We’re Manchester United, we don’t pay people, people pay us”
Every Manchester United fan will remember where they were when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer turned home from Teddy Sheringham’s header at the Nou Camp to win the Champions League on May 26, 1999.
Tens of thousands were going delirious inside Barcelona’s iconic home. Millions were struggling to believe what they were seeing from home or the pub. It was a moment – several minutes worth of moments in fact – that will never be forgotten.
Inside the Nou Camp was Derby County fan Ramm Mylvaganam, excitedly on the phone to wife Millie after Sheringham’s equaliser when Solskjaer completed the astonishing comeback.
“It was like I’d won the lottery again,” explains Mylvaganam. ‘Again’ is the keyword in that sentence, because it was the second time in less than 12 months he felt his numbers had come up.
To describe Solskjaer’s goal as a sliding doors moment for United would be incorrect. They were a great team before those injury-time heroics and they were a great team after. It might be the iconic moment of Sir Alex Ferguson’s 26-year spell of dominance, but it wasn’t necessarily a defining moment. Except for Mylvaganam and the theorists, analysts, scientists and data bods who have followed in his footsteps.
For them, the final minutes of the 1999 Champions League final were when the success of one of football’s newest cottage industries began. An industry that shows no signs of slowing down 22 years later.
It’s almost impossible to watch a single game of football now without the presence of data being layered into the viewing experience.
Basic statistics such as shots, corners and possession now feel outdated, like they’re telling us barely a fraction of the story. Every match is analysed in forensic detail, with phrases such as expected goals (xG) and passes per defensive action (PPDA) now part of football’s lexicon.
The days when we just watched the action unfold, oblivious to the deeper meanings of what was happening on the pitch, are gone forever, for better or worse. Fans of what the data can tell us laud football’s entry into the science of the 21st century. Those who prefer actual goals to expected goals lament the complication of a relatively simple game.
But like every boom industry, data and analytics in football had to start somewhere. In this instance, that somewhere was Derby County’s Pride Park stadium in the late 1990s.
Every football fan can now find access to even the most detailed metrics online, while clubs are inundated with commercial presentations of new tools that can unlock another percentage point of improvement. But it wasn’t always like that.
For fans of football at the turn of the millennium Prozone will be a familiar name. While it’s a company no longer in its existence in its original form, it was the pioneer of statistical analysis in football and measuring games through science as well as intuition. This was the new world trying to get a foot in the door of an industry suspicious of technological advancements and outsiders. The old world was working just fine, thanks.
Now clubs use a variety of software tools to analyse their own players and potential targets, as well as having their own data science departments.
Prozone was the first of its kind, using cameras to track the movement of every player on the pitch. When it was founded by Mylvaganam, he took it to Derby, the club he supported, and Pride Park become the beta testing site for the software.
Mylvaganam was in luck. At Derby he encountered Steve McClaren, who could immediately see the benefits data analysis could bring to football, even if some of his colleagues who had been schooled in the 1960s and 70s would never allow data and computers to tell them something they were convinced their own eyes would see first.
McClaren was a forward-thinking, promising coach, and in 1998 he was on the radar of Manchester United, appointed Alex Ferguson’s new assistant manager after the departure of Brian Kidd.
“I won the lottery when Steve went to Manchester United,” said Mylvaganam. His numbers were in for the first time.
McClaren was already using video analysis to improve Derby’s players, although his work with old VHS tapes and editing machines is a million miles away from the tools available to modern-day analysts. When Mylvaganam explained how Prozone worked, using six to eight cameras to track the movement and action of every player on the pitch, he was a believer.
So when he went to United and began working with Ferguson he told the Scot they needed to bring in a company nobody had heard of doing things nobody had really shown any interest in.
“Alex said he wanted Steve and Steve said he wanted Prozone, so Alex didn’t argue with him. I said to Steve I need to talk to Alex about Prozone and money, he said ‘yeah, good luck pal’,” Mylvaganam tells the Manchester Evening News.
“He set the meeting up, I’d never spoken to Alex before, he said Steve had told him a lot about what you’ve done at Derby, it sounds interesting and Steve thinks you’re good.
“I told him I’d come to talk about money and he said ‘Ramm, I don’t talk money, you need to see David Gill, the only reason you’re sat in this office is because of Steve’.
David’s opening salvo was ‘Ramm, we’re Manchester United, we don’t pay people, people pay us’. “
Gill, United’s chief executive, was reluctant to open the club’s wallet on something that was so new and innovative in the game. This was the late 1990s, when football hadn’t embraced the idea of data analysis.
They said we won’t pay you anything for this season but if we win something this season we’ll pay you for next season. I said ‘come on David, it doesn’t work like that”, said Mylvaganam.
But this was the Manchester United of Ferguson and Gill and it tended to work how they said it worked. An agreement was struck that if United won anything they’d pay £50,000 for Prozone.
That left Sri Lanka born Mylvaganam working for two clubs, neither of which were paying him, with the agreement at Derby based around the fact that was a test site and marketing suite at Pride Park.
By the summer of 1999 that £50,000 was in his bank account and Prozone had its supersonic moment.
“Prozone went into the stratosphere because Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored that goal in the Nou Camp, without that nobody would have heard us,” said Mylvaganam.
“I remember being at the game, it was 1-0 to Bayern and Sheringham scored and I was on the phone to my wife saying ‘we’ve equalised’ when they went and scored the winner. I was on my phone to my wife and nearly missed the goal.
“We had effectively two clients in May of 1999 in United and Derby, and United didn’t pay us for the first year, we got paid retrospectively but we didn’t have any plans.
“By August we had six clients, all of them paying except Derby. It was the moment it took off.”
Now data is omnipresent in football and it’s never going away. Ferguson’s belief in McClaren and then his belief in Prozone was vital to that.
Mylvaganam believes that if there is one game before that final that sealed the deal it was the second leg of the semi-final against Juventus in Turin.
United had drawn 1-1 at Old Trafford in the first leg, but they’d come from 2-0 down to win 3-2 in Italy, inspired by Roy Keane, who knew he’d miss the final after an early booking.
But United had another advantage against the Serie A giants aside from the giant in midfield.
“I think if I said we blew him away it would be an understatement,” Mylvaganam said when asked how Ferguson responded to his work.
“Especially the Juventus game. We did the analysis on that game at Old Trafford, so before they went to the Stadio delle Alpi we knew exactly how Zidane played, how Inzaghi played, they knew it all inside out, it gave them a massive insight.”
Ferguson was so impressed he had a gift for Mylvaganam four days later.
“They were playing Leeds at Elland Road and they were staying at Oulton Hall,” he said. “I got a message from Steve saying ‘Alex wants to see you’. My first thought was ‘what have we done here? We’ve screwed up’.
“I went to see him with my wife Millie and Alex came down and spent the time talking to Millie, he was wonderful. A couple of minutes into the conversation he put his hand in his pocket and pulled out two tickets for the final and said ‘you’re coming with us’.
“We had 30 guys in the company by now and Millie said ‘they’ll kill me if I come with you’, so I had a raffle and the guy who won it came with me. But I was always going.”
It was the night when football’s data boom really began and Mylvaganam had to be there to see it.