Friday 15 December 2017

Figuring out that extra edge

Statisticians are now a key weapon in many GAA teams' armoury, writes John O'Brien

John O'Brien

IN the summer of 2006, defeat against Cork still ringing in his ears, Jack O'Connor summoned Sylvester Hennessy to the Bianconi Inn in Killorglin. Hennessy had been a regular contributor on Radio Kerry for almost a year by then, offering detailed breakdowns of matches, new and interesting angles to the age-old reality of winning or losing. If there was anything to all this number-crunching, then the beleaguered Kerry manager wanted to know.

With the knowledge he had so diligently assembled, Hennessy was able to relay things that excited and alarmed O'Connor in equal measure. The authority Darragh ó Sé regularly gave them in midfield wasn't a revelation of biblical proportions, but to see the figures so starkly broken down was illuminating. In the Munster final, ó Sé had made an extraordinary 35 plays. Yet Kerry had still ended up losing. O'Connor had one burning question. Why?

When they had parted, O'Connor rang ó Sé to relay the figures and to ask the same burning question with a "so what have you to say for yourself?" attachment. ó Sé's response was brisk and to the point. "I'm kicking the f***ing ball in," he said. "And it's coming straight back." In a nutshell, he had diagnosed Kerry's problem. The ball was going in. But they couldn't make it stick.

History tells us what happened next. O'Connor retreated to the splendid isolation of his homeland around St Finian's Bay and decided to pursue the notion of fielding an unheralded 23-year-old former basketballer from Tralee at full-forward. The ball started to stick. Kerry railroaded through Armagh, Cork and Mayo to reach the All-Ireland summit again. The numbers weren't everything, but in his willingness to embrace them, to look beyond the old traditions, O'Connor had ensured they played their part.

Fast-forward to 2013. Monaghan are seeking to bridge a 25-year gap by beating Donegal in the Ulster final and are determined to leave nothing to chance. By match day their stats man, Richie Ford, will look back on the previous fortnight and count 14 eight-hour working shifts. Poring over footage, studying the figures to within an inch of their lives, looking for an angle, the merest detail, that might give them an extra tiny edge.

For help they turn to Rob Carroll from Toca Sports in Dublin. Carroll gives them a detailed breakdown on the All-Ireland champions and they see an edge they might usefully exploit. Their gaze falls on Donegal's scoring threat and Colm McFadden in particular. They note that McFadden is left-footed but, curiously, scores most of his goals with his right. Of his previous 51 shots for points, however, he favoured his left on 45 occasions.

"Not only that," explains Ford, "it was also where he kicked from. When you look at Colm McFadden, he's most effective when he's looping around his marker, usually about 45 yards out and maybe 10 yards in from the sideline. He's one of the best in the business at it. He strikes it off his left and he very seldom misses. That was one thing we looked at."

Again, history tells us what transpired. With his homework done, Drew Wylie managed to hold McFadden scoreless from play. In fact, none of Donegal's six starting forwards would trouble the umpires outside of placed balls. Ford isn't vain or naive enough to suppose his own input was the critical distinction between triumph and disaster. Monaghan won due to a multiplicity of factors. But did it help? Indisputably, yes.

"The reason Monaghan won was because of how the team was managed," he says. "We took our lead from Malachy [O'Rourke]. He devised the game plan and the players executed it brilliantly. I'm basically a facilitator. I feed into the whole thing. If what I do is to be used properly, a manager needs a clear idea of his game plan, what he wants from stats and what stats he wants in the first place. It's as simple as that."

And as complex as that too. In assessing how, say, Gaelic football has evolved over the past decade or more, no understanding could be complete without recourse to statistics and how they have shaped not just the way those at the coalface think about the game, but, in part, the very game itself. At the very least, it remains one of the game's most significant growth areas.

Ford remembers the day he got enlisted. He was working a slot on a community radio in Dundalk when Eamonn McEneaney, the newly-appointed Louth manager, arrived in for an interview. Upon leaving, McEneaney had a question of his own for Ford. "How would you fancy doing a wee bit of statistics for Louth?" Eight years on, Ford chuckles at the memory. "A wee bit?" he laughs. "The biggest understatement ever."

When Carroll established Toca Sports with his father in 2005, McEneaney had become their second customer. The first, as it happened, was Dublin's Pillar Caffrey. "It was just about being open to new ideas," McEneaney explains. "Different ways of doing things. I was aware of what they were doing in soccer and rugby. I felt if there was something to glean from this, it would be a mistake not to try it."

In a way, Carroll was the pioneer. Not that he would claim to be a revolutionary or that he is treading entirely new ground. People had been compiling GAA statistics for generations, just as they had in baseball when Billy Beane took over the Oakland A's in the 1990s and famously made statistical analysis the cornerstone of his management style. What Carroll did, like Beane before him, was bring the possibilities to the attention of a wider world.

Beane was the inspiration. In 2004, a business degree behind him, Carroll had set off travelling, doing what so many had done before him, getting out of Dodge for a year. One day he was killing time in Los Angeles airport when he plucked a copy of Moneyball off the shelf and started turning the pages.

By the time they'd landed in Fiji, he had devoured Beane's remarkable story and knew that, somehow, his own life had been irrevocably changed.

What Carroll was offering was a computer program called Dartfish that still required manual input but made the business of assembling stats a thousand times easier. Initially, however, he discovered Ireland wasn't quite yet fertile ground for a Moneyball-style revolution. "There was still a bit of 'well that's not how it was done in my day'. Some were more receptive than others. It took time to explain what it was about and to convince people of the benefits."

That wasn't exclusively a GAA struggle, of course. When he became Ireland soccer manager in 2003, one of Brian Kerr's thankless jobs was to try and convince a seasoned bunch of professional footballers of the benefits of using video analysis. Martin O'Neill was joking last week when he complained of being sent 35 DVDs by Ireland's video analyst, Brian McCarthy, but it still made you wonder how far things had advanced.

There have always been sceptics. Ford recalls being at a seminar in Croke Park at which McEneaney delivered a talk on the subject and

hearing one prominent inter-county manager express his doubts afterwards. "You can drown in statistics," he said. Ford didn't necessarily think it an old-school comment. The danger in becoming all-consumed by numbers was always apparent. He understood precisely where the manager was coming from.

Interestingly, in an international context, the gospel of Moneyball has lately been the topic of a certain revisionism.

"While the Oakland A's enjoyed a lot more success under Billy Beane than they'd previously had, they still didn't win anything with analytics alone until they'd combined it with the human element," says Fergus Connolly, a performance consultant whose clients have included Liverpool, Harlequins and the Cleveland Browns. "That's the most interesting footnote to the story."

Connolly, who also advised Jim Gavin's Dublin this year, has experienced the sabermetrics revolution first hand on both sides of the Atlantic with Tony Khan at the Jacksonville Jaguars and Damien Comolli at Liverpool. Both pioneered the Moneyball philosophy in the NFL and English Premiership respectively.

"The burning question is has it really made a difference to the performance of teams?" Connolly asks. "I think it is certainly team-specific, requires domain knowledge and remains an open question. If used properly, it can help create a platform for success. But it certainly can't guarantee it. Statistics alone won't answer questions. They'll simply allow you ask better ones."

As Connolly sees it, statistics are much easier analysed in baseball because the players remain largely static: the movement between pitcher and slugger is negligible compared to sports where players are in perpetual motion with officials roaming among them. Compiling data becomes a much more complex process.

"Take just one example," he says, "the tackle in Gaelic football. Some people argue it's not clearly defined in the rules of the game. So how will the analyst define it?"

The key would seem to be that, in embracing statistics, it is necessary at the same time to recognise their limitations. "The numbers on their own aren't worth a ball of glue," says McEneaney.

You need to understand what to do with them. Carroll is careful not to sell his packages as a panacea for all ills. "Managers sometimes want too many answers," he says. "People think if the numbers say it, then you have to do it. I don't believe that at all." There is still space, he says, for the age-old gifts of instinct and intuition.

Either way, growth continues. Carroll estimates Toca Sports now has around 25 counties on its books while the GAA itself is one of its biggest clients. On a personal level, he worked with Kieran McGeeney in Kildare and was Paul Earley's performance consultant during the recent international rules series. Ford has noticed a sharp rise in inquiries from club teams, an illustration of how the interest has trickled down.

There are stories of one Leinster county – not Dublin – employing five people in their analysis department while Hennessy sees the progress of Eamonn Fitzmaurice from video analyst to manager as a sign of Kerry's intent. With superior resources at their disposal, it seems safe to assume the stronger counties will benefit most, yet Carroll points to the impressive strides Cavan have taken in recent years and the serious investment the county has made in the area.

Not that anyone imagines the old-school mentality will be quick to fade. A few years back Hennessy was accompanying Weeshie Fogarty of Radio Kerry to a club match in Portlaoise when they were confronted by two men from south Kerry. "Are you the stats guy?" one of them inquired. Hennessy pleaded guilty. "Ye have the f***in' game ruined," the man told him.

So it goes. For the staunch traditionalists down south, the sell is a hard one. At one Kerry ground, Hennessy is invariably greeted by one steward with a good-natured but stinging barb. "Ah here he comes, the man who ruined football."

But Hennessy remembers his formative years watching football, the poor corner-forward being hauled off at the first sign of a team's distress, wondering if the manager was really seeing the game. Then he discovered the numbers and they told him what was actually happening.

He leaves you with a story in defence of his vocation. In 2011, he was on Fogarty's Terrace Talk programme, discussing the topic of Colm Cooper at corner-forward. Hennessy had stats to show that Cooper, bottled up in the corner, was a much more effective presence when he went deep looking for ball. Another member of the panel then took it a step further. Why not play Gooch further out from goal? But Kerry weren't ready for it yet.

Two years on, Fitzmaurice put the plan into action to telling effect. Kerry didn't win the All-Ireland, but Cooper had, by common consent, one of his finest ever years in a Kerry jersey. Once again, the numbers didn't lie.

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