On the surface, Wingate & Finchley is your quintessential non-league club.
The Maurice Rebak Stadium is the type of ground you find nestled in suburbs across the country; humble yet immaculately maintained by members of the community looking for nothing but three points on the weekend in return.
Upon arrival you’re inundated with offers of tea and biscuits- and the odd whiskey- in clubhouses that serve as footballing time capsules. There’s always at least one continental pennant on the wall paying homage to a bygone tour or glamour friendly.
But, amongst the reassuring familiarity, Wingate & Finchely are trailblazers.
Wingate FC formed in 1946 with the aim of combating antisemitism by offering Jewish people a welcoming environment in which to integrate into society. By then, Finchley FC had already been around for 82 years.
The two clubs merged in 1991 when Wingate found themselves homeless and Finchley found themselves on the brink of financial ruin. Margaret Thatcher, MP for Finchley at the time of the merger, was responsible for rubber stamping the formation of Wingate & Finchely in its current form.
Wingate & Finchely’s history is vital in understanding who they are. You only have to look at the club badge, which includes the Star of David, to grasp that. But the club aren’t afraid of looking to the future when it comes to success on the pitch.
This season, Wingate & Finchely have been turning heads in non-league football by trialling artificial intelligence in the form of an AI coach.
Naturally, the first reaction to hearing about an AI coach in the seventh tier of English football is that it’s a gimmick or a PR stunt. But Wingate & Finchley are seeking to inspire the next generation- whether that be scientists of football coaches- by testing the technology.
Club director Paul Lerman explained: “The Big Bang Fair approached us late last year. They had the idea of bringing in an AI coach that was newly developed and showcasing it at the football club.
“The idea was that it would both help the football club and inspire children to get into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) careers.
“It might seem boring going into coding and it might seem geeky but if you can show children that the end product could be getting out on the pitch and building something in football, what could be more exciting than that?”
In Dave Norman, Wingate & Finchley have the perfect manager to work with, rather than against, the AI coach.
“It was really interesting. My background is in education. So to marry up education and football in terms of artificial intelligence was something we were really positive as a football club to do,” Norman enthused.
“We wanted to help the process of STEM culture and look at how that can be developed to inspire the future. It was designed for youngsters, for them to get a feel of football coaching through the artificial intelligence.
“We had a number of schools down and they had an interactive lesson with some of the developers and the AI coach itself and they found it really exciting and interesting. They loved the interaction with the computer software itself and that’s what it’s for.”
The technology, which works in a similar fashion to the Amazon Alexa by ‘taking into account billions of data points from other matches from the past, whether other non-league games, Man United games and international’, has been used outside of the classroom by Wingate & Finchley.
“We used it in a game to its limits. Football is a very emotional game. Something like an AI coach is never going to be at a certain level. However it can help with the marginal gains,” Norman stated.
“We asked the prototype what formation we should be looking to play against Whitehawk. The information that came out was quite accurate in terms of the team selection but that would only be dependent on the variables inputted into the system prior.”
At the moment, Norman sees the technology as more of a ‘grassroots tool’ to ‘support young coaches and inspire children to use artificial intelligence’ rather than a piece of technology to be used in the heat of battle.
That’s not to say an AI coach won’t soon be sharing the dugout with the Pep Guardiolas and Gareth Southgates of the world.
Lerman believes: “Within football in general, it’s guaranteed to be part of the future. If you look five years down the line there is so much data about tracking opponents and players, and there are so many potential data points, that it’s not possible to do that efficiently as a human.
“Even just tracking in-game sprint speeds and so on to tell whether someone might have a knock you can track immediately using this skill, and that can be fed back to the manager before even a human would realise it on the pitch.”
Normam adds: “Some of the clubs in the Premier League and on the continent are using AI already and that’s been around for a couple of years. They are using it to get as much data as possible to have that marginal gain on the opponents.”
Both Lerman and Norman are happy to continue helping the development of the software with the Big Bang Fair to help it get it to the stage where it’s commonplace in football.
But, for now, Wingate & Finchely’s aims are clear.
“We’ve got a relegation scrap that is priority number one. I think we’ve got about 15 points to get to stay safe so it’s a tall order,” Lerman exhaled nervously.
You wouldn’t begrudge the club some luck in their bid for safety, given their commitment to taking the game forward both on and off the pitch, not to mention inspiring classrooms.
Speaking from personal experience, I would have been a straight-A Science student if football had been involved. Unfortunately it wasn’t, and I still can’t tell my photosynthesis from my periodic table, although I can tell you who the Polish top scorer was in 1994 (Zenon Burzawa).