Australian football statistician Andrew Howe: “I became obsessed with the game but the information was so hard to find”

Howe

As a result of years of meticulous research and diligent data-keeping, Andrew Howe has established himself as the go-to figure for statistical recordkeeping in Australian football.

Having displayed a natural inclination towards numbers from a young age, Howe was able to seamlessly merge his work as a demographer for the Australian Bureau of Statistics with his newfound love of Australian football once the game had endeared itself to him in the late 1980s National Soccer League era.

With the Socceroos celebrating the 100-year anniversary of their first-ever international against New Zealand in 1922, Howe has released an updated version of his book ‘Encyclopedia of Socceroos’ to lineup with the Socceroos’ historic fifth consecutive World Cup qualification.

This ‘Centenary Edition’ of the Encyclopedia documents just over 950 players, including an additional 325 ’non-A’ international players who represented the green and gold in games against international clubs and World XIs.

Sitting down with Soccerscene, Howe discusses his excitement for the release of the Centenary Edition, the links between eras of migration and the impact on the Socceroos, his natural fascination and love for football, and why Australia must embrace both the Indigenous population and newer generations of migrants arriving in the country.

You’ve obviously been privy to the changing landscape of Australia in your role as a demographer for the ABS and have subsequently seen how that has shaped the Socceroos. Where does your fascination for the link between multiculturalism and football stem from?

Andrew Howe: When I grew up in Sydney, in the Shire (good old Shire), I grew up on rugby league as the area is very much an Anglo-Saxon, monocultural area. At twenty-years-old I went to my first NSL game – this was 1988 – which was an Italian derby between APIA and Marconi at Lambert Park in inner Sydney. I went there with a group of mates for something to do on a Sunday and had no idea what I was in for at this packed little venue. There were about 5,000 people there.

APIA had a guest player Francesco Graziani who played for Italy at the 1982 World Cup, and there was just this atmosphere that I’d never experienced at any sporting event or event in general. I was infected by the atmosphere but also, I just wanted to know more about the teams; about these fans. I was used to being in a more monocultural environment and suddenly I’m around people of Italian origins supporting these sides that aren’t necessarily representing Leichardt or Fairfield, they’re more representing these Italian communities.

I just became obsessed with the game but the information was so hard to find, so in a sense, I just started a quest of collecting my own information about football in Australia. Originally the NSL but that verged onto the national teams; the clubs; the players; the stats.

Without a doubt much of your work has been self-motivated, what is the driving force behind you as a statistician?

Andrew Howe: On top of my interest on that multicultural side, is that I’ve always been a stats-y person. As long as I can remember I’ve been into numbers, as a kid (from the sporting side of things) at the end of each round of rugby league games I’d compile a little table on an exercise book as an updated premiership ladder. I don’t really know how to answer that apart from saying it’s an obsession that some people have with numbers, but basically what I did is blend in my data obsession with my sudden and sound love of the round ball code just over 30 years ago.

A statistician and numbers person like to quantify things. People explore their passions for things like football history in different ways by reading, collating, collecting photographs, and talking with historical figures – my bent is the numbers side so I’m really focused on quantifying that history. And we all like to think that football is multicultural, the Australian national team has a history of players coming from different countries and regions within Australia. My bend is to quantify that: how multicultural? How many different countries have Socceroos been born in? How many regional towns and capital cities have had players represent the Socceroos?

2022 obviously marks the Socceroos’ Centenary, hence the book. The Encyclopedia’s release marks this moment, but can you put into words just how important of a companion piece this book is for fans looking for this quantified version of the Socceroos’ history?

Andrew Howe: I guess I’m known as a statistician and a numbers person, and 90% of this book is words. So, it’s basically all 954 players who have played for the men’s team since the first game in 1922 that I have written a short biography for. Within the biography there’s still a handful of stats and then in the back part of the encyclopedia there’s dozens of pages of those stats that a lot of us like to look through in terms of the basic numbers for each player. But there are also tables which track where players have come from in terms of birthplaces. And also mapping out the players’ careers in terms of the clubs they were at in the period that they played for Australia, plus an analysis of how those clubs have changed over time.

It wasn’t until 1987 that an overseas-based player was selected to play for Australia. Historically, Sydney, Brisbane, and the coal mining areas based around those two cities – the Hunter, Illawarra, Ipswich – was where the bulk of player selections came from. Obviously, as more Australian players have moved overseas the balance has tipped to more overseas-based players being selected.

As someone who has been privy to many significant Socceroos moments in your life, which have been some of your favourites?

Andrew Howe: When you’re falling in love you remember those moments from the first few years. For me it’s getting over 30 years, so you’ve seen all of this before in a way, but I mean the penalty shootout victory over Peru – I never thought we’d see something like that again so that was just a magic moment. Obviously, the John Aloisi goal in 2005 is a magic moment as well, I was standing behind that goal amongst the green and gold fans going crazy that night.

1993 when Australia played Argentina in the final playoff game, we got really close. Obviously, Argentina is a massive name and made the final of the 1990 World Cup, and we were playing them for that final spot for USA ‘94. That was a great night, 1-1 draw at Sydney Football Stadium first leg.

My first game was Australia vs Hadjuk Split and that was an eye-opener not just because of the colour of the Croatian fans (there was a clear minority of supporters going for Australia). What was really interesting about that Hadjuk Split tour is that it took place as things were heating up in former Yugoslavia as it led up to Croatia declaring their independence. I remember the Hadjuk players lining up before the game with the Yugoslav red star symbol on their jerseys, turning to face the crowd and symbolically ripped their emblems off. It was such a fascinating moment and I really felt the passion. I knew those Croatians weren’t not going for Australia, they were going for Hadjuk, but I also know the Croatians have been the biggest supplier of Australian national team talent per ‘head’.

Having closely observed Australian football for substantial period of your life, what do you believe is essential for Australian football to get right over the next few years?

Andrew Howe: Just the old thing of taking advantage of that high participation and inclusive participation. We have a lot of people playing the game, a lot of kids playing the game, and it’s a lot more of a unisex game than the other football codes. Obviously the overseas born multicultural aspect of it, those recent migrant communities in particular that can be connected by football. And just building on that wholesomeness about our game and taking advantage of that more financially.

We are the most unisex of all the football codes but we still fall behind particularly in Indigenous participation and – thinking about those overseas migrant groups – for the past 20-30 years our major source countries have been China and India and we haven’t got much of an input into those communities. And also, in regional Australia, there are great growth areas here that the game can take advantage of.

How are you feeling about the release of this Centenary Edition of the Encyclopedia? Why do you feel this is an important milestone for you personally?

Andrew Howe: Being the 100-year anniversary it’s obviously a perfect time for such a historical overview of the men’s national team. This is the second edition following the first edition released four years ago in the lead-up to the 2018 World Cup. Now, what we had in that first edition was a biography for every ‘A’ international player, and there were around 600 of those at the time who had played for Australia in an ‘A’ international match.

For the Centenary Edition, I’ve not just updated the current and more recent players, but I’ve also added biographies for all 325 non ‘A’ international players. These are players who essentially played against club teams, and also some higher profile representative teams. For example, in 1999 Australia played a World Star team at the opening of Stadium Australia in Sydney, where the Australians played against a very prestigious international select but it wasn’t an official ‘A’ international.

So, what I’ve done now is capture all of the information from those non ‘A’ international games which were mostly played in the first few decades from the 1920s through to the 1950s. And the variety of players who have played for Australia in those games is just fascinating. Even in the early decades we had players born all over the world. Players born in Egypt, Guyana in northern South America, the United States, Switzerland, and so on. This international connection has been there from the start and it wasn’t just the United Kingdom in those first few decades. Getting those stories out and learning about some of these players, such as one who passed away in the Second World War aged just 23, and one who spent 10 years in Israel as a co-founder of the Israeli Air Force, is just fascinating and people will be able to read about them when the Encyclopedia of Socceroos Centenary is out.

The Encyclopedia of Socceroos Centenary Edition is available now, via Fair Play Publishing www.fairplaypublishing.com.au.

Noddy: The Untold Story of Adrian Alston – a review of Philip Micallef’s book

When former Socceroo great, Adrian Alston, took a leap of faith and departed Preston in the north of England and ventured to Wollongong in January 1968, he could never have imagined how his life would change forever.

However, Jim Kelly, the former Blackpool and England B international, who had played with the late and great Sir Stanley Matthews, knew his man and was instrumental in the new life Alston forged for him and his family.

Kelly had become part of football folklore on the South Coast after South Coast United defeated favourites Apia Leichhardt 4-0 in the 1963 NSW Federation Grand Final in front of an Australian record club crowd of 30,500.

Consequently, when Kelly brought his prodigy to the South Coast of NSW, he unknowingly created a football pathway for Alston which he still reflects on with immense pride and gratitude.

There is a constant message in the book, written by Philip Micallef, that Alston never forgot the people who assisted him in rising to the highest level of football, fulfilled by playing all over the globe and representing his chosen country in 37 full internationals, including the World Cup Finals of 1974 in Germany.

When Alston was selected in his first international against Greece in 1969, he stated he was no longer a Pommie – but green and gold through and through.

Critically, he knew that Australia was now the place he would always call home and after travelling the world with the Socceroos, playing in the 1974 World Cup Finals  in Germany and  in the English 1st Division with Luton Town, rubbing shoulders with the greats of world football including Pele, Beckenbauer, Chinaglia, Rodney Marsh, George Best and Johan Cruyff in the North American Soccer League before a serious injury forced him to retire from playing at the tender age of thirty, this fact became more evident.

Ironically, when he returned to England after his playing career finished, Alston really couldn’t settle down  and when his young son, Adrian junior, asked when the family was returning to Australia, it was enough to influence Alston and his family to jet back to Wollongong.

Life after football can be very challenging for some but Alston took to coaching like a duck to water and the book documents in detail his coaching stints in the Illawarra during the 1980’s and 1990’s where he achieved considerable success.

However, his greatest loyalty was to the 1974 Socceroo squad and the last chapter of the book is devoted to his coach, the late Rale Rasic.

This book is just not about the footballer, Noddy Alston, but the man who took a chance in life to explore new surroundings when he came to Australia to begin the voyage of a lifetime.

There are a number of subplots in the book which make fascinating reading like Noddy’s procurement of Franz Beckenbauer’s shirt before the Socceroo’s World Cup match against West Germany in 1974.

The book will not only appeal  to people who followed Noddy’s career closely but to supporters of the game who admire determination and God given ability in professional footballers.

For those who don’t know Noddy’s story, particularly the younger generation and those who are the standard bearers of our game, it’s a must read.

Strategic Plan 2023-2026 launched by Football West

Football West Strategic Plan

Football West recently announced the launch of their 2023-2026 Strategic Plan, a documentation affiliated with Football Australia’s One Football Strategy that will set the direction for football in Western Australia for the coming years.

The plan will see Football West improve the game under five essential departments:

  • Participants and Clubs
  • Elite Teams and Pathways
  • Fans
  • Unifying Football
  • Asia and the Sam Kerr Football Centre

Participants and Clubs

The first pillar has the aim to make Football the most accessible sport in Western Australia where everyone can play anytime, anywhere.

There are key targets set such as: Increase registrations by 5% per annum, increase participation by 3% per annum and have 95% of clubs and associations with a completed affiliation agreement (presently 82%).

Another key focus is the development of women and girls football which isn’t surprising after the recent Women’s World Cup success. Football West set a goal of 42,500 additional women & girls playing football across the three year plan.

Elite Teams and Pathways

This pillar focuses simply on the development of talent at all ages in a bid to improve the quality of the game in Western Australia.

The focus areas are Delivery of a state-wide Football West Academy program, Frequent and consistent talent identification opportunities and High quality coach development pathway

Fans

Football West is focusing on optimising the fan experience and grassroots to improve attendance numbers and social media engagement.

Unifying Football

They will develop a resourcing model that allows for the servicing of responsibilities between Football Australia and Football West, formalised in a Service Agreement

Asia and the Sam Kerr Football Centre

Football West will look to improve international exchanges with Asian countries and use the Sam Kerr Football Centre to secure sponsorships and play big matches there by 2026.

Football West Chairman Sherif Andrawes mentioned the vision that the federation has for the future of football across all levels.

“We are excited to present the Strategic Plan to the WA football community. This is a vision that will see football move forward in tandem with Football Australia but with a strong WA focus,” Andrawes said in a statement.

“Football is in a great position across the state. We saw during the FIFA Women’s World Cup and, more recently, when the CommBank Matildas played in Perth, that our sport is unique in its widespread appeal. This passion can be felt across all areas of the game.

“We want to be bold and ambitious, and the Strategic Plan gives us a strong base from which to deliver on that.”

Football West CEO Jamie Harnwell was excited to announce how the Strategic Plan would be implemented successfully.

“This Strategic Plan is a real statement of intent and one we are proud to deliver. Harnwell mentioned in a Football West statement.

“Football is more popular than it has ever been in Western Australia, in terms of participation, inclusivity and popularity, and we should all be proud of this. However, we cannot rest on our laurels.

“As a governing body, we want to make our game even more accessible, so we can inspire a new generation to love football. That comes through hard work, consultation and direction, all of which are key to the Strategic Plan.”

The Strategic Plan is well set out and focuses on the current struggles the federation is having at grassroots level. Partnering closely with Football Australia will help them achieve the ambitious goals set out to improve both the state and national foundation.

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