Alex(a) Ferguson to non-league side's rescue

AI Football Coach

Away from the Premier League’s host of expensive stars and giant stadiums, world footballing history was quietly being made in the non-leagues this weekend as seventh-tier side Wingate & Finchley FC became the first ever club to play a match with a team coached by an artificial intelligence. The AI-coached club earned a 1-1 draw against fellow relegation rivals Whitehawk FC.

North London outfit Wingate & Finchley FC recently teamed up with The Big Bang Fair to employ an AI as a football coach in a bid to inspire more young people to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

The AI coach has been assisting interim manager Dave Norman on the training ground in the run-up to today’s Isthmian League relegation battle against fellow strugglers Whitehawk FC, from Brighton.

Like any other football coach, the AI football coach has been responsible for recommending the first team’s starting eleven formation and tactics before the kick off. In the lead-up to the match, the AI was provided with information about the strengths and weaknesses of Wingate & Finchley’s players, and those of their opponents. The AI then recommended a 4-3-3 line-up for Wingate & Finchley.

In addition to providing advice ahead of the kick off, the AI joined the other members of the club’s non-playing staff in the dugout where it provided in-game advice for the manager to consider. The AI-assisted Wingate & Finchley FC went on to earn a 1-1 draw at The Maurice Rebak Stadium, with a late equaliser.

The AI football coach was created by a team of artificial intelligence experts at GreenShoot Labs and behaves as an ‘expert system’, using a reasoning engine to determine the best formation and style of play against a given opponent. Once it is in use, the AI football coach stores data from each match and as patterns begin to emerge related to the team's performance it is programmed to evolve and make even more targeted recommendations.

Greenshoot Labs' AI experts ran a free pre-match masterclass for 20 young football fans aged 9 and over, introducing them to the world of STEM and all of its amazing career opportunities.

AI Football Coach masterclass

Dave Norman, manager of Wingate & Finchley FC, said: “The fundamentals of football are exactly the same whether they come from a virtual coach or a human one. As a teacher as a well as a football manager I’m a big supporter of The Big Bang Fair’s goal to get more kids into STEM, so I was more than happy to add the AI to our coaching set-up here at Wingate & Finchley. Over the last few weeks the AI has been a really useful aid for the coaches at the club and, with today’s draw, it can now claim to be an unbeaten coach.”

Beth Elgood, Director of Communications at EngineeringUK, added: “At The Big Bang Fair we are always looking at ways to inspire young people and demonstrate to them, their teachers and their parents the many surprising applications of STEM. It’s clear that AI already plays a significant role in all our lives and many future jobs are likely to need artificial intelligence skills. We wanted to combine the possibilities of AI with something we know a lot of young people enjoy – sport - to inspire young people. We hope the AI football coach can excite football-loving children and shine a light on the many ways STEM plays a role in our lives.”

In addition to its role at Wingate & Finchley, the intention is for the AI football coach to be released as an Alexa Skill that anyone can download and interact with, whether they are professional football managers looking for a bit of AI assistance, a teacher who runs a school team or youngsters inspired by the exciting possibilities of STEM.

Tim Deeson, of Greenshoot Labs, concluded: “We’ve been eager to see what happens when you introduce AI into an environment which is typically not used to having access to it, in this case a non-league football club. In just a few short weeks we have been able to develop an AI system for a team that has helped them with their tactical approach. Over time the AI will learn from the data it gathers and can become an even more insightful tactical aid.

Recent advancements in AI have made it more and more accessible and the upshot of that is we’re seeing artificial intelligence being applied in all sorts of innovative and interesting ways. It’s a really exciting time to be part of the AI industry, but we’ve only just scratched the surface of what is possible. For the next generation of AI professionals, it’s only going to get more exciting.”

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