THE BIG INTERVIEW | Duncan Alexander: “I was in so much pain – my ankle swelled up to four times its size”

With the game quite literally gone, who better to save us all from boredom than Mr @oilysailor? We caught up in times BC (Before Coronavirus) to chat the obligatory ups and downs of following the Chairboys, football’s now-imperative intertwinement with #numbers, and just where all those addictively obscure facts you’ve gone and shown off to your mates down the pub come from.

“If I think how many games I’ve been to over the years and how much I can actually remember from them, it’s kind of concerning…”

In one way or another, football affects the minds of us all, and needless to say Duncan Alexander is no different. The co-founder of the hugely successful and popular @OptaJoe has been a Wanderer for over 30 years and during that time, he’s taken in the end of the non-League era, our establishment as a League club, and that FA Cup run – as well as enjoying and enduring the unique brands of jubilation and despair which punctuate the Wycombe fan experience, of course. And all this while making a name for himself as one of the most entertaining and enlightening voices in the modern game under his Twitter (and originally Gasroom) moniker – and as a regular guest on the Totally Football Show and the author of Outside The Box.

Back in the late 90s, though, amusing observations about the proximity to the sea of Sadio Mané’s Premier League goals had yet to hit the mainstream. Ceefax – a word etched in Wycombe folklore for obvious reasons – was the FlashScore of the day, while this thing called a local newspaper provided a tangible connection to goings on at your club. What a spartan existence…

“Genuinely my biggest concern when I went to university,” Duncan recalls, “was that I would no longer be going to many games. It was such a fundamentally massive part of my week-to-week. And it was different to now where within ten minutes of the game finishing, you can go on the Sky Sports app and watch the goals. That was not the case. My grandma used to cut up the Bucks Free Press and post it to me.”

It wasn’t always worth it, though: “So often it would be like, ‘Neil Smillie confident that Wycombe will get a win here’ – and then obviously by the time I received it, I’d seen we’d just got smashed 3-0 or something, so it was a bleak way of interacting.” Some might say that the age of mindlessly scrolling and swiping through social media is similarly bleak – but then again, without it, we wouldn’t know this 👇, would we?

What’s not bleak is the ability to watch any game anywhere (well, if you have a VPN) these days. iFollow has had its critics who doubt how much it actually benefits clubs – Accrington owner Andy Holt, as ever, hasn’t shied away from expressing his gripes – but the general feeling among supporters – at least Wycombe’s, as far as I can reasonably tell – is that it’s overwhelmingly a good thing. One might even go a step further and label it a lifeline for those following in exile – members of the so-called ‘Worldwide Wycombe Wanderers Phenomenon’.

“The people who want to go to the game who live locally or whatever are still going to go,” Duncan rightly points out, “but every club in the Football League will have quite a lot of supporters spread around the country and abroad who’d definitely pay a reasonable amount to watch.” Indeed, football’s current lockdown could focus attention on an inevitable, potentially revolutionary development which traditionalists seem to instinctively fear: the lifting of the Saturday 3pm blackout. If we’re good to go again in a few months’ time but behind closed doors, that’s fairly likely to become a reality – and quite possibly a permanent one.

But no amount of technological immersion will ever recreate that first, anticipation-heightening glimpse of a sliver of pitch from the concourse or turnstiles; the anticlimactic taste of a lukewarm pie; the pure sound of a sweetly struck shot or crunching tackle; the metallic troughs of steaming piss; that ‘never gets old’ feeling of a stoppage time winner. They are the matchday experience. I mean, you could try and recreate the finer details at home, but it might not be very inhabitable afterwards.

What’s more, as Duncan continues, “people forget that it’s not just about going to see the football. I didn’t miss many games in eras when it was absolutely turgid, but it’s meeting up with your mates, that kind of ebb and flow Saturday – or whatever day. That is separate to watching the game.” And we should cherish it really; there will come a point for many of us when strolling up Hillbottom Road every other week ceases to be possible. No, Steve Hayes isn’t back on the scene; life just happens.

For one of our best known fans, who calls the capital home these days, that’s been the case for just over a decade. But between graduation and isolation, there were some bloody great times to be had as a member of the Light & Dark Blue Army – perhaps the greatest. The 2000/01 season may never be matched for sheer improbability, and he enjoyed the whole ride. Well almost the whole ride – not just because he missed the third round replay at Grimsby (maybe the ‘best’ tie to miss) but also as the semi-final, he feels, slightly tarnished the rest of the run. But just how can anyone look back with much other than fondness on a once-in-a-lifetime meeting with Liverpool which showcased little old Wycombe to the world and gave all those in attendance at Villa Park a surely undilutable ‘I was there’ moment to hold onto?

“I’ve got a weird view about it,” he admits. “It felt really odd and I didn’t enjoy it; it was a bit of a strange day. You’ve got 5,000 standard fans and then loads and loads of people. I remember being sat behind a couple of people who literally didn’t know who the Wycombe players were; they were going ‘Which one’s Keith Ryan?’ and ‘Which one’s Steve Brown?’ and stuff. It sounds really nonsensical, but it did spoil the day for me a bit; it just made it feel like not a real match in a sense.”

That day at Filbert Street was alright, though, right? Duh. “That was up there with the best days ever,” Duncan enthuses. “It was the perfect football day: going away, people having to find their way into the stadium by hook or by crook, and then obviously winning in the last minute was pretty amazing.” The BBC showed the highlights package the other Saturday and even if you’re too young to have been there, it’s impossible not to connect with the emotion of it all – and appreciate what a fundamentally big deal it was.

While on the subject of scrambling for a view of the action, the 1-0 win over Slough during the 1993 promotion push pops up. “I’ve never seen Adams Park busier than it was that night,” he reminisces (a then record crowd of 7,230 had squeezed into the still new ground). “I’m pretty sure it broke some sort of health and safety rules. “The Valley End was like those terraces you saw on TV in the 70s.” There were no hastily-painted luminous yellow boxes in those days, you know.

Not that Duncan would need them to remind him to take care; he’s already done himself a mischief amid the delirium of a massive Wycombe goal – during the League Two play-off final, spraining his ankle jumping for joy as a classic Joe Jacobson free-kick rebounded in off Southend ‘keeper Daniel Bentley (boo) and put us within half an hour of League One. “I was in so much pain during extra time and penalties that I didn’t really take it in,” he recalls (not a bad thing). “All I could sense was people around me being elated and then massively deflated, and my ankle swelled up to four times its size by the end.” He pauses. “So that was fun!”

There’s no danger of any of us forgetting 23rd May 2015, as much as we might like to, but celebration-induced agony is one way to ensure the memory never leaves you. There are occurrences and events – from personal misfortune to large-scale tragedy – which act as handy reference points for matches past, and then there are games so forgettable the reference point is all that remains tucked away inside your head. Duncan refers to a 1-1 draw with Grimsby on 10th April 1998 – a date the significance of which no one under the age of about 35 will necessarily know as, for some reason, it’s still not on the school curriculum.

“Grimsby had dominated and scored a last-minute equaliser, so everyone had come out of the game really grumpy,” he says, breaking into a half-laugh, “and I remember these two Wycombe fans just arguing about the Good Friday agreement – which really sticks in my mind now. I can remember that; I couldn’t remember anything about the game. I read the match report and I was like, ‘Nope!’. It’s weird how those kinds of things go along.”

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If you’re one of Duncan’s 63,000-odd Twitter followers, you’ll know you’re guaranteed a well-oiled conveyor belt of weird and wonderful, niche and nostalgic pearls of curiosity. Were you aware, for instance, that Robbie Earle holds the record for the most Premier League goals by a Jamaican-born player wearing an even number? Or that Mexico v Paraguay in the group stages of the 1986 World Cup saw a foul every 32 seconds the ball was in play? How about trying to name the born on a Wednesday to score in the Premier League for Sheffield Wednesday on a Wednesday?*

But how on earth does he come up with his signature ‘…since…’ tweets? “There are a few elements to it,” he explains. “It’s noticing the pattern; it’s having the ability to research the stuff relatively quickly as well – you obviously don’t want to spend too long; and then it’s how you phrase it.” Having access to a shedload of data does make the task a hell of a lot easier, clearly, but Opta can’t tell you when the Empire State Building was completed or the first Mars bar made.

“We’ve got loads and loads of files and records,” he continues, “so it’s really quick to find the basic bit of information out – but then it’s the presentation of it. So one example from a couple of seasons ago: Chelsea won consecutive games 4-2, and I was like, ‘Well that must be quite unusual’ – so I had a look for the last time they did it and it was in 1905. So you could just say, “First time Chelsea have won 4-2 two games in a row since 1905”, which is valid, but then you can think, “Well, what happened in 1905?” – and I noticed that in 1906, someone invented plastic. [To rephrase it] gives it an interest level that maybe wouldn’t have been there before. It’s always about finding that little historical hook.”

Despite his obvious penchant for the statistical, his background is in history. A career in the sports analytics industry is something he “just fell into”. “I learned all the data stuff as I went along, and I’ve got colleagues younger than me that are far more adept at doing stuff with databases.” Without the football knowledge, though, the rest almost becomes redundant. “You could give me a load of data on rugby or badminton and I wouldn’t have a clue,” he says, “because I don’t know the sports and I don’t know what’s good and what’s bad and which players are good and which clubs used to be good and aren’t now, all that sort of stuff. You need that pure knowledge of the game to be able to find the interesting stuff.”

There’s the interesting stuff – the chiseling of data into trivia – and then there’s the more specialist side of things. Think xG, pre-assists and any number of other hugely useful, gammon-enraging metrics and tools which are helping to re-shape the game. On that front, football is unrecognisable from what it was even ten years ago, let alone in 1996 when Opta came into being. Clubs who make optimal use of the numbers are reaping the rewards, but Duncan is keen to emphasise the importance of striking a balance between the objective and subjective. The ‘eye test’ remains a key component in reading and assessing the game. “No one wants it to be completely based on data,” he says, “and no one now wants it to be completely based on a hunch and an opinion. Both stances are improved by utilising the other approach.”

Analytics’ influence cannot be understated, though. It informs everything from transfer strategy to post-match picking-apart. Gareth Ainsworth and Richard Dobson’s own, brilliant recruitment of the last few seasons has doubtless drawn on it – and the club appointed analyst Josh Hart in the summer of 2018. Actually, while at the elite level Liverpool are (or were) blowing everyone away, “there are bigger wins to be had in the lower leagues,” reckons Duncan, pointing to Brentford’s “joined-up approach” which has seen the west London outfit climb from mid-table in League One to within reaching distance of the top flight under director of football Rasmus Ankersen and owner Matthew Benham, building an increasingly competitive team while consistently generating a healthy profit from transfers – between the summers of 2014 and 2018, they pocketed over £60 million from 11 players they’d bought for less than £7 million combined.

But for every Brentford, who’ve earned themselves tags like the smartest club in England, there will be a Man United – lacking direction and stagnating as a result. “Look at the difference between the clubs that are run well at the moment and planning for the future,” says Duncan, “versus clubs that are randomly changing their approach every six months and watching their squad get worse and worse as time goes on. It’s not as though there are clubs that use data and clubs that don’t; they all do now. It’s just like with anything: some will do it well; some will do it badly.”

The data revolution is only the latest chapter in the English game’s metamorphosis over the last two decades or so. The quality on show in the Premier League – and probably in all divisions – is higher than it’s ever been. “I can remember some games in the late 80s and early 90s,” says Duncan, “and I would say that the Premier League until Wénger came was a continuation of the old Division 1.” Then with Mourinho, Guardiola and Klopp coming along, we’ve ended up with “multiple eras within one overall era”. As much as the game has become undeniably more homogenous at the top level, there will always be great innovators like Chris Wilder and Sheffield United – or great disruptors like Tony Pulis and Stoke City. As for League One, well we all know how much opposing fans (and Derek Adams) wouldn’t want to watch Wycombe every week.

Despite being such a lover of the Premier League – a division which, assuming Sam Allardyce is now well and truly off the managerial merry-go-around, may never witness route one football again – Duncan is no subscriber to the theory that there’s a right way to play. He puts today’s sense of snobbery among supporters at all levels down largely to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and Manchester City sides. Throughout football’s history, there have always been figures with vehemently held tactical and stylistic beliefs, but we seem to have entered the era of fan indoctrination.

Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang of the 90s, notes Duncan, “got criticised for being thugs. But they weren’t criticised for their style of play; it was like, ‘Well, they play differently to Liverpool or Manchester United’ – but there wasn’t this value judgement of the right and wrong way, and that is something that has changed. This aestheticism that unless your full-backs are receiving goal-kicks inside the box you’re not playing the correct way is a load of nonsense.” Case in point, particularly for anyone who saw our win over them in January: Rochdale – try to play out from the back and are hilariously bad at it.

One person who wasn’t at that game was Duncan. In fact, he’s not made it to one since Joe Jacobson scored that hat-trick against Lincoln back in September. It must be gutting to have to follow from afar during this of all seasons, no?

“I think this season is kind of an establishing season,” he says, despite our (for now) still alive promotion dream. “If you can spend a couple of years without getting relegated, you do establish yourself in a division. And if we don’t get promoted, I think we should be in a good position to really establish ourselves next season and going forwards – and a few years ago, that was the dream.”

It was indeed, but until such time as the powers that be crush it by going back on their indefinite extension of the professional campaign, a new dream is still alive: promotion to the Championship. Wycombe supporters as long-serving as Duncan might say they’ve seen it all, but none of us have ever seen that. If it’s to happen, we’re going to have a long wait – for obvious reasons – but we can ride it out safe in the knowledge that, especially for those moments when we become acutely aware of the football-shaped void in our lives at present, one of our own continues to bring the knowledge.

*If you’re still stuck…