There are a couple of issues around personal records for footballers which I often think could be tidied up with some easy calculations. One of them is seen in the question of appearances, and the other can be “spotted” in the case of penalties scored.
For appearances, it seems that modern players are constantly breaking records for club or country. In the case of internationals (and this is true for rugby and cricket as well) it is clearly easier to play games these days compared to the number of matches years ago, because of all the extra friendlies and competitions with long qualifying rounds. Now we can hardly complain about this. or turn the clock back, but when people talk about all-time records it would useful maybe to add in a percentage figure for the proportion of eligible matches played. In cricket this obviously involves aggregates of runs and wickets: I wonder how Fred Trueman’s records (first to 300 Test wickets, if I recall) would compare with those modern bowlers who have overtaken him. This sort of thing should be easily worked out in cricket, one of the most stats-obsessed sports.
In football the “number of appearances” issue is further clouded by the possibility of substitutions in the modern era. Quite apart from the way that many players come on for half an hour (some of them deliberately deployed as impact subs), how many times have we seen tactical substitutions with two or three minutes left, or even deep into stoppage time. The guy hardly has time to take up position before the final whistle goes. Yet it’s an “appearance”.
When I worked in departments keeping check of staff we used to talk in terms of “full-time equivalent” (fte) posts. Someone who worked for three days of five was working 60% of time, or 0.6 fte. So you could work out how well staffed departments were even if they had a number of part-time staff, and compare them across the board.
If football appearances were worked out in the same way, it might give a better indication of how record-breaking players like Ryan Giggs (for whom I have a great admiration!) compare to former players. Just a thought…
In the same spirit (but much less informally) it might be interesting to work out goal-scorers’ success without the added boost of penalties. I haven’t got the figures to prove it, but once upon a time (when I were a lad!) penalties were hammered in by beefy defenders. At some fairly recent point strikers have taken over the duties (the wonderful Bill Edgar wrote an article on this in the Times last year). So people like Rooney or Shearer have scored scores from the spot, and again become record-breakers.
Now, it is clearly easier to score a penalty than from open play. I’m not saying it’s easy; or that “me missus could do it”: simply that if you look at the stats (and the fact that we are all surprised at a miss) it is far easier to score from 12 yards with only the goalie there. So I wonder what the records would look like if we gave (say) 0.5 fte goal for a penalty. The trouble is, of course, that that in itself is an arbitrary way of counting things – though perhaps something more sophisticated could be worked out. Again, it’s just a thought, not designed to revolutionise the record books but just to add another layer of meaning to the very bald statistics we so often get.