A Tutorial with the Professor - Steve Palmer
Steve Palmer talks to Geoff Wicken about numbers, innovations, and a different kind of life in football
Steve Palmer was one of the heroes of the second Graham Taylor era. His six years at Watford began just prior to Graham’s return, and – more than 250 appearances later – he left the club shortly after the manager had departed. Talking to him, it’s good to learn that his memories are as fond as those of any fan, and that he has become a Watford supporter just like the rest of us.
He is however unique. He’s the only professional footballer in the modern era to have a Cambridge degree. His subject was software engineering – he was inevitably called ‘The Professor’ by his team-mates – and this background has led to his subsequent career path. Today Steve works for the Premier League, as its Head of Data Solutions. It seems an ideal role for him. As he describes it: “I can combine my software and data knowledge with my football knowledge by helping our member clubs with their performance technology. These days the players are tracked all over the pitch – you can see how far they’ve run, how fast they’ve been running – and we have all these measures on the players to help keep them fit and stop them getting injured. I have the rather nice job of helping the clubs with that.”
At Steve’s invitation, we’re meeting at the Premier League’s offices near Paddington station, to which he commutes from his home in Watford every day. Given his current role, he’s the ideal guide to how information and other measures to impact team performance were used during his time at Watford. What were Graham Taylor’s methods for giving Watford an edge?
‘Trapping the back post’
Graham had been known – and pilloried in some quarters – for his use of match analysis in the 1980s. It still formed part of his methods, as Steve explains: “I was aware – as we all were – of Graham’s interest in statistics from his first iteration at Watford. He taught us that for every goal you needed ten shots, of which four were likely to be on target, and one would be a goal. He’d get the flip chart out and tell us how many shots we’d had in games, how many were on target, and so on. You knew that if you had ten shots you’d be unlikely to lose a game.
“I have a distinct memory of it being used when we were just back in the Championship after the Premier League season. We started off and couldn’t stop winning. He was saying to us: ‘Look, your performances aren’t meriting the results that you’re getting – you’re not having enough shots or crosses, you’re not having enough of these opportunities to sustain what’s happening.’ During that run we were maybe only having two shots on goal and they were both going in. We continued getting results that weren’t appropriate for the way we were performing all through that season. In the first half it worked for us; in the second half it didn’t. It all averaged out somewhere around the middle – you could call it regression to the mean – and we didn’t get into the Play-Offs in the end.
“Graham was also very aware of the importance of set-pieces. A high proportion of goals come from set-pieces, so he’d place an emphasis on free-kicks. He would also focus on what he’d call ‘trapping the back post’. Think of a cross coming in: if you get yourself six yards out by the back post, balls will come across there. He made sure there was always someone doing that. In Kenny Jackett’s year as team manager, we were training once at Vicarage Road, and I remember Graham watching from the stand and running down in his suit to berate us that in our crossing practices no-one was trapping the back post.”
We discuss the level of detailed information to which Graham might have had access – in the 1980s he would get ten-page reports on individual matches. “That sort of depth wasn’t given to us as players. The use of information was at a relatively high level, but it was important to the games.
Graham was clever because he distilled it a way that was appropriate for us – shooting, getting it on target. Every Watford player who played for Graham would be aware of trapping the back post. That’s how you got those tap-ins.”
Those counts of moments that happen in a game are now commonly known as ‘event data’. The other type of data that clubs use today is tracking information: how far and how fast players run. Again Watford were ahead of the curve, as Steve relates. “Graham was quite innovative with the consultants he brought in. We had a physiologist who’d come in and take our blood, fit us with heart-rate monitors and give us readings. Graham was looking at those kinds of things in the late 1990s. Heart rate measurement had become more prevalent by the time I was with QPR. In the mid-2000s GPS devices were the next iteration, and today we’re into optical systems – that’s my job now!”
Steve reflects on how thinking has moved on: “The emphasis for us then was on how fit we could be; now every club has a team of 20 sports scientists and the emphasis is on injury prevention and making sure people aren’t overtraining. At times we had to overtrain – and Graham did use this word – to go to the next level of fitness, and that doesn’t necessarily happen any more. There’s an interesting balance I think between pushing yourself into another level of fitness or staying at a safe level. Where is the line? Everyone talks about pressing at the moment; you can only press if you’re super-super fit, but if you overtrain are you going to get injured? We were definitely in the overtraining category. There was no means at that time of seeing how far and how fast people were running, as the technology just wasn’t there.”
Innovating and motivating
Steve recalls a number of other Graham Taylor innovations. Several centred around the 1999 promotion push: “In the run to the Play-Offs, Gary Johnson was youth team manager and Graham installed him as set-piece manager for the first team. It was to give a different voice. So Gary took on responsibility for our set-pieces at that time. That included the penalties; we were aware of what might be coming.
“He also brought in the ‘mad psychologist’. Ciaran Cosgrove certainly had an impact on us across those 2-3 months and was part of that gelling experience. It was very different for us at that time to be in a classroom setting. The dressing room wasn’t convinced at the start – what’s this all about? – so it helped Ciaran’s work that we were winning, and people went with it. Getting people to speak – giving out thoughts on non-footballing things – was a bit different. It generally didn’t happen at that time in a dressing room. So there were different strands to what he did. Another time – I think when we were in the Premier League – a hypnotherapist came in, to see if there was anything in that. He had different consultants coming in with different ideas. I don’t think many other clubs were doing that sort of thing at that time, although he’d been doing things back in the 1970s for sure.”
Another of Graham’s interventions in the spring of 1999 had its effect too. “We’d had a poor run of results and were mid-table. As you came into the training ground there was a noticeboard, and one morning Graham had put a notice on the board saying – I’ll paraphrase a little – ‘Boys, eight league games to go equals twenty-four points; twenty-four points equals a Play-Off position; two Play-Off wins means a Play-Off final at Wembley; a win at Wembley means the Premier League. I believe that you can do this. Do you believe you can do it? And if you do it, I’ll buy you all a drink.’ None of us believed it – at that stage. But we went into the next game and we won, and then went into the next game and we won again, so mindsets are changing a little now. Game three we won. Game four we won. Somewhere in the middle of this we had a draw, but we won seven of the last eight games which got us into the Play-Off semi-finals, and things carried on from there. To put up something like that was different. I’d not come across that before. It was all part of the psychology of it, as Ciaran would tell you, but Graham was the best psychologist of all. There was no question that he knew how to communicate with people.
“Individually he treated people in a way that was appropriate for them. He dealt with you personally and privately. If someone wasn’t applying themselves, or wasn’t behaving right, then that could be a public show. He would do slightly different things. For one pre-season photo, a bit of high-jinks went on which he found about. Soon after, we had a warm-up game somewhere in the Midlands. The game finished, we all got back on the bus, and he said to the two players concerned: ‘there’s an interview I need you to do with the press over there’. So off they got, and off we went on the bus, leaving them behind. So he had ways of making his point. I only remember the teacups once, away at Crewe at half-time, a tray of tea flying across the dressing room! I’m quite pleased that I experienced that once in my time! It wasn’t directed at me fortunately. But he knew when these things were appropriate – you can’t do that sort of thing every week or it would lose its impact.”
After hearing his precise descriptions of Graham’s measures and their impact, it’s no surprise to learn that Steve thought carefully about his own playing career too. Football was always his plan, despite his academic abilities: “I grew up in Brighton, and was associated with Brighton and Hove Albion. My parents were teachers, and encouraged me to stay on in education. Brighton also encouraged me. Alan Mullery was the manager of Brighton at this time, and I never worked out whether he didn’t really think I was good enough, or whether he thought it was the best thing for me to go to university, but he encouraged me as well. It was quite an easy decision in the end – my parents were saying yes, the football club was saying yes, so that was how it ended up. But the passion of the little boy to be a footballer was still there, that’s what I really wanted to do.”
Once his professional career started, Steve had a goal. “I was on a mission as a player to play 500 league games. I’d had a different route in, and given that I was in a football environment I wanted to be respected as a footballer, not because of what else I’d done. I had in my mind from day one that if you‘ve played 500 league games you’ve had a good career. So my approach throughout was just to be in the team, and I didn’t really mind where I played. I played 500 league games, just, and then retired. All told I played 586 professional games, and one first-class cricket game. That was for the university against Lancashire. I was bowled out by the England bowler Paul Allott, and with my bowling I managed to get Graham Fowler, who was the England opening batsman at the time, out LBW!”
Steve famously wore all 14 numbered shirts during the 1997/98 season, which helped in pursuit of his goal. “I found certain positions easier than others. I was most comfortable playing down the middle of the pitch, as I had done when I was growing up. When I was playing out wide I had to think about where I was, and I didn’t enjoy it quite as much. At Ipswich I was taught to play as a holding midfield player, and that’s where I was most comfortable. Watford, and doing my coaching badges, which I started in my late 20s, taught me to play centre half. So I learned how to play there, but it wasn’t natural for me at first, as I didn’t know my position well enough. But my emphasis was just to be in the team.”
At the point when it looked as if Steve might not have a future in Watford’s team, he chose to move on. This coincided with Graham’s retirement in 2001. “That summer there was a big transition. Graham left, the new manager was announced, and the club changed for a while. At that point, on this mission to play my games, if the club didn’t want me any more, then I would go to a club that did want me to play for them. And to be fair to the club’s directors at that time, I was helped on my way because of what I had contributed to Watford. I was let go reasonably easily. I went to QPR, who were in administration at the time, so there wasn’t much money around there. If QPR were promoted while I was playing for them, then I think some money would come to Watford.”
A Watford man
Today Steve regards Watford as where he belongs. He played more games for Watford than any other club, yet for all his methodical approach he feels an emotional bond. “I like my numbers. I would have liked to play 300 games for Watford. I didn’t quite manage that but, as I look back, that was my club. Of all my clubs, I’m closest to Watford. I live there now, so the children are Watford supporters. I very much value and enjoy my association with the club now.
“I’m fortunate in where I work. I see a range of games, and I go to Watford as a supporter. I’m finally starting to get the emotion of football back again now. I’ve had 30 years of not being emotionally involved in football, but I went to the Aston Villa home game at Christmas, and I really wanted Watford to win. It was regression back to my childhood; I got emotionally involved in that game. It’s great, I’m really pleased.”
It seems the perfect place to finish our conversation. The Professor may be analytical, statistically-minded and clear-thinking, but he’s revealed that in the end he’s become like one of us – a Watford supporter who gets wrapped up in wanting his team to do well.