Numbers game fails to tell the full story

The most celebrated in-game statistic by an individual in Gaelic games? There are a couple of stand-out contenders. 
Numbers game fails to tell the full story

For a while, Henry Shefflin held the record. Dr Liam Hennessy revealed the remarkable fact that the Kilkenny legend, in winning the 2002 All-Ireland final man of the match, was in possession of the ball for just 29 seconds. In less than a minute, he’d scored 1-7, 1-3 from play. He had also led the Clare defence on a merry dance in general play. Economy has never been more effective.

But last year David Moran did something that challenged the status bestowed on Shefflin: in the All-Ireland semi-final replay against Mayo, he handled the ball a massive 47 times, known as plays in statistics parlance. Double the amount any Mayo player got their mitts on it, the statistic was greeted with much fanfare and quoted ad nauseam in justifying his man of the match selection.

Moran was phenomenal that evening in the Gaelic Grounds but the amount of ball he saw only told part of his story. Moran saw out the entire 90-plus minutes of the game; he had more opportunity to gain possession. He was on the field longer than countering midfielders Barry Moran and Seamus O’Shea. Aidan O’Shea injured himself. Moran was more prominent but crucially he was more influential.

So often quoted in breaking down the anatomy of a game in figures, a play is not the most reliable indicator of a player’s fortunes. A play may be as simple and trivial as dropping deep to an unchallenged area, collecting a handy ball and returning it back to a team-mate a couple of yards away. A footballer could do that all game long and add little of consequence to the outcome of the tie. Likewise, a player might have ran 12km but how much of that distance was committed?

Hurling is a game of instants, football one of moments, but what the examples of Shefflin and Moran illustrate is that it’s not about the “how much” but the “how well”. The number of plays can’t begin to explain Paddy Andrews’ thriftiness in the All-Ireland semi-final replay against Mayo. Statistics could hardly demonstrate how Darren Hughes’ exquisite decoy run took out two defenders for a Scotstown point in Armagh last Sunday week.

While game data has been embraced by county, club and underage teams the country over, Croke Park has yet to invest in any central collation of statistics. The AFL, on the other hand, have operated the practice for quite some time. In recent International Rules games, journalists have been treated to half-time and full-time stats sheets on both Ireland and Australian teams (although they were absent for last month’s test).

Such fountains of information would only enrich how major football and hurling games are regarded but the criteria used by the AFL such as disposals and hit-outs (balls won at restarts) are time-honoured at this stage. If they are to follow suit, the GAA would need to decide which measures are more appropriate to football and hurling and actually mean something.

It was recently suggested the use of statistics might improve the All Stars selection process although they are quoted regularly in meetings. Data can but only if the right figures are used. Plays are too vague. The current All Stars structure may not be perfect. Selectors can’t attend every game but they can watch most of them and the eye of a non-partisan observer is not something that should ever be dismissed against a stat.

As if often the case in the debates, there is a marrying of the two.

Of the hurlers entitled to travel to Austin, Texas this Thursday on the 2014-15 All-Stars trip, only three or four of the 25 players (five were honoured on both teams) were marginal calls, ones that might be disputed. That return is impressive. Clearly, there is an appetite for more considered analysis but it is essential there isn’t an over-emphasis on the technical. As statisticians stress, their work is primarily to corroborate the management’s reading of a game. For a spectator, stats should complement or challenge their viewing of a game without disturbing it.

But if the GAA is to fully accept the power of statistics then they must be precise, they must be relevant, and that means stressing the qualitative more so than the quantitative.

Blazing a trail in the name of the father

I was supposed to be a Seán. That was my mother’s intention. But before she knew it my father, John, had chosen me to be his namesake and his junior.

He didn’t know it then but it would cause him quite a lot of bother in the years ahead. I’d open his post. Answer calls to the home phone intended for him.

At 6ft5in, you might think I’d a natural advantage in basketball but my aptitude was lacking. The same can’t be said about Pat Spillane junior, though. Watching him shoot baskets during a break in Tadhg Kennelly’s AFL Talent Combine in DCU on Friday, it was clear the boy can play.

Two years ago, the younger Pat featured for Kenmare’s Pobalscoil Inbhear Scéine in an All-Ireland U16 B final and now Kennelly believes he might be a future AFL player.

He is showing all the signs he can handle the mantle of being the offspring of the most decorated Gaelic footballer.

That weight sure is hefty. Remember what Pat senior said about his nephew, Killian, son of Tom, last year? “I would be biased but I would say (Killian’s) the best minor footballer in Ireland. I think he is that good. This guy is, honestly, he’s brilliant.”

As soon as they lace their boots, sons of illustrious fathers are expected to be chips off the old block but when they are named after them it’s that more difficult. Shaping identity is a task more onerous.

For that reason, juniors like Bernard Brogan, Dermot Earley and Richie Power merit more respect than other descendants who have emulated or trumped their fathers’ feats. They are never allowed to forget where they came from but have dug their own furrow.

Changing times for Tipp hurlers

Tipperary hurlers’ decision to pull out of next month’s pre-season competition is in keeping with their determination to break from what has passed.

Who knows who was pushed among the retired quartet of Lar Corbett, Shane McGrath, Conor O’Mahony and James Woodlock but it would be naive to suggest all stepped aside of their own volition. Without the benefit of the arranged games their fellow Munster counties will enjoy in January, their league exploits will be watched with interest.

Relegation was a word mentioned by Babs Keating on radio last week. That may be too negative but where there is uncertainty everything is a possibility.

The whole point of Michael Ryan taking over from Eamon O’Shea was supposed to ensure seamlessness and security but there appears a determination to make changes. Developing a new midfield partnership will take time. Michael Breen may be one part of the solution. Steven O’Brien, so good for the U21 and senior footballers this year, could add a meaner edge to the side.

One of several possibilities but nothing close to the optimism that flowed through the county this time last year.

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