Thursday 19 September 2019

He 'hasn't a clue' about football or hurling - but one man has helped Jim Gavin and Liam Sheedy to All-Ireland glory

Former Dublin stats analyst Ray Boyne, who is now working with the Tipperary hurlers, with
Jim Gavin after the 2016 All-Ireland SFC final. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Former Dublin stats analyst Ray Boyne, who is now working with the Tipperary hurlers, with Jim Gavin after the 2016 All-Ireland SFC final. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Conor McKeon

It's always been about the numbers for Ray Boyne and one in particular from this season stands out.

"It's an hour and 53 minutes from Malahide to Thurles," he laughs. "I can verify that as fact..."

Like plenty of good things, it began with a missed call.

"One day there was a message on my phone," he recalls. 'It's Liam Sheedy, can you give me a ring?'

That was last November.

Boyne, who had been an important component of the Dublin footballers analysis team for over a decade, had spent the previous season assisting Pat Gilroy in his second coming with the county's hurling manager.

After Gilroy's unexpected resignation, Mattie Kenny stepped in and brought with him his own analysis team. Not that Boyne was at a loose end exactly but Sheedy's voicemail was far too intriguing to ignore.

It wasn't the sort of offer he'd been expecting but nor was it the class of opportunity Boyne was inclined reject out of hand. He requested time to think it over. The week before Christmas, Sheedy called again.

GAA Newsletter

Expert GAA analysis straight to your inbox.

Tipperary were training in Abbotstown and their newly-minted manager suggested he come down and observe a session and get a feel for the setup.

Afterwards they had a cup of coffee and Boyne fell into conversation with Damien Young, the Drom-Inch man who has worked as performance analyst with Tipp for the last decade.

"He's one of the top guys in the country," Boyne says now.

"So it was important from my point of view that he would be comfortable with me coming in. And he wasn't only comfortable, he embraced it."

In his time with Dublin under 'Pillar' Caffrey, Gilroy and Jim Gavin, Boyne's role evolved from simply a stats man recording the nuts and bolts metrics of a match to performance analyst, a job that had elements of video review built in. Sheedy had a more specific role in mind.

"We would break the performance into four sections; the physical, the technical, the tactical and the cognitive," he explains.

Young, a lecturer in strength and conditioning in Limerick IT's Thurles campus, oversaw the physical part of that through GPS monitoring.

In Sheedy's maiden All-Ireland win in 2010, Tipp were one of the first counties to avail of GPS monitors through Young, so he could gauge the various conditioning demands of each line of the field

As Boyne explains: "You need somebody who is really good at that, who specialises in it and who can work the strength and conditioning guys and feed that information to them.

"And then, you need somebody who is a video reviewer and that person needs to know a bit more about the tactics of the game.

Direct

"Someone who can watch the game and if there's a specific way the team is supposed to be playing, when they did the things they were supposed to and when they didn't. To direct players, you have to be able to show them what good looks like."

Those responsibilities were divided between Seán Flynn and Finn Briody.

"That meant I could just gravitate towards the aspect of the game I love the most, which is analysing the data and the numbers."

For Boyne, it's always been about the numbers. A hurling match, he explains, is only a maximum of 20 minutes long once you delete the time the ball is out of play. That consists of roughly 100 plays per game, approximately 20 more than an average inter-county Gaelic football match. Within that, the player who has the most possessions in a match will only be in possession of the ball for less than 120 seconds.

"In rugby the big thing is the analysts can have a look at plays and if they want to, they can clip it and throw it down to an iPad on the side of the pitch," Boyne explains.

"And we have tried that in Gaelic football. But the average break in play in a rugby game is 24 seconds, which gives a coach a lifetime to look at anything they want.

"Whereas in Gaelic football, the average break is play is just over five seconds. So they barely get a chance to pick up the bottle and have a drink of water. Then in hurling, you're back down to three seconds."

The role of 'Data and Stats Analysis' suited Boyne perfectly.

Along with Young, Flynn and Finn, they were the analysis team behind the management team that landed this year's All-Ireland. In his speech from the Hogan Stand, Seamus Callanan thanked "Ray Boyne and his team for all the work they've done."

That group consisted of Ray and his two sons; Darragh and Conor.

"It meant we could break the game down into data sets. I can give each of them something to monitor. And then I can layer them on top of one another. And you can begin to see where the trends are.

"That can give you the information that can help coaches when they're working with the players in training.

"Your pass ratio. Your pass return. That's beginning to look at the technical side, which the electronics don't pick up. When you haven't got the ball, positioning."

They created a metric that measured how wide Tipperary were making the pitch when they had possession of the ball and another to quantify how tight they were condensing space when the opposition had it.

"If you look at Tommy Dunne and Eamon O'Shea, their emotional knowledge of the game and their technical knowledge of the game and the way they piece things together … you're not trying to compete with them," Boyne points out. "You're trying to back up what their instincts are telling them."

Boyne, with no undertone of irony, claims to know "nothing" about hurling. Or football, for that matter.

Exaggeration is assumed here but Boyne is adamant.

"People think I say this as a joke - I don't know anything about football and I don't know anything about hurling.

"But realistically, if you put me out managing a team, they would be the worst team under the sun.

"Because I don't have a clue."

That, he feels, puts him at an advantage to others who execute same role as him but with a head full of knowledge and preconceptions. Down the length and breath of the country, Boyne has shared analysis booths with former players or coaches who have been charged with collating data.

Tactically

"They're always thinking tactically and they can't divorce themselves from that," he says. "I've seen that over the years. Guys who are commentating through the game on the tactical aspects of it.

"And I'm thinking 'what's he talking about?!' I don't even understand what he's saying.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's either an X or a tick in that box. And when those numbers come together, it means something from a numeric point of view.

"So I'd be the first person to put my hand up and say it's a huge advantage if you're not steeped in the knowledge of the game.

"You can be almost divorced from it. Dispassionate and analytical."

"You come away from a game and somebody might say, 'which did you think was the best goal?'

"But I couldn't remember any of them. I just record it as a statistic."

"People think you're taking the piss," he adds, "but I just see it as a number or a tick."

Irish Independent

The Throw-In: 'Jim Gavin has achieved what Mick O'Dwyer and Brian Cody couldn't do'

In association with Bord Gáis Energy

Also in Sport