By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
It became a routine in Barclays Premier League press boxes. John Ley would walk in and a dozen or so football writers would wait for Statman (with apologies to Angus Loughran) to reveal the gems behind Portsmouth versus Bolton Wanderers.
While Ley was working for the Daily Telegraph there remains a camaraderie within the competitive world of journalism and he was happy to share the fact that it could be the first time Portsmouth have won five home matches in succession or whatever with other writers. On a freezing winter’s night when Fleet Street’s finest (and coldest) have witnessed the delights of a goal-less draw with no obvious ‘line’ a superstat can mean a welcome intro.
Within the industry Ley is known as the stats king and having worked with him for 20 years on the Telegraph I witnessed first-hand the time and effort he puts into knowing, within seconds, how many times Patrick Vieira or Roy Keane had been cautioned.
It all started when Ley was 15 and joined Hayters, arranging the telephones at Spurs and Arsenal for national newspapers who had booked lines through the agency (a task writers who have only lived in the mobile age will no doubt find quaint). Ley said: ‘Two years later Tony Roche, until recently the Sun’s rugby correspondent and whose son Daniel plays Ben in Outnumbered, told me there was a full-time job going. I got it, £19 a week, and one of the reporters I worked closely with was Albert Sewell, now an FWA life member.
‘Albert was in charge of Hayters’ stats and they had books going back to the 50s detailing every team’s results. This was before the days of the Rothmans yearbook and I was asked to keep the stats books up to date. Albert used to be part of the backroom team of Match of the Day and Des Lyman used to call him Uncle Albert…he was the godfather of football stats.
‘When I left Hayters to join the Oxford Mail I started to keep details of all the club’s sides from the first team to the youth team. When Oxford reached the top flight in 1985 I kept records of all the teams in the First Division. I found this very useful for previews and match reports so when I joined the Daily Telegraph in 1987 I extended this to all 92 clubs, the Home international teams and referees.
‘I don’t think anyone else was doing this and again the stats were very helpful for me and my Telegraph colleagues. I used to compile team news on Fridays, which I still do, and the stats helped.’
The internet has made such information readily available to everyone but Ley still keeps his own records of Barclays Premier League clubs, including cautions, sending-offs, suspensions and players’ injuries ‘because it is much easier to have them at my fingertips.’
Ley estimates he spends up to six hours a week – almost a full working day – of his own time compiling his stats. When he goes on holiday the book goes with him so he can update every day. ‘I have to because if I fall behind it would be so difficult to catch up.’
He has promised his wife Linda that Christmas Day will be stats-free but come Boxing Day it will be business as usual.
Football writers pride themselves on a famous scoop but Ley looks back with equal pride at being the first to discover that in 2001 the Barclays Premier League was soon to see its 10,000th goal.
He said: ‘I rang the Premier League who were unaware of it. Barclays agreed to donate £10,000 to the charity of the choice of the player who scored the 10,000th goal. It was Les Ferdinand for Spurs and I was proud to have helped a deserving charity in such a way.’
Ley’s professionalism in the world of stats has been recognised by the League Managers Association who contact him if they are trying to prove a point on managerial sackings or if a member is approaching his 1,000th game in charge. He said: ‘That’s quite an achievement these days because managers don’t stay around as long as they used to. There is one manager, who I shan’t name, who is convinced he’s in the 1,000 Club but he isn’t because international matches don’t count. The criteria as far as the LMA are concerned are games played in domestic and European football but not internationals. David Pleat has said to me he should return to management so he can reach 1,000, he is just short at the moment.
‘My big regret is that I didn’t set up a web site in the early days because I would probably have been quite wealthy by now.’
I was expecting Ley to reveal, to the nearest pence, how wealthy but instead he is happy. However, he had initial doubts about his new role of senior production journalist at the Telegraph. Going inside to take a subbing job after 35 years on the road was not something Ley wanted or was looking forward to but he is delighted to have been proved wrong.
He said: ‘I was horrified that the Telegraph needed to lose a football reporter for economic reasons. Because I’d been there for 24 years they offered me alternative employment. It meant retraining, changing the way I worked and my hours. As a reporter I was occasionally very critical of a sub who had changed my copy but I now have a greater understanding of the demands of working in the office. I believe every writer should have a spell as a sub to appreciate the other side of the business. I love it, the team spirit in the office is terrific and everyone has helped me settle in.’
On a match night Ley will sub a report not just for the next day’s paper but also to go on the web site. He said: ‘I probably have 10 minutes to sub the runner [first edition report filed on the whistle] after it’s arrived before it goes to the revise sub for checking. For the second edition rewrite which includes quotes I probably have 45 minutes. The buzz I get from doing this has replaced the buzz I had when I covered games. I still write and I think subbing has made me a tighter, better writer.’
Having been both poacher and gamekeeper Ley is sensitive to altering copy. He said: ‘I only change if I have to, if the reporter has made a mistake which is understandable when writing under pressure.’
Ley, who now talks about widow’s breaks and stand-firsts instead of having to file 500 words by half-time, will have an hour for dinner early in the evening but not for him reading a book or listening to some music before returning to his screen. He spends the time keeping his records up to date.
Unsurprisingly, Ley has a full set of Rothmans/Sky Sports yearbooks, now in their 42nd year – ‘my most prized possession after my wife and kids.’ he joked.
At least I think he was joking.