How important really is the 12th man? Players and experts reveal all...

You’ll hear the fans credited as the inspiration for almost every big win, but can a vociferous home support actually change the course of a match?

Ask any footballer about the difference between a narrow victory and a drab draw and they’ll give you the same answer. “The fans – different class,” you’ll hear. “They carried us through. We couldn’t have done it without them.”

Much is made of home advantage in professional football. Yet pitch sizes are now standardised, with only marginal variations allowed, while surfaces have improved to such a degree that the ploughed potato fields of yesteryear are permanently consigned to history. Meanwhile, executive modern travel has turned away trips into a comfortable sojourn, the longest of which at elite level are completed a day in advance to ensure players are fully rested.

The influence of a boisterous, partisan crowd, then, is the last bastion of home advantage. Or is it?

Advantage eroding?

Home advantage might be waning, but most statisticians agree it still means roughly 0.3 of a goal and up to half a point a game per season

Home wins have actually been on the decline ever since English league football first kicked off back in 1888. At the turn of the 20th century, home teams won around 60 per cent of their games; now the figure is closer to 40% on the whole. This season in the Premier League, hosts have won 49% of the time.  

With domestic home crowds increasingly prone to groans, boos and murmurings of discontent even before half-time, what difference do fans actually make in the modern game? With the playing field as level as it has ever been for away teams, could the 12th man sucking the ball into the home goal become a thing of the past?

Home advantage might be waning, but most statisticians agree it still means roughly 0.3 of a goal and up to half a point a game per season. The familiarity and the inspiration to win at home still should not be underestimated.

Crystal Palace

Does a boisterous home atmosphere really affect what happens on the pitch?

Science backs up theory. A study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the USA measured ‘androgen receptors’ – the brain’s receiving centres for testosterone – after rigging four tasks for male mice to win. They found the receptors were boosted in the brain’s reward and motivation network after each victory, but positively blossomed when those wins came on their home territory as part of a group. In short, mammals are genetically programmed to feel more pumped up by success on their own patch.

“Psychologically, you know there are lots of people in that tight space supporting you,” sports psychologist Tom Bates tells FFT. “The more players are aware of this, the more they’re likely to play their best. They want to live up to expectations.”

Atmosphere effect

Former Liverpool defender and vice-captain Jamie Carragher believes the home crowd’s influence can even extend to before kick-off

This feeling of being watched, however, comes more from a subconscious level once a match gets under way. “Fans come into their own during a break in play, like a set-piece, just after a promising attack or at the beginning of a half,” says Bates. “Less than 30 per cent of players are even aware of what their coaches are telling them on a matchday because they’re so focused on the game.

“These breaks are the time to engage the fans to exploit your momentum. A wave can go a long way. Interestingly, the players who do that the most are often the ones who are most in need of that kind of support and are more eccentric emotionally.”

Jamie Carragher

Carragher is a big believer in the positive effect supporters can have on proceedings

Former Liverpool defender and vice-captain Jamie Carragher believes the home crowd’s influence can even extend to before kick-off.

“You might even get the biggest boost from the crowd during the warm-up,” he tells FFT. “If the stadium is full and the atmosphere is building, you know it’ll help. There’s no doubt it has an effect. If the atmosphere is great and then you get an early goal, you can really build up a head of steam, a 10 per cent lift.

“It affects the opposition and the referee, too. I remember Joe Cole telling me that he just couldn’t concentrate in either Champions League semi-final Chelsea played at Anfield in 2005 and 2007 because the crowd was so crazy. It affected them negatively, as much as it did us positively. Chelsea were a much better side than us back then, but the noise became a leveller. It was frantic and that can sometimes knock teams off their stride.”

Influencing referees

A 2007 study in the Journal of Sports Sciences by Ryan, Adam and Mark Boyko found that home teams have received half as many yellow and red cards, and been awarded 50 per cent more penalties in Premier League history

Nowhere has the 12th man seemingly inspired a team to play above itself more than at Stoke City’s Britannia Stadium, the only football ground in Premier League history to exceed 100 decibels.

“Each game – especially in our first Premier League season [2008/09] – had the feel of a cup final,” former Stoke striker Mamady Sidibe tells FFT. That year, the newly promoted Potters lost only four games at the Britannia to finish 12th. Without such form, relegation would have been a near certainty (they took just 10 points on the road). “You literally couldn’t hear your team-mates shouting two yards away from you,” Sidibe explains. “There was a real intimidation factor.

“I’ll always remember our first home game against Aston Villa in August 2008; we won 3-2 and I got the winner in stoppage time. The fans’ role in getting that result shouldn't be underestimated. They made us believe and we wanted to get the win for them. The whole place went mad when I scored.”

Yet a febrile home atmosphere is about more than just inspiring a team against better-equipped opponents. Increasingly, sports science is turning its gaze to referees and how a home crowd can influence match officials. A 2007 study in the Journal of Sports Sciences by Ryan, Adam and Mark Boyko found that home teams have received half as many yellow and red cards, and been awarded 50 per cent more penalties in Premier League history.

Although it’s easy to dismiss certain anomalies – away teams rarely won penalties at Old Trafford throughout the ’90s and early 2000s because Manchester United were usually the best team in the country, meaning opponents rarely got into their box, and not because of referee bias – studies suggest a general nudge towards home sides.

The most frequently referenced report comes from a study where 40 officials re-refereed a recording of Liverpool’s 1-0 home defeat by Leicester in 1999, half watching with the sound of the crowd, the remainder viewing a silent version. The referees watching with sound gave more decisions to the home team – if not necessarily penalising the away side – coinciding with those given on the day. The researchers concluded that referees subconsciously avoid calls against home sides to shield themselves from excessive stress.

“I can only speak for myself, but I never, ever felt I was influenced by the crowd. But subconsciously, who knows?” said former Premier League referee Jeff Winter at the time. If anything, Winter revealed, it had the opposite effect on him.

“If, as a referee, you walk out to a hostile crowd, especially if you’ve got history with the club, by human nature you’re not exactly going to bend over backwards to help them. Poor little Bolton Wanderers will get the 50-50 [decisions] because the nasty Manchester United fans are singing songs about me.”

Jose Mourinho, with his conspiracy theory about referees not giving things to his teams, might feel Winter has a point.