Roy Jones and his sports research group at Loughborough influenced the flight of the controversial World Cup football and helps athletes from footballers to golfers perfect their aim. Niall Firth reports.
The stunning, swerving goal scored by Germany’s Torsten Frings in the opening game against Costa Rica kicked off this summer’s World Cup in style. Fiercely struck from some 30 yards out, the ball swerved a few metres to the right, putting it just beyond the outstretched hands of the Costa Rican goalkeeper. Within minutes of the final whistle, the ball’s spectacular aerodynamic properties were the subject of the now-familiar debate that erupts at every major football competition. Whenever Fifa introduces a new ball, the complaint is always the same: technological tinkering with the ball is to the detriment of the sport. This year, a parade of ex-players, analysts and goalkeepers – including England’s Paul Robinson – criticised the new ball as being too light and more likely to deviate in flight. While the technology behind the +Teamgeist ball belongs to Adidas, much of the important research into its design was undertaken at Loughborough University’s Sports Technology Research Group. Roy Jones is the group’s leader, based within the university’s School of Mechanical & Manufacturing Engineering. A no-nonsense sports-mad scouser, Jones would rather have been playing centre-forward for his beloved Liverpool than working as a researcher. Sporting aspirations aside, the work that he and his group did with Adidas on the 2006 World Cup ball has been the high point for Jones in the 20 years since he first started sports research at Loughborough. He said the fuss about the ball is par for the course in world football and does not reflect on the quality of what he believes is a superior product. In his opinion, there has not been a competition since 1970 – when the first contracted ball was used – where it has not been criticised for one reason or another. ‘Most of the factors about this World Cup ball are about player perception,’ he said. ‘There is no published data or scientific fact that supports the criticism that has been put forward. The ball is made to Fifa specifications and is no lighter or heavier than any other Fifa-approved ball.’ He added: ‘It does not move in the air more than any others as we have carried out extensive studies both on the ball and its characteristics during flight. Because of its new method of manufacture this ball is significantly better than any previous World Cup balls, more consistent and truer.’ This new manufacturing process was patented by Adidas for the European Championships in 2004 when the company launched its Roteiro football. Traditionally footballs are made from an internal bladder surrounded by a stitched carcass. The +Teamgeist ball uses three levels of construction consisting of a bladder, a stitched inner carcass made from 12 pentagons, followed by thermo-formed panels that are attached to the outside. There are also fewer of these external panels on the new ball, which makes it slightly rounder, according to its manufacturers. While Adidas developed the base technology of the three-layer design, Loughborough made a significant contribution by optimising the construction and design of the ball, as well as analysing its flight. The group, formed in 1986, first began researching golf technology and equipment but it has since expanded its portfolio considerably. Now 27 researchers are working on a range of projects covering rugby balls, tennis racquets, athletic shoes, cricket bats and swimwear among others. One researcher is modelling the biomechanics of horses’ hooves, while another is working with the World Taekwondo Federation to develop personal protection equipment. One of the key areas of work for Jones, which originates from the group’s golf research, is that of player perception and how it shapes sports equipment development. The concept of player perception also relates to the complaints about the World Cup ball, according to Jones. ‘What players perceive is not always correct and can be misleading,’ he said. ‘The perception of what makes a ‘light’ ball is definitely affected by colour and logos, for one. Make a ball black and people will think its heavier. ‘Also, the concept of “feel” in equipment is difficult to analyse but it is important because we need to know what players want.’ Jones is also closely involved in analysing the launch characteristics of balls and projectiles, research that tests new developments in equipment design. By analysing the movement of a ball through the air researchers can accurately monitor the effect that a slight alteration in tennis racquet design, for example, has on how the ball is struck. One of the three spin-out companies to have come out of the group – the others are Progressive Sports Technologies and Smart Weights – is called Sports Dynamics and it has taken this launch analysis technology and applied it to a product known as QuinSpin. Jones believes this new system could have a big impact on the way young footballers are coached in the future. QuinSpin uses special balls marked with reflective dots that trigger sensors the moment the ball is kicked. Digital cameras capture the ball in flight and relay real-time data regarding spin, velocity, direction and trajectory to a PC that allows coaches instant access to the data. The system provides coaches, for the first time, with empirical data on how well a player is striking the ball, according to Jones. ‘If Alex Ferguson buys a new player he knows he kicks the ball well, but not how well. He doesn’t know how he hits it with his left foot compared to his right,’ he said. Jones said the technology is most likely to be used at football academies as a coaching aid for young players. He also thinks it will be a valuable tool in the rehabilitation of players. However, he thinks it could be a while before the Premier League uses the system. ‘If someone has just forked out £33m for a player like Rio Ferdinand no one then wants to be told that the player they have just bought is striking the ball no better than someone in the youth team.’ The group works with all of the big names in sports branding and equipment makers including Nike, Reebok, Callaway Golf and Adidas. While these have massive research teams and budgets, Jones finds they often appreciate the independent expert viewpoint his group provides. Jones and his team are also studying new concepts in cricket bat construction, a research project that is supported by Dunlop Slazenger. His team has been looking at new ways of distributing weight in the bat to make it more manoeuvrable but Jones is doubtful whether it will pass the strict rules laid down by the MCC. This clash of technology versus tradition is a battle that Jones fights on a regular basis. ‘These guys specify the rules and the manufacturers have to work around them. Very often the governing bodies are not aware of how technology can be used and with the more traditional sports it is difficult to make them change their attitude towards technology. There is always this argument between technology and tradition as governing bodies try to protect the ethos of sport,’ he said. Jones believes that too often technology gets the blame when records are broken or performance improves. After attending last month’s Open Golf Championship at Hoylake in Liverpool, he cited the example of watching Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods using similar equipment, but with Woods hitting the ball off the tee up to 80 yards further each time. ‘It is not just the equipment, players are getting better,’ he insisted. ‘Although I do agree you have to protect sport – if every ball at Lords was a six it would ruin the game for example – but the equipment and the technology should not always be blamed.’