Last Monday, our new columnist Brian Gavin gave a vivid glimpse into the pressures championship hurling can place on a referee as well as touching upon an under-appreciated dynamic at play this summer.

Looking ahead to next Sunday when Ennis stages its first Munster senior hurling championship game in 25 years, Gavin opined that Clare, especially coming off an opening-game loss in Cork, would “be a different animal” for the visit of Waterford.

“The crowd there will be very vocal,” Gavin predicted.

“I won’t say they’re intimidating but Paud O’Dwyer will get their opinion every time and it’s the claustrophobic-type of place where the referee has to stand up for himself.”

Gavin was commenting after a weekend’s Liam MacCarthy hurling in which all four home teams won.

Combine that with the previous weekend’s action when Dublin raised their game at home to scare, though not quite beat, Kilkenny and 67% of the games so far have been won by the home side.

Such a win rate is merely a matter of league form holding through to championship. As we outlined a couple of weeks ago in a championship preview piece about the joys of home advantage, 67% of the points going from all the Division 1A hurling games played since the turn of this decade (2010-18) were claimed by the home side.

In championship, the sample size was clearly much smaller, not least because most games have heretofore been played on neutral ground: For instance, every Clare-Waterford clash in Munster these past 30 years has been staged in either Limerick, or more frequently, Thurles. Yet in the 14 Munster championship games from 2010 to 2017 where there was an identifiable home team, they won 71% of the time.

It’s hardly a phenomenon peculiar to hurling. From 1993 to 2009, 63% of English Premier League soccer matches were won by the home side; in La Liga, 65%; in Serie A, 67%.

If you think teams win at home because of crowd support, you’d be right — just not for the reason you think.

In Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won, finance professor Tobias Moskowitz and Sports Illustrated’s John Wertheim undertook a comprehensive review of the literature on home advantage in team sports.

From 1990 to 2010, the free-throw shooting percentage of NBA away teams — who had to contend with all those giant wagging fingers and cardboard cut-out models being frantically waved within their line of vision — was 75.9% — precisely the same as it was for the home side that was free of such distraction antics.

“When athletes are at home, they don’t seem to hit or pitch better in baseball, shoot free throws better in basketball, slap goals better in hockey shootouts or pass better in [American] football,” Moskowitz and Wertheim deduced.

“The home crowd doesn’t appear to be helping the home team or harming the visitors.”

Yet if home teams were winning so consistently, there had to be a reason for it. More than familiarity of the venue, logistics, and travel, ‘official bias’ was proven to be the most significant contributor to home advantage.

It goes without saying

that officials don’t intend to be biased. But being human, they invariably, subconsciously, are.

The phenomenon was first proven by an unlikely trainspotter, a grandmother in Spain, who for decades religiously watched and recorded Sunday evening La Liga matches, making a note of the amount of injury time played by the officials over the course of those 750-plus games.

Her son, a professor at the London school of economics, came across her log and found that in close games with the home team ahead by a goal, the average injury time was barely two minutes.

If the home team trailed by a goal, the injury time awarded was four minutes. When the sides were level and it was uncertain if playing more or less added time assisted the home team, the average injury time was three minutes.

When there was two or more goals between the teams, there was no bias at all; what ref wants to be perceived to be a blatant homer?

In the NFL, they found that in close games when the officials’ decisions really mattered — and the crowd was really involved — home teams used to enjoy a healthy 12% advantage in recovering fumbles. But upon the advent of instant replay, that advantage simply evaporated.

So what’s at play here? A phenomenon called ‘influence conformity’.

Back in 1955, social psychologist Solomon Asch conducted an experiment in which he asked participants to look at two cards. On Card One was a solitary line.

On Card Two were three lines of varying length, but one of which was the same length as the one on Card One.

Asch planted actors into the group and their insistence that a line considerably shorter than the one common to both cards swayed the naive minority. When interviewed afterwards, the participants admitted they went along with the majority for fear of being ridiculed or considered
‘peculiar’, underlining the tendency of humans to conform because they want to fit in and believe the majority is better informed than they are.

Naturally, the same applies to match officials. “When humans are faced with enormous pressure,” observe Moskowitz and Wertheim, “like making a crucial call with a rabid crowd yelling a few feet away, it is natural to want to alleviate that pressure.

"By making snap-judgement calls in favour of the home team, referees, whether they consciously appreciate it or not, are relieving some of that stress.

They may also be taking a cue from the crowd when trying to make the right call, especially in an uncertain situation. Even if it’s subconsciously, the crowd’s reaction may provide a useful signal that changes their perception.”

Interestingly, Moskowitz and Wertheim have found that the larger the home crowd, the more ‘influence conformity’ is in effect.

Does that apply in Gaelic Games? Academically, there is no research yet but anecdotally, there is the obvious case of the most famed supporters section and terrace in GAA — the Boys in Blue on Hill 16.

Think of the marginal calls in recent years. Johnny Cooper’s flying kick on Diarmuid O’Connor in the 2015 All- Ireland drawn semi-final in front of the Hill when Joe McQuillan showed him only a yellow card.

The drawn All- Ireland final when Denis Bastick picked the ball straight off the ground from Stephen Cluxton’s kickout after Cillian O’Connor’s brilliant equaliser; had it been down by the Hill in front of an army of Mayo fans, would Mayo’s famine continue or would Conor Lane have made the call the rulebook says he technically should have?

In the replay, Lee Keegan was shown black for a foul in front of a baying Hill when, earlier on, Maurice Deegan displayed only a yellow card to John Small at the other end for a hand-trip on Andy Moran.

Last September had Dublin instead of Mayo that penalty claim down by the Hill midway through the second half, would McQuillan have just waved play on, just like David Gough did upon Kevin McManamon’s ‘challenge’ on Kerry’s Peter Crowley in the 2016 semi-final?

As a study by Nevell and Holder concluded, “Clearly it only takes two or three crucial decisions to go against the away team or in favour of the home team to give the side playing at home the ‘edge’,” so you’d have to think influence conformity has won the Dubs a decision and an All-Ireland here and there.

There is likely a degree of influence conformity at work in this year’s hurling championship.

Last Sunday Limerick hadn’t a card dished out to them all day but as Gavin pointed out in his column, Seamus Hickey should have been shown yellow for persistent fouling like Tipperary’s Donagh Maher was for the same offence; right there, as the Moskowitz and Wertheim research suggests, Limerick’s chances of winning increased a further 2%. While they were clearly the better team all day, the outcome was still in the balance when Brendan Maher shipped a late foul but no free or card was issued as James McGrath let play continue while Maher lay on the ground.

In Cork, Gavin pointed out that Sean Cleere had a fine game. But had Patrick Horgan’s flick to Conor Lehane for a goal been in front of a Clare crowd in Ennis, could Cleere’s umpires have been persuaded the ball had gone out of play?

As our championship preview place illustrated, Clare have the best home record in hurling, winning 81% of their home league games these past five seasons.

But what makes Sunday so fascinating is that their visitors are the best road team in hurling.

In Waterford, Derek McGrath’s men have won only 41% of their home games against current Liam MacCarthy counties these past five seasons, which indicates the unavailability of Walsh Park is no bad thing. But their away record over the same time span is 63%. Kilkenny are the only other county to have won more than they’ve lost in enemy territory.

In that same Examiner championship preview supplement, Tony Browne spoke of his experiences of playing in Cusack Park and how it can feel as if the Clare crowd “are on top of you, strangling you”.

But to pre-empt that, he advised Waterford:

“Don’t let these guys get on top early on and allow their crowd into it: Tear into them from the start.”

The research suggests it’s the way to go. In the NBA a road team has only a 37% chance of winning but if they’re ahead at the end of the first quarter, their chances of success jumps to 58%.

Better Waterford try that rather than rely on O’Dwyer “standing up for himself” late on in a tight game. He’s only human after all, vulnerable like everyone to the power of influence conformity and the baying of the maddening crowd.


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