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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 23/03/02, 3pm
The age of chance
By Matt Rowson

I'm a Statistician. That's not just an anorak feature of my personality, it's what I do. It's my job.

I spend my working days exploiting, employing and manipulating the laws of probability and chance for the greater good of a corporate behemoth. It pays the bills. An unavoidable fact that hits you square in the face when you begin work in this field is that probability and chance is something that's woefully misunderstood by a large proportion of otherwise intelligent people.

Two psychologists, Tversky and Kahneman, spent a fair amount of effort studying and describing this phenomenon in the 1970s and 80s. They classified some popular mistakes and misconceptions into "heuristics", several of which bear translation to the world of football.

Take the Availability idea, for example. Describes the situation whereby people make assessments under the influence of immediately available and biasing evidence. So, for example, the likelihood of a train crash is overestimated if a train crash has just been in the news. And your assessment of how realistic a proposition relegation is might be prejudiced if it's pushing twenty years since you played below your current station. Ask Coventry.

Then there's the Gamblers' Fallacy. The misleading instinct that leads you to keep betting on a game of chance after a losing streak on the basis that "your number has to come up eventually". This is nonsense, random probability has no history. Although it's questionable whether football matches are independent or random events, the logic which says "we've only won once in sixteen, our run has to break against Watford on Saturday", as expressed on a Tykes' messageboard, has to be dubious.

And the Representativeness heuristic. The placing of faith in an outcome that seems intuitively representative...e.g. a coin-tossing sequence of HTTHTH seems more likely than TTTTTH. Not true. Equally likely with a fair coin. Similarly, the fact that Barnsley sort of seem like a mid-table side doesn't prohibit the possibility that they could be relegated. Below Grimsby takes some doing.

A common misconception is in some sort of absoluteness to probability. A 75% chance of rain does not mean it will definitely rain, but many people interpret this information as such. Equally a 10% chance of relegation, say, will come up one time in ten. This could be the one.

Barnsley rallied when Steve Parkin took over in November; for a while the more optimistic amongst the Oakwell faithful even allowed themselves a glance up at the play-offs. Since Christmas, however, the results have dried up, a remarkable win over Premiership-bound (sigh) Wolves notwithstanding. You don't get the impression that the club is in quite as desperate a state as it was when Nigel Spackman left, but the predicament is considerably more urgent and with the second worst defensive record in the Division it's hardly as if they have a sound base to scrap from. The Tykes have a tough looking run-in...all the ties after Saturday are against sides with at least a shout of promotion, and with a number of injuries and four players suspended at the weekend it's not looking good for a side that was in the Premiership the year that we won Division Two.

In goal for the Tykes will be Andy Marriott, who recently displaced former Hornet Kevin Miller after Barnsley conceded fourteen in five games in February.

With Lee Crooks suspended, diminutive New Zealand youngster David Mulligan is likely to return at right-back. Making his home debut on the left will be Paul Gibbs; a recent free transfer from Brentford, who seem keen to avoid promotion, Gibbs' ten bookings this season and reputation for playing balls into the stand do not herald a ball-playing fullback. He was, however, an opponent the last time we won an FA Cup tie (the same year that Barnsley were in the Premiership, if you're wondering). Cover at right-back is provided by Carl Regan, an aggressive signing from Everton whose lack of form saw him drop out of the first team picture earlier in the season. Chris Barker, left-back until Gibbs' arrival, has pushed up to an uncomfortable position on the left of midfield.

With skipper Chris Morgan serving the second of a three game ban, the central defensive pair is likely to be Mike Flynn and Steve Chettle. Chettle, like keeper Marriott, played under Cloughie at Nottingham Forest; Mike Flynn, another who will make his home debut, was a surprising victim of Carlton Palmer's lunatic regime at Stockport. Cover is Northern Ireland youngster Brian O'Callaghan, with Finn Janne Salli suffering from a knee problem.

In midfield, former Sunderland man Chris Lumsdon is another to serve a suspension, his for accumulating ten bookings. Gary Jones should play, having held down a regular place since his arrival from Rochdale shortly after his manager, and Kevin Betsy, on-loan from Fulham, is likely to feature down the right. Candidates to fill Lumsdon's position include Scot Alex Neil, the experienced Mitch Ward and Dutchman Dean Gorré, recovered from a hamstring problem. Darren Barnard, who I'm sure was good once, was on the bench at the weekend. Kevin Donovan is out for the season with a torn tendon, as is Steve Hayward, injured this time last year. South African captain Eric Tinkler, a rare starter this term, will again be unavailable with a back complaint, and winger Carl Barrowclough, of whom much was heralded this term, is also out and has failed to make the first team at all.

Up front, Isaiah Rankin completes the list of suspended players; like Morgan, he misses the second of three. The forward pairing is likely to remain as Bruce Dyer, still as raw as he was at the Vic as a seventeen-year-old, and Yorkshireman Richard Naylor, on-loan from Ipswich Town but without a goal since August. Backup is provided by veteran Mike Sheron and another New Zealander Rory Fallon.

Barring a big points deduction for the comically appalling Sheffield United, this is our last scheduled fixture against a side with anything to play for until next season. Our own predicament has been mid-table all season, but the sudden and decisive burst of conviction in our performances generates an optimism of its own. Improbable isn't the same as impossible, remember. With every good result, the odds become less fanciful.