At what age do inter-county players reach their peak?

There seems to be no shortage of statistic boffins emerging from the US, and the latest numbers genius to catch the zeitgeist seems to be Nate Silver, now well known from the FiveThirtyEight Blog at the New York Times.

Silver rose to prominence with his stunning electoral predictions, but he began in baseball, where he crunched the vast amount of numbers available and came up with some interesting perspectives on America’s pastime.

Anyway: a flick through his outstanding book, The Signal And The Noise, nudged me towards adopting one of his methods. Silver adapted the approach of another baseball stats guru, Bill James, to work out the age at which baseball players reach their peak — by examining the average age of the MVPs who are picked every season.

I did the same to answer this question: at what age do inter-county players reach their peak?

Looking back at the last 50 years of Texaco Award winners, working out the average age of the winners when they collected the award would point us in that direction. Simple, no?

At first glance we found that the average age of the Gaelic Footballer of the Year was 25.7 years, while the Hurler of the Year was 27.09: a year and a bit between them.

But with all figures a bit of context has to be offered: a bald statement doesn’t do justice to the full picture. With the footballers, for instance, I left out one award winner from the 1970s. Not because including him would have spoiled the sample, though it would have raised the average age of the Footballer of the Year to 26.07 years, in fact.

Why leave someone out, though? It was 1974, the only year in which a manager — Kevin Heffernan, who was then in his mid-40s — and not a footballer got the award.

By contrast, omitting Christy Ring — who won the Hurler of the Year award when he was 39 — would have dropped the average age of the hurling winners to 26.8, but he’s included because unlike Heffernan, he won his award as a player, not a manager (what’s striking initially is the relative similarity to James’s findings: a baseball player peaks at exactly 27).

Certainly the perception that players’ abilities decline after 30 isn’t challenged by this method.

Only 13 hurling awards have been made to players of 30 years or over, and in football 14 players have collected the award at 30 or over (Heffernan excluded again).

At the other end of the scale, though, it’s notable how few players in either code break through as players of the year before leaving the U21 grade.

In football Colm Cooper and Michael Donnellan broke through at 21, while in hurling there also only two winners around that age, both from Cork — Justin McCarthy at 21 and Brian Corcoran at 19.

There is also positional fluctuation to throw into the mix. Take goalkeepers, who are generally viewed as maturing a little later, and lasting a little longer, than outfield players.

Is that borne out by the player of the year group? If the team, and particularly the defence outside a goalkeeper, is good enough to win the All-Ireland — and the All-Ireland champions provide the overwhelming majority of the players of the year — then almost by definition that goalkeeper is under-worked, protected by an All-Ireland-winning set of backs.

Yet there have been players of the year who wore the No 1 jersey: Martin Furlong when he was 36 and Billy Morgan at 28 in football (average: 32); in hurling, Ger Cunningham at 25 and Noel Skehan at 37 (the same year as Furlong’s award, incidentally) and Ollie Walsh at 30 (average: 30).

The smallness of this sample suggests either there isn’t enough data to form a definitive conclusion or, if there is, then whatever about average goalkeepers, exceptional goalkeepers seem to hit their peak later.

I’ll be coming back to this topic later in the summer, but this corner of the paper will be looking at the GAA season from a different perspective all summer.

For instance, next week’s question: does the birth rate in a county skyrocket the year after an All-Ireland win?

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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

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