Lincoln City FC's fairytale FA Cup run has been English football's most romantic story since Leicester City's title charge the previous season. Wins against Championship side Brighton and Premier League team Burnley saw Danny and Nicky Cowley's Conference team in the quarter-finals of English football's biggest cup competition, bowing out only to Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium.
Outside of the FA Cup, though, Lincoln have been storming the Conference, with the side currently top of the league with two games in hand. The progressive management approach at the club has been widely documented, with an interest in analytics not necessarily ubiquitous in the lower ranks of the English footballing pyramid. For an insight into the working practices of analytics teams in English football, we spoke to Luke Jelly, Lincoln City first team's Lead Sports Scientist. Luke has been at the club for just under a year, and spoke to us about the club's commitment to analytics and its practical applications for the team.
How did you get started in your career?
Whilst studying for my masters at the University of Bedfordshire I showed an interest in working with elite athletes. This led me to contact different individuals in sports science and strength and conditioning. I had two work experience placements, one at Northants cricket shadowing Mike Ferrandino working with the academy cricketers, with the other placement working alongside Steve Fruer who is a strength and conditioning coach working with elite level junior swimmers. Due to the experience I had gained I successfully applied for a season long work experience at Peterborough United FC for the 2015/2016 season, which started my career in football.
Since you’ve been at Lincoln city, how has the club’s use of analytics developed?
I started at the club in June 2016 with the new management team and there were no objective analytics in place. We started by implementing a subjective daily well-being monitoring, looking at sleep hours, sleep quality, muscle soreness, stress and mood. This enabled us to adapt the individual player loads relative to their physical and mental wellbeing.
As well as this, I apply the work of Tim Gabbett by collecting training stress balance values, allowing us as a department to monitor each players load using the session time multiplied by session RPE to give a training unit for the session and games. Through this we are able to monitor weekly and four weekly load (acute/chronic values). Although subjective, we believe that the players give us an honest value for the session; this has helped the management with squad rotation and individualising training load itself.
We also use statisticians from a company called ICoach4Sport for all our games. They provide in game statistics to the management based upon certain criteria which is directly linked to the playing method. They inform us at half time and full time and remain entirely objective which can be highly informative to us as staff and for the management. They have designed a bespoke statistical package which rates each player based on certain values and positional requirements. They will then come in and present the whole game’s findings on a Monday or a Thursday debriefing the game, taking all emotion out of it. Alongside these, the management spend a significant amount of time on wyscout and HUDL to code games and for player and opposition analysis.
How seriously is sports science and analytics taken in the lower divisions?
I think it all stems from the managers. Luckily Danny and Nicky Cowley are very forward thinking and have openly embraced sports science as a provision. They make it a crucial part of the day to day running at the club which helps with player buy in. They love to see the in game stats and post-match analysis. They are also keen to see player well-being and player training load and make informative decisions from the numbers we provide them with. It helps plan training session time and in busy periods has been used to inform them of possible minutes for high load players.
However it’s not always accessible to all teams as some of the analytics are very expensive and can be time consuming for staff, especially if you have limited staffing available, they may sometimes see work in other areas as more important.
How much of Lincoln’s current success do you think is down to working with the numbers?
I wouldn’t like to take anything away from the lads out on the pitch because they’ve been fantastic for us, but it’s helped the management make intelligent decisions, be it through the statistical analysis from the ICoach4Sport game breakdown or the player load/wellbeing monitoring we do. Because of this we tailor each individual training session and get the most out of each player in them sessions. As a result of this, we can maintain a high chronic training load which means we have fit, robust athletes. This supported with a continuous and structured conditioning program has meant we have had very few non-contact soft tissue injuries to date. This has enabled the management to have an almost complete squad to choose from for each game.
For clubs with smaller budgets, how can they deliver maximum results without the financial strength that a premier league team has?
Get as far as you can in the FA Cup and hope the club allows you to spend a very small portion on the Sport Science and Medicine department! And also we rely on volunteers who help the department and management with the video analysis and stats…
I think it’s all about utilising what you’ve got, we having a saying at the club is that our aim ‘is to be a working class version of a Premier League club.’ We’re lucky as we’re not blessed with great facilities but we’ve got very good people with very good ideas which always helps. We as a department are constantly listening to podcasts or going to CPD events and listening how things are done at different clubs at different levels. We will spend at least one afternoon a week researching on social media other departments and what they have done or are doing. Not all publicise their work, but the ones that do tend to show good examples of applied sport science and analytics.
At this point I could really go into detail about the stats company we use, because we’re not lucky enough to be able to afford things like prozone or other coding and analytics programs. Toby and Matt emailed the management about helping them out at the start of the season with an idea they had, from that they’ve designed a real in depth stats program tailored to our needs and our method. Both Toby and Matt work voluntary for the club and it can take between 10-12 hours of work running the stats on the game and creating their presentation.
What technologies would you like to see made available for lower league clubs?
From the perspective of a sport scientist it would be ideal if we could have objective load monitoring data available to us. GPS analysis would be massive as it can cover the physical aspects of the game and training, from this we can make better-informed decisions on the training pitch be it for a conditioning purpose or looking into detail at session content.
Not only has it been shown to effect this aspect, with technologies like Catapult open field, it can do all the training stress balance equations in one cloud format, as opposed to spending all post training session downloading data or creating data from subjective athlete values. This would result in more staffing time to work with athletes and less time on computer spreadsheets inputting formulas.