WATCH: They had one player! Can AI help Leatherhead FC raise their game?

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Things couldn’t have been much worse.

The manager had just walked and most of the squad had followed him out the door.

Leatherhead FC’s entire season had collapsed on a single afternoon, as they suffered the heartbreak of narrowly missing out on the play-offs of the Bostik Premier Division, their final route out of sixth tier of England’s football pyramid.

Meanwhile, an admin error had brought a fine of around a third of their season’s budget, which was already one of the lowest in the division.

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The club required wholesale changes from top to bottom. And the size of the task facing new manager Nicky Bull was about as big as they come, at any level of the game.

“I had one signed player when I took over,” said former goalkeeper Bull, 36, who himself had to come out of retirement for the early stages of the season just to make up the numbers.

“It’s not an ideal situation…but you have to look at the finances and the budget and get the best team possible on the pitch,” he said. “The reality is that the players in the dressing room only met each other three-and-a-half, four weeks ago.”

The chips were down and it was time to think outside the box, to innovate and find creative solutions to the sort of problems that would bring most clubs to their knees.

Leatherhead IBM 6

Assembling an entirely new squad was vital, but the club’s most intriguing and exciting signing of a troubled summer arrived from a unique source: Enter IBM Watson.

“Watson is what we call Artificial Intelligence, so unlike traditional computing where you programme it, with Watson you teach it,” said Joe Pavitt, Master Inventor & Emerging Technology Specialist at IBM Research.

“It will learn and identify patterns over time… so, we can identify any particular weaknesses Leatherhead has and try to encourage their strengths.”

Watson was trained to identify footballing terminology, allowing the coaching staff to ask it questions and seek answers to the on-field performances that stood between them and the most unlikely of revivals.

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Assistant Manager Martin McCarthy was among those instantly won over by the concept.

“I was blown away when I walked out of that office,” he said after his introduction to IBM Watson. “It could be the difference between success and failure.”

Could Leatherhead find salvation through AI, and just how could it impact on the performance of a semi-professional sports side?

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