Wednesday 17 January 2018

Stats confirm play-off place is all we can expect for now

The figures show that we are still short of automatic qualification, says Robbie Butler

Ireland's play-off matches with Estonia will be the 476th and 477th time an Irish senior football team has taken to the field of play.

Our first international outing came way back to 1926 when Italy easily beat us 3-0 in Turin. Since then the team has travelled to faraway places like Brazil, Algeria and even Trinidad and Tobago and enjoyed unforgettable days and nights in cities such as Stuttgart, Rome, New York and Ibaraki.

Such great occasions have led to an insatiable demand for more among the Irish public, so much so that qualification to European and World Cup finals is now a must. However, are our expectations in line with the reality? Is the Irish football team capable of this and should we really expect to qualify for these tournaments?

The recently published book Why England Lose suggests that England should qualify for about 66 per cent, or two-thirds, of World Cups and European Championships. From 1970 to 2008, this is exactly what happened; England reached six out of nine World Cups and six out of nine European Championships.

Sadly, as we all know, Ireland are not as prolific at qualifying for major tournaments. From 1970 to 2008, we managed to qualify for just four. That's a 22 per cent success rate. Yet our expectations before every major qualification group don't match this.

So what should we expect? Should we actually qualify more than we do?

From 1926 to today, the Irish team has a win percentage of 53 per cent (this assumes a draw equals half a win, as assumed in Why England Lose). Examining the periods 1980-'95 and 1996-2011, we can see the Irish team did in fact get better. Our winning percentage from 1980-'95 increased to 58 per cent while from 1996 to 2011 our win rate increased to nearly 61 per cent.

Our goal difference has improved too. Between 1980 and 1995, we scored 1.43 goals for every one conceded. This improves to 1.62 for the next 15 years. I know it's impossible to score 1.62 of a goal but in reality it means that every second game we play we have a one-goal head start. That's great news for Irish football. But is it good enough? The inclusion of meaningless friendly matches against poorer opposition could be helping to increase our winning average.

To overcome this, let's consider just competitive World Cup and European Championship qualifiers, play-off games and finals matches. From 1926 to 2011, our win rate was 54 per cent. This improves for the period 1980-'95 to nearly 59 per cent and improves again to nearly 64 per cent in the last 15 years. More great news.

So why did this not translate into more great nights at Euro 2004 in Portugal or the World Cup 2010 in South Africa? The answer is simple. Sadly, while our win percentage is improving, it is still not high enough. Direct qualification from the European qualifiers to the World Cup from 1998 to 2010 required a win percentage of 82 or around 25 points in the groups. We have been way off the mark here. The play-offs, a more realistic route for us to take, required an win rate of nearly 69 per cent. Again, we fall short.

The only one of these competitions we reached was in 2002 when we managed a win percentage of 80 in our group (24 points from 30) and we still had to endure a play-off with Iran.

The European Championships are slightly easier. From 2000-'08 direct qualification could be guaranteed, on average, with a win percentage of 76, with a play-off assured for any team with an average of just 67 per cent (two games out of three). Again, however, we are just falling short.

In fact, reaching the play-offs for World Cup and European Championship finals is a great example of Irish squads over-achieving. The reason we can look forward to our play-off against Estonia is simple: Ireland achieved a win percentage of 70 in this campaign (21 points from 30). This record would have been good enough for us to make the play-offs in six of the last eight major tournaments. A final examination of the data from 1980 to 2011 is required to consider who might be best to keep bringing the squad forward. Over this 32-year period Ireland has had six full-time managers: four Irishmen, Eoin Hand,

Mick McCarthy, Brian Kerr and Steve Staunton, and two foreign managers, Jack Charlton and Giovanni Trapattoni.

While some may oppose the idea of foreign management of the Irish team, outside managerial talent can be very beneficial. Over the period 1980 to 2011 Irish managers have managed a win percentage of just under 60. Charlton and Trapattoni have managed a win rate of over 64 per cent. Our goal difference is better too. Foreign managers record 1.78 goals for every one conceded compared to the 1.72 ratio for Irish managers. This might be a tiny difference. About one extra goal scored in every 30 games, but it could be a goal in Windsor Park or the Giants Stadium.

The progress we are making is certainly positive. If we can just find another five or six percentage points, we will be guaranteed play-off places at worst in every major qualifying tournament we enter. Until we find this our expectations should stay grounded.

Robbie Butler is a lecturer in UCC's Department of Economics

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