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Elo Ratings – Why Kevin Keegan was the greatest

6 years ago

Arpad Elo was born in Hungary in 1903.  Aged 10 he moved to the United States with his parents and later became a professor of physics at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He was also a prodigious Chess talent, the strongest in Milwaukee, he won the Wisconsin State Championship eight times.

Elo, is famous for combining his two loves. As a brilliant physicist, in 1960 he applied his mathematical skills to create the Elo rating system. It allowed Chess players to be rated more effectively than any previous system. By 1970 the World Chess Federation had adopted his method as their official ranking system.

Simplistically, how it works is that each competitor is assigned a rating based on their previous games. Points are added and removed from the Elo rating of a player depending on the outcome of games.  If a player with a low rating beats a player with a high rating, they gain a high number of points but if a player with a high rating beats a player with a low rating they get a lower number of points, because that’s the expected result.  Thrashings earn more points than close wins too.  And draws enhance the rating of the lower ranked player more.

Of course this elegant system didn’t apply only in chess, it could be used in any 2 player game.  Or any 2 team game. The formulas can be adjusted to suit games with different scoring systems and there are now elo rankings available online for most major sports.

FIFA’s thinking on Elo seems mixed up.  In the women’s game it is used as the official ranking system, however in the men’s game it is not.  That’s despite a 2009 study of 8 ranking methods showing that elo had the highest predictive capability for football matches, while the men’s FIFA ranking method performed poorly.  We’ve all seen minnows in the top 10 FIFA rankings and wondered what that was all about.

Newcastle Managers Elo Ratings

The Elo measure can be applied to managers as well as teams.  They can be graded on how they performed at single clubs or throughout their careers, and it provides an excellent insight into just how well a coach performed.  It accounts for the level the club/country found themselves when a manager arrived and where he left them when he departed.  It’s a far more detailed portrayal of a manager’s success than the basic count of games won, drawn or lost we’re used to seeing whenever a manager is sacked.

So, how do Newcastle managers fare under this system?  First of all, let’s look at only their time at Newcastle alone.  The table shows how many Elo points each Newcastle manager added or lost for the club during their tenure.

Remember, any negative number means that manager underperformed (without explaining any circumstances such as under investment), a positive number means a performance above expectations.

Unsurprisingly, Kevin Keegan stands head and shoulders above everybody else. The meteoric rise of the club under his management is reflected in a total more than double that of Bobby Robson. By a huge margin, he is without doubt the greatest Newcastle United manager there has been.  Don’t let anybody underplay his achievement at Newcastle with talk of defensive frailty or blowing the title, these naive revisionist theories must be corrected whenever and wherever ill-informed nitwits posit them.

Ashley’s Men

For Ashley, both Kevin Keegan in his second stint and Chris Hughton had a positive impact at the club.  They sit 9th and 10th in the overall club ratings.  Clearly neither deserved the sack, and these results only emphasise that.  But both were shown the door, either directly or constructively.

McClaren marks the first Ashley managerial appointment to be fired for results (if you accept that neither Shearer or Carver actually got the job permanently). Pardew and Kinnear performed below expectations, but McClaren’s results were worse than any other Ashley permanent appointment, and the only shame is that he wasn’t fired sooner.

What’s worth noting about the worst of Ashley’s manager’s is that they still all performed relatively better than the trio of Gullit, Souness and Dalglish.  All of whom dragged Newcastle down to a greater degree from where they started, largely this is by virtue of their higher starting positions and of getting longer to try and turn things around than any of Ashley’s men (Pardew aside).

Dalglish especially, second only to McGarry as the worst under performer should be ashamed of what he did to our club.  Many still have scars from the demolition job he did on Keegan’s Entertainers squad.

Newcastle Manager’s Careers

Next I have compiled the scores of each Newcastle manager over their entire career.

Even when you factor in all other jobs, Kevin Keegan once again stands out from the crowd as someone that lifted the performance of a team wherever he was working.  He never once fell below expectations at any club he worked at.

As much as we all love Sir Bobby Robson this isn’t something even he can claim, having underperformed at both Fulham and PSV, his 2 briefest roles.

Rafa Benitez

Rafa the Gaffer hasn’t managed enough games at Newcastle to be judged yet, but his position in this table might surprise readers.  He places lower on the Elo scale than Sam Allardyce. As a man that has almost exclusively managed top clubs, Benitez has struggled to lift many to far greater heights.

Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Osasuna are the only clubs where he could be accused of having actually underperformed, but he never stayed longer than 38 games at any of those.

Allardyce places high because Newcastle remain the only club where he has failed to match expectations, although it’s clearly the club with the highest expectations of any he has managed, Bolton, Blackburn, West Ham and Sunderland all being in poorer states when he arrived.

All that said, Benitez arrives with statistically the best pedigree of any manager Mike Ashley has appointed bar Kevin Keegan.  More importantly, in terms of trophies won, he’s the best appointment the club’s ever had.

If Ashley can keep him happy, there is far greater cause for optimism than there has been with any of the other appointments he has made.  Half of the 10 worst managers appointed by Newcastle in terms of their achievements elsewhere having been appointed by Ashley.

For Elo ratings of all European clubs and coaches, visit

You can follow the author on Twitter @bigchrisholt



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