It seemed like a needless rant to some, but it was with good reason that Sir Alex Ferguson criticised the atmosphere at Old Trafford on New Year’s Day. Manchester United might have beaten Birmingham City regardless of their manager’s claims that the club’s supporters were the quietest he had heard them, but scientific research has proven that crowd noise can play a huge part in the fortunes of a team with home advantage.
In their 2002 quantitative study, “The influence of crowd noise and experience upon refereeing decisions in football”, for the Psychology of Sport and Exercise, an official journal of the European Federation of Sports Psychology, Alan M. Nevill, Nigel J. Balmer and A. Mark Williams established that the noise of the crowd influenced referees to favour the home team.
In their study, 40 referees from the North Staffordshire Referees’ Club, from the newly qualified to those with 43 years of experience, were asked to assess the legality of 47 challenges or incidents recorded during a top-flight match between Liverpool and Leicester City at Anfield in the 1998-99 season.
Twenty-two referees watched a video of the game with crowd noise, but no commentary, while the other 18 viewed the video in silence, with binary logistic regression, a technique for making predictions, used to assess separately the effect of the independent variables — crowd noise and years of experience — on each outcome.
Those viewing the incidents with background noise awarded 15.5 per cent fewer fouls against the home team, compared with those watching in silence. The study indicated that the dominant effect of crowd noise was to reduce significantly the number of fouls awarded against the home team, rather than to increase the number of fouls against the away team.
Other investigations have unearthed similarly revealing results. In his 1999 study with Roger L. Holder, entitled “Home advantage in sport: An overview of studies on the advantage of playing at home”, Nevill, a professor at the University of Wolverhampton, concluded that “crowd factors appeared to be the most dominant cause of home advantage” after an analysis of 40,493 football matches showed a home winning percentage of 68.3, excluding draws.
In their 1977 paper, “The home advantage”, B. Schwartz and S. F. Barsky established that home advantage was rooted in the social support that partisan fans give the home team.
Stephen R. Clarke and John M. Norman found in their 1995 review, “Home ground advantage of individual clubs in English soccer”, that there was a depleted advantage in matches involving the 13 London clubs because derbies tend to attract an increased number of away supporters and, as such, there was more vocal support than usual for the visiting team.