Non-league football club Wingate and Finchley turns to AI ‘coach’ for tactical insights

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The players have taken an interest in the tool (The Big Bang)
The players have taken an interest in the tool (The Big Bang/PA)

A non-league football club has decided to employ artificial intelligence to try to get the edge over its opponents. Seventh-tier side Wingate and Finchley FC will be using an Amazon Echo system to help choose their team formations and make pre-game and in-game tactical decisions.

The smart speaker will be linked to a computer and use information spoken to it by coaches to make tactical suggestions and even provide Kevin Keegan-style inspirational quotes.

The manager could, for example, ask Alexa what the best formation would be. The AI would then ask a series of questions about the team and the opponents before proposing an answer.

Alternatively, if a player had just been sent off, the coaches would tell the AI and it could offer a possible substitution.

The AI “coach” is designed to learn on the job, meaning it evolves its thinking over the course of a season based on results.

The new system has been used in training and will have its first outing in the dugout on February 9 for a crunch league match against relegation rivals Whitehawk.

Wingate and Finchley manager Dave Norman told the Press Association the move had been creative and engaging.

He said: “It’s been very interesting having an artificial intelligence system working alongside coaches at grassroots level, trying to develop their knowledge and understanding of the game, helping and aiding decision making.”

The manager insisted it would be up to the individual manager or coach to decide whether they used the information provided by the AI system.

“It’s not going to change football practice, it’s not going to take the place of the manager, it’s not going to take the place of the coach, but what it can do is support infrastructure and technological changes which we’ve seen over the last 10 years,” said Norman.

The coding behind the AI “coach” (The Big Bang/PA)

Paul Lerman, director of the Isthmian League club, said he hoped the technology would give his club an advantage.

He said: “It’s a new technology, we’re not expecting it to change the footballing world immediately but it could give us an added edge, it’s a coach that could add insight.

“We’re hoping it helps us get three points on the pitch, (but) we don’t yet know how successful it may be.”

The AI system was commissioned by the Big Bang Fair, the UK’s largest celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths, (Stem) to encourage young people by showcasing how it can be used in the country’s most popular sport.

Artificial intelligence expert Stuart Haigh from GreenShoot Labs with the AI football coach (The Big Bang/PA)

Stuart Haigh of GreenShoot Labs, which created the innovative coach, said the technology was designed to be accessible to smaller clubs.

He said: “We’re using pre-existing technology just in terms of what we can leverage through Alexa and its conversational voice AI.

“We wanted to make it nice and presentable and really helpful to the team so we’ve got inspirational quotes at various intervals and advice if your players have been sent off.”

The hope is that the technology will later be made available as an Alexa Skill, meaning anyone – from teachers to young wannabe footballers – can make use of it.

Chris Price
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