Newcastle United have surprised fans by picking up more points away from home than at St James Park this season.

With eight wins at home and nine away (plus one draw), Newcastle have 28 points on their travels compared to 24 on home turf.

However, new research suggests that this isn’t so out of the ordinary, with claims that the gap between home and away form for teams in England has been generally narrowing in recent years.

A study by the University of Portsmouth (see below) points to a number of factors that have helped this happen, with the fitness of referees central to it.

The research says that with the increasing fitness of referees, particularly now with full-time referees at the top levels, means that they are closer to the action and that they are less likely to be influenced by the vocal claims of home fans for decisions.

The study also believes that the support and information they can take advantage of between matches, helps them be better prepared for each game.

If you look at the top 11 in the Championship, as well as Newcastle, both Fulham and Barnsley have also won more games away than at home. Also, only two clubs (Norwich & Sheff Wed) in that top 11 have a difference higher than two, when it comes to comparing the number of wins at home compared to away.

In Newcastle’s last promotion season of 2009/10, at St James Park NUFC recorded 18 wins, 5 draws and 0 defeats, whilst away it was 12 wins, 7 draws and 4 defeats. This equalled 59 points at home and 42 away – almost 50% more points at home.

The University of Portsmouth study:

‘New study blows whistle on home advantage

Higher standards in football refereeing have brought about an unexpected change – the end of the home advantage.

According to new research, football in the UK has changed beyond recognition in the last few decades and home advantage has been steadily eroded.

Dr Tom Webb, a sports scientist at the University of Portsmouth, said referees at all levels of the game in the UK are now unlikely to be moved by the impassioned cries of the home fans and, critically, to be extremely fit, putting them at the centre of the action rather than 10-40 metres away, as they once were.

He said: “We’ve seen a slow decline in home advantage since the end of World War II, but it has now almost entirely vanished in UK professional football.

“Referees have never before been subject to such close scrutiny. As well as fans, there are cameras watching their every move and pundits and experts analysing their every decision. It was inevitable the standard in refereeing would rise.”

Home advantage is due to four factors: The visiting team being tired from travelling and having to play in unfamiliar surroundings; decisions tend to favour the home side; and the crowd’s effect on the players, the match officials, or both.

A rise in physical, technical and psychological training for referees has resulted in a pronounced falling away of home advantage.

“There’s now a sustained emphasis on and support across the game for extremely high standards in refereeing,” Dr Webb said.

“Physical fitness, combined with a rise in the number of coaches or mentors to help referees identify any weaknesses in their decision-making and to support their resilience, has knocked out the home advantage.”

Dr Webb had earlier conducted research into home advantage and found a dramatic fall since the 1940s. This study was to examine in depth the reasons for such a fall-off by interviewing 18 people, including referees, former referees, referee assessors, referee coaches, managers and administrators associated with refereeing.

One of those who took part told researchers: “From when I started back in 1988 to now, I think referees probably get 100 times more support and have a lot more information and guidance than they’ve ever had.”

Another said the use of video playback meant it was now routine to review decisions and that he and colleagues also discuss every game, highlighting every decision that was handled well or could have been handled better.

Discussing the home crowd effect, one of those interviewed said referees “could be influenced by a number of factors, including the crowd, the score and previous decisions, but the best won’t be”.

The home advantage effect has been documented widely across sport. It might be decreasing faster in British football because the sport’s prominence in British life meant it benefited first from advances, including understanding referees need to be fit enough to keep up with the players and resilient enough to block out the cries of the crowds, Dr Webb said.

The research is published in the Soccer & Society journal.’