When asked by supporters and journalists about our game against Everton this Sunday, I found myself answering in the same manner: “They are a good side with numerous top players but at home we have a great chance of a result.” Reflecting on that fairly bland reply made me think of two very important words in that sentence that logically shouldn’t make an ounce of difference – “at home”.
However, looking back over my playing career it made me realise the importance placed on home advantage by managers I’ve played for, team‑mates I’ve played with and supporters I’m wearing the jersey on behalf of. For example, as a full-back the amount of times I’ve heard from my coach: “Get forward at every opportunity, we need to play at a high tempo today,” when playing at home as opposed to: “Take the sting out of the game, slow it down,” when preparing for an away game against teams of the same level made me realise that I’ve been mentally conditioned to buy into the belief that a match at home is somehow more beneficial than playing away.
If we were to take emotions and human nature out of the game then logically it shouldn’t make a blind bit of difference where you are playing. Similar-sized pitch, 11 v 11, a referee and a round thing that you have to put in a same-sized goal no matter where in the world you are playing means that football should be an identical standard.
Substitute emotion for logic, however, and it’s literally a whole different ball game. Football is a sport played and watched by emotional people who are, on the whole, creatures of habit. Over the years there have been numerous analyses examining the statistical advantage of playing at home and conclusive evidence that teams playing in their own stadium have a much higher win ratio there. Admittedly the ratio is narrowing but it remains the case and, although stats are great when looking into an anomaly, they’re limited when it comes to painting the bigger picture.
As an experienced professional I can honestly say I have always been more confident and relaxed when playing at home. In fact, it’s only recently in my career that I can say I’m truly comfortable when playing away; experience has allowed me to really not be affected by a partisan crowd who are itching to see me fail.
There are so many external, psychological influences that change according to playing at home or away. For example, sleeping in my own bed with my wife and children around me, allowing me to keep a strong pre‑game ritual, as opposed to sleeping in a strange bed in a hotel. Also the comfort and routine of being in your home dressing room as opposed to the smaller, less inviting away ones can have an effect, though this is something that is being addressed by many teams who now go to the length of decorating away dressing rooms with their own colours and imagery, trying to recreate the home feel.
The pre-match messages I have heard from coaches and team-mates also, rightly or wrongly, negatively change when away from home to being more cautious or to quietening the crowd first and playing with a restriction that isn’t on the agenda otherwise – and that’s before we’ve even got to the game itself!
I have always tried to emphasise the importance of the fans’ role at a match and there’s nothing harder when playing away than when the home support is positive and vociferous. I have been on the away team trying to defend a lead and you know the old cliche about the crowd blowing the ball into the back of the net? It’s true. And there have also been games where the home team was in poor form and struggling, with the fans letting them know it, and on the pitch I could sense the nerves of the players and their confidence disintegrating. Believe me, a big home crowd can make the difference between victory and defeat.
And it’s not only the players who can be affected in these circumstances. Logically, the referee should apply the laws of the game in exactly the same way regardless of where he’s officiating but in my experience it’s easier to give a penalty in front of 40,000 people who would be happy with the decision than a penalty that would make those people extremely upset. It’s no fault of theirs, just human nature.
When speaking of home advantage and why it makes such a huge difference, it’s part of the very reason we all love this sport – it’s a game played by human beings with emotions who aren’t immune to being affected by external influences. That’s why home advantage is exactly that and I hope we at Brighton get the benefit of it come Sunday afternoon.