The accidental analyst: Johnny Bradley changing how we see GAA

Just wondering — have we all recovered from the collective mourning now that Joe Brolly will not form part of RTÉ’s squad this weekend?

The accidental analyst: Johnny Bradley changing how we see GAA

Just wondering — have we all recovered from the collective mourning now that Joe Brolly will not form part of RTÉ’s squad this weekend?

Not to worry. There will be a Derry flavour to the punditry in any event with Maghera man Johnny Bradley drilling down on every action of the game for analysis purposes so that when arguments are presented, they have the evidence to back it up.

Bradley is an accidental analyst. He joined the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland back in 2007 as a web developer, but as a club player for the Glen, he found himself intrigued by the work of the High Performance Unit and soon involved himself in the performance analysis side of things through Denise Martin.

Before long, he was in Seamus ‘Banty’ McEnaney’s backroom team with Monaghan, as well as offering support to Irish hockey, the Northern Ireland netball team and various athletes across swimming, rugby, and others, as well as spending time in Kieran McGeeney’s Kildare backroom team.

Now, he is the programme director of the MSc Sports Performance Analysis at Institute of Technology Carlow, which is where RTÉ come in.

“Declan McBennett, head of RTÉ Sport, called me back in February,” explains Bradley.

“One of the things Declan was adamant about this year is to give the pundits information to surmise the game a little bit quicker.

“Give them an evidence platform that they can form their opinions on, or a narrative of the game.

“Declan felt the pundits were spending so much time writing stuff down that it was making their job a bit harder. We showed them the benefits of performance analysis so they could take the feed in from RTÉ and give a breakdown of the game from a football and hurling perspective.

“We would compile information that the pundits could use: where the puckouts and kickouts were going. Where are the turnovers occurring?

“That’s how it all started and what the pundits get is the dashboard — updated in real-time — and the key information that is telling the story of a game, essentially.”

Bradley makes it clear that he is not there to impose the statistics upon pundits, but offer it as a means to highlight and reinforce their opinion.

“Every game is different and I always say to the pundits: ‘Look at the game, see what you think and if there is anything here I can help you with or steer you in certain directions, I will,” says Bradley.

“[An important aspect] from a Gaelic football perspective is how much are teams retaining from their kickouts? Even saying that, there is the short and the long kickout, so how much are the winning from their long kickout and ultimately how much are they scoring from their kickout, and how much are they scoring from their turnovers?”

The evolution of statistics from wides and break balls won used as a reliable indicator of victory has become more sophisticated, the more Bradley studies the game. Pathways to victory emerge among the numbers.

“The big thing I look at this year was productivity,” he says. “It’s very much a possession game now, so we look at the productivity. We look at all the team possessions and we look at their total points. From those, we can say that, say, ‘Dublin are scoring from every 10 possessions they have.’ That’s a really good measure of how much return they are getting from their possessions.”

So, who embraces this brave new world?

“I think everybody wants information. Some pundits have a brilliant recall memory, some just want a different insight just to re-affirm and confirm what they have. But in the football, the likes of Ciaran Whelan, Tomás Ó Sé, Malachy O’Rourke, Joe Brolly, they all do ask questions and I suppose that is a really good indication that they find it useful.

“In hurling, you have Brendan Cummins, Dónal Óg Cusack, Henry Shefflin, and Derek McGrath, they really want to do the best job they can when they are there and to frame the narrative. So that’s the challenge, but it is amazing how it all comes together in such a short period of time.”

The live show can still be fraught with danger. Opinions are high on the agenda and can lead to divisive opinions such as in the All-Ireland final when Brolly and Ciaran Whelan called the two bookings for Dublin’s Jonny Cooper wrong.

Bradley’s work really comes into its own in the highlights show, however.

“I had no idea of the work that goes into it, the production meetings and so on, for people who are coming back in at 6pm and the show goes out at 9.30pm.

“In fairness to him, Declan McBennett has given me the opportunity to do this, but also to give the accurate and valid information to the pundits to help them create a better show.”

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