PADDY HEANEY: Why we’ll always be putting all on the line in GAA

I was talking to a man last Friday and he said something that brings a smile to my face every time I’ve thought about it since.

The man’s club recently lost a county final and my friend had his own ideas about where it all went wrong. After outlining his views, he said: “You know, the whole craic around the town is we lost because we went out too early. That’s it. That is the official explanation. We went out too early.”

While he grimaced and shook his head, I laughed. It’s been a long time since I heard that line being proffered as the reason for a defeat. Apart from humouring me, the story lifted my spirits.

In a GAA that is now awash with video analysis, statistics and science, it’s heartening to know that some of the old ways are being kept alive.

Before I played for teams that won nothing, I supported a team that won nothing. Hundreds of games were dissected in our front room.

Subsequently, when it comes to the ancient art of analysing a defeat, I’m an expert. I’ve heard them all.

For example, in the mid-80s, I remember a defeat that was particularly savage. During two hours of intensive discussion, various reasons were thrashed around the room. Everything was put under the microscope. In the end, the general consensus was we lost because the team was “kept in too long at half-time”. Again, you don’t hear excuses like that very often. The game is changing. To be more precise, how we look at the game is changing. Nowadays, we are much more reliant on data. In hurling, we know that the team that forces the most turnovers usually wins. In football, the team with the best conversion ratio (scoring opportunities turned into scores) nearly always comes out on top.

Consider the manner in which this year’s All-Ireland football final was examined. Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs were identified as a major contributing factor to Dublin’s win. By placing his restarts to the wings, Cluxton negated Aidan O’Shea’s aerial prowess and exploited Dublin’s superior speed across the grass. To counter Cluxton’s accuracy, it was suggested that Mayo should have considered zonal marking. If the Mayo defenders and midfielders had reverted to Dr Eamon O’Sullivan’s model and assumed responsibility for a certain square of the pitch, they wouldn’t have been drawn into a straight sprint against Dublin’s speedsters.

That’s modern match analysis. What was once an art has now become a science and it’s fair to say that a bit of the fun has gone out of it.

There was a time not that long ago when cold, hard evidence was never allowed get in the way of a random opinion that was plucked from the ether.

Indeed, men who focused too much attention on airy-fairy things like tactics and preparation were looked upon suspiciously. Back in the day, a bit of information and a large dose of opinion was all that was required. Better still, the information didn’t even have to be reliable. It didn’t even have to true.

A few hours after a Championship defeat, you would often hear that “the manager ran the shite out of them on Friday night”. Teams would also lose because the referee was corrupt. “The referee’s brother is a building contractor and he just got a big job from the chairman of the opposing team. That’s why he gave them everything.” More often, the conspiracy theories surrounding referees weren’t that complex. Usually the referee was biased because a) he had placed a bet, or, b) he was friendly with the other players. “Sure weren’t they all calling him by his first name?”

Without fail, these revelations would be imparted with the authority of someone who was privy to rock solid information. Without fail, it would turn out to be total nonsense. Well, at least most of the time.

If the referee couldn’t be blamed, there was no shortage of scapegoats. Some teams had bogey grounds. Remember Armagh’s Croke Park hoodoo? You can also have bogey teams. We know what happens when Mayo meets Kerry in an All-Ireland final. Waterford are worse. They can’t beat Kilkenny at any time.

By and large, however, it’s usually the manager’s fault. His potential failings numerous. A manager can be too strict (he drove players away) or too lax (there was no discipline). He can be too laissez faire about tactics (there was no game plan) or too prescriptive (they played like robots). He can be too independent (he only had ‘yes’ men around him) or too democratic (he needed a committee to make a decision).

Bear in mind, we have only skimmed the surface on this issue. The book entitled The Ancient Art of Match Analysis in Gaelic Games would be a very hefty tome.

That’s why I feel slightly sorry for the new generation of Gaels who will grow up believing that games are decided solely on things like breaking ball, turnovers and tackle-counts. It’s all very forensic. Apart from the fact that modern analysis is much less open to interpretation, it’s also much less sympathetic to the players. When Down lost the 2010 All-Ireland final, statistics informed us that Cork won 70% of kick-outs. Further analysis revealed Down’s half-forward line was cleaned out because it failed to win any breaking ball. There is no way to sugarcoat stats like that.

Traditionally, GAA fans are reluctant to place too much emphasis on the players. There is a good reason why supporters look beyond the 15 men on the field. To accept that the better team won, you must first accept your players aren’t good enough. In the absence of a transfer market, that type of attitude is downright nihilist. It kills hope. How can you think that next year is going to be different if you accept for one moment that your players just aren’t up to it? That leads me to believe that while the way we look at games is changing, our conclusions remain the same. In the GAA, nine out of 10 games will always be lost on the line.


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