The BBC recently broadcast a live Friday night game between Exeter City and Liverpool in the 3rd round of the FA Cup. The entertaining match finished 2-2, with a Liverpool team consisting mostly of debuting teenagers twice going behind, before showing admirable resolve to secure a replay. The “magic” of the “world’s oldest cup competition” – as the BBC never tires of alluding to – was supposedly on display, as a capacity crowd cheered on the plucky underdogs against one of the world’s biggest clubs, although the credibility of this claim is stretched to breaking point considering the discrepancy in the levels of experience of both teams. In truth, it was a decent football match but no better than numerous others played out in the Football League each week. The magic of the occasion was undoubtedly provided by the crowd, as Exeter’s St. James’ Park was full at the prospect of the history books recording an upset against a seldom-played opposition, even if they were mostly unknowns.
Fans of both teams are essential for creating an atmosphere at a game. But in the clamour to get as many television viewers for their Friday night slot as possible, the BBC and the FA completely forgot about the inconvenience bestowed upon Liverpool’s travelling fans. As was pointed out on the Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast, if the fans wished to travel to and from the game by public transport on the same day, they would have to had left before the game was over. Being a dedicated football fan can be a thankless task, especially if your team doesn’t travel well, which can lead many to wonder ‘is it worth it?’ This is especially true on a rainy morning in the depths of winter, when the alarm clock beckons you out of bed for the day-long schlep across the country to follow a team who may not play well on the road. But Liverpool fans are luckier than most in this respect because, as we shall see, their position of privilege near the top of the football pyramid means that Liverpool do long distance travel really rather well.
Exploring the myth: is home advantage is real?
This question is not new, and was addressed in The Numbers Game by Chris Anderson and David Sally. They concluded that it does prove to be an advantage to the tune of a 0.6 goal head start per game. But just to settle the matter (in the unlikely event it needed settling), I can prove it here.
I have looked at data from the top four divisions of English football over the last five and a half seasons, since the start of the 2010/2011 season, a total of 11,261 league games (to 3rd January 2016). In that time, home teams have amassed 17,468 points, or 1.55 points per game, compared to the away total of 13,271, which equates to 1.18 points per game.
Points per Game (PpG) at home vs. away, aggregated
Most successful away teams dominated by the wealthy
The wealthiest clubs in the country are the most successful travellers, with the top five clubs by PpG away from home being widely regarded as the favoured candidates for the top five positions in the Premier League each season, with another big club, the aforementioned Liverpool, also in the top 10. This hegemony is understandable when we consider that, unlike other successful teams in the last five and a half years, for example any team that is promoted, these clubs’ games do not get tougher because they do not move up a division. So, if they are successful one season, they are likely to be successful the next season, thus solidifying their position at the top; it is no coincidence that these five clubs also have the best home records in the last five and a half seasons, along with Liverpool in sixth.
Non-Premier League teams to join the list of the best travellers over the last five and a half seasons include Southend (1.5 PpG away from home), Wycombe (1.40 PpG), Watford (only recently a Premier League club, 1.40 PpG) and Brentford (1.40 PpG). Special mention should go to Wycombe here, who have almost identical home and away records, with Adams Park contributing only marginally more PpG than games away from home (1.41 vs. 1.40). The only teams with better home records than away in the last five and a half years are Cambridge and Hereford, although it should be noted that these teams have both spent time outside the football league in this time, and so have smaller sample sizes.
Points per Game (PpG) at home vs. away (dashed line represents equilibrium)
Conclusively then, home games are more profitable than away games over the course of the season (unless you support Wycombe). But looking deeper into the away stats, is there an argument to say that not all away games are created equal? A theory goes that with a longer journey a type of fatigue kicks in, although this should be disproven by the fact that professional footballers are not walking to the ground but tend to arrive in relative comfort. However, the distance of travel, being further from home with a long journey back awaiting you, not to mention a hostile home crowd, could have an impact psychologically, making the support of the away fans all the more valuable. The question I’m interested in is does travelling long distances affect a team’s performance, compared to the relatively short away trips to a local rival? Ultimately, as a football fan, is it worth the 12-hour round-trip to Hartlepool on a Tuesday night in February?
Long trips vs. short trips: methodology
The first thing to consider is to define what ‘a long trip’ means. The 167.4 miles between the Stadium of Light and Villa Park will seem like a long journey for the Midlands-based Aston Villa, but for Sunderland fans it will represent one of the shorter distances travelled when compared to trips into London and beyond.
For this analysis, I have divided all the away games played by each of the teams in the top four divisions (11,261 games since the start of 2010/2011) into games that exceed their average distance travelled in that time, and those which are shorter. For example, Preston North End’s average distance travelled in the last 127 away games is 115.6 miles, and so a trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers (84.9 miles) is a short trip, whereas Peterborough’s London road exceeds the average (131.5 miles), and so is a long away journey. In doing this, we can see whether longer journeys have an effect on points and goals per game expected from an away team.
It should be noted before I continue that distance is calculated as a straight line between two destinations, ‘as the crow flies’ so to speak, rather than via major roads or rail lines. This is because there is no way of knowing what the travel preferences were of each team.
Results: Shorter trips are no significant advantage
The data shows that distance travelled is not a significant inhibitor of performance overall. Across the leagues, the number of goals per game (GpG) remains identical whether a team has travelled long or far, with the away team scoring an average of 1.18 regardless. Points per game (PpG) shows a slight favour for shorter distances (1.20) over longer one (1.15), but if we stretch that out it will take 20 shorter distance games before a one point advantage is gained over the longer distance games, which in reality will take almost two seasons.
If we look at each team individually (below), we see a slightly more uneven distribution; 61% of teams will score more points on shorter journeys and 39% will score more points on longer journeys, although only 40% of teams will favour either short or long journeys by more than 0.20 points per game over the other.
Distribution of teams: PpG Long Away Trips vs. Short Away Trips vs. Average Distance Travelled
Teams by furthest average distance travelled
There are some notable outliers which favour one or other significantly. The vertical axis in this chart denotes to the average distance travelled by each team per game. Whilst overall there is no pattern to speak of, it is interesting that three of the four longest average journeys in the country are attributed to football teams who significantly prefer the shorter journey; Plymouth especially, with their 193.3 mile average away day, will score 0.61 points more in games within that distance than in games where they travel further than that. Fans too of Carlisle and Torquay may prefer to avoid trips to the far end of the country as they will deliver fewer points for their teams.
Which teams really don’t like long away trips?By contrast, the aforementioned draw that Exeter earned against Liverpool to secure an Anfield replay could be worthwhile for their fans, for more than just sentimental reasons. Although this analysis does not include cup games, data shows that in the league Exeter will score 0.45 more points when travelling further than their 165.2 mile average away day. Swansea and Middlesborough fans (+0.22 and +0.24 PpG respectively) also experience better long distance travel than shorter. I also mentioned earlier that Liverpool are good travellers, as evidenced by the fact they prefer longer trips to far-flung places rather than the shorter journeys by an average of 0.17 PpG.
The table above shows the teams with the lowest PpG for away trips that exceed the average distance travelled. Joint-lowest is Premier League Stoke, who score an average of 0.53 more points at closer away games, and 1.02 more PpG at home, suggesting they are not good travellers. Stockport rank as the worst team here statistically, although that is slightly unfair on them as they only feature in this analysis for one relegation season in 2010/2011. Barnet are another club who have not spent the full five and a half years in the football league, having spent a couple of seasons in the conference, however it is worth mentioning them as the team with one of the worst set of away statistics in the country; they rank 9th-worst for long-distance away games (0.85 PpG), but even this is better than their short-range record of 0.71 PpG. If we discount Stockport, Barnet have the lowest away PpG in the football league.
Overall, it can be said that the distance of travel is not a key indicator of whether a team is likely to be successful, although at an individual level there are some interesting exceptions: Plymouth, Stoke and Southampton much prefer the shorter journeys, whereas Mansfield, Luton and Lincoln (when they were in the league) much prefer travelling greater distances when playing away; Barnet and Dagenham & Redbridge are terrible at short journeys, Stoke and Bolton don’t like clocking up the road miles. There are numerous other interesting examples through.
What is concrete though is how much better all teams do at home, with few exceptions (Wycombe, Cambridge and Morecombe notably), and how the average points per game tables are dominated by the Premier League elites. The combination of money and accumulated success (not mutually exclusive, of course) has meant that they continue to excel home and away, season after season, because they are not being rewarded with a challenge in a higher division week after week. Therefore, the consistent away records of teams such as Chesterfield, Charlton (both over longer distances), Southend and Bournemouth (both shorter) over the last five and a half years in different divisions should be applauded.
For the fans, the key finding is that it doesn’t matter if you’re travelling 10 miles or 300, you’re team is statistically likely to perform the same, so when the morning alarm clock goes off, you might as well put the kettle on, you’ve a long day ahead.