Game has looked at how much teams need to spend to make the top four; it’s a bit more technical than what we did with the book, using more advanced statistical formulas. For my own work, I try to balance the information with making the work as understandable and accessible as possible, without dumbing down in the process. But it’s also important for people to use the data in more complex ways, to test its robustness.

And as just mentioned, Stefan Szymanski found similar predictive results to that of his wages work. But football will always retain an unpredictable nature – there will always be injuries, bad refereeing decisions, and the loss of form. However, the law of averages suggests that the greater the sample, the less unpredictability brought by such factors.

You have always been highly analytical and statistics driven in your work. How pleasing is it to see Liverpool adopt a similar approach?
I think the Moneyball angle gets slightly overplayed. Both John Henry and Damien Comolli are interested in the value of statistics, but it’s not simply about number-crunching in isolation. Information is power, and the more you research a subject, the more informed your decisions can be. I think that Henry and Comolli – and others at the club – will follow sensible models, but also allow for creative thinking. They’re impressive people.

As someone who was very pro-Rafa Benitez, did you prefer it when Roy Hodgson was in charge and everyone agreed that he needed to go or in Rafa’s final year when there were a number of people constantly attacking you for your belief in the manager?
I didn’t really enjoy either time, to be honest. That said, it did inspire me to do a lot of writing. I did get sick of defending Rafa’s record because the criticism was crazy.

Even in 2008/09, I was bombarded with messages saying he wasn’t good enough, that he blew the title. Even though it was our best points total for 20 years, and our best away record ever. Even though we top-scored in the Premier League, and put four past United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Real Madrid. Even though the side was far cheaper than those of Chelsea and United, and that due to injuries, Torres and Gerrard – whose partnership resulted in the team winning more points than in games in which either or both were absent – could only be paired together 37% of the time. We won 25 out of 38 games, and lost only two; but people ignore the higher number of excellent results and say that a couple of disappointing draws – which happen to every team – cost us the title. Bullshit. After ‘Rafa’s rant’, Liverpool’s record was excellent – 12 wins in the final 15 league games, I think – but that gets forgotten.

If people hated Rafa when he was clearly over-performing, they weren’t going to be happy last season. It was a pretty grim time.

As for Roy Hodgson, some people were so keen to see the back of Rafa, they were happy to welcome in and defend mediocrity. Hodgson has some skills, but they were not suited to Liverpool FC. He felt no-one could do better with the same set of players, and yet Kenny Dalglish has instantly disproved that. I feel that my judgement over the past few years has generally been on the money, but we all make mistakes. History has proven that Purslow dropped a clanger with Hodgson, and it was a difficult time to be a Liverpool fan. Lots to write about, but little to enjoy. Thankfully, things are much better now under Kenny and FSG.

Finally, what should we be expecting from you in the future?
My main priority remains The Tomkins Times. That’s my bread and butter. Further work with the Transfer Price Index is likely, but not another full book at this stage. As mentioned, “Dynasty” needs updating, and that, along with a few other titles, will be converted for Kindle. And I still have the novel to dust down and drag kicking and screaming into the light.

This piece was first published in the May edition of Swinging Balls e-magazine.


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