Gaelic football has evolved but even against massed defences forwards are more accurate than ever 

Gaelic football has evolved but even against massed defences forwards are more accurate than ever 
David Moran of Kerry catches a kickout ahead of Fionn McDonagh of Mayo last summer in Killarney. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

AT the end of the 1980 All-Ireland semi-final between Kerry and Offaly, the late Micheal O’Hehir described it as “an amazing a game as I’ve seen for a very long, long time”.

The commentator’s claim was backed up afterwards by Mick O’Dwyer who felt it was one of the greatest games ever played. Only eight points of the combined total of 8-25 came from placed balls, while the free count of 28 ran at half the average.

The final score was 4-15 to 4-10. It was the third-highest-scoring tally Kerry had ever conceded in the championship during normal time, and also the highest total the great Kerry team conceded between 1975-86.

It was a bit like a carnival. The four hand-passed goals scored led to the practice being abolished the following year. The last three scores in the match were three goals, while only two Offaly players scored — Matt Connor and Gerry Carroll.

Kerry went on to win their third All-Ireland title in a row a month later, but it was the beginning of something special for Offaly. Two years later, they would deny Kerry a historic five-in-a-row.

Dublin achieved that historic feat last year but, before they did, that Kerry team was considered football’s greatest ever team. They ruled the football world with an iron fist for a decade, but they were also discreetly beginning to shape the face of modern football.

Long before there was talk of roving half-forwards, Pat Spillane had a licence to go anywhere. In that 1980 All-Ireland semi-final, Eoin ‘The Bomber’ Liston made half of his plays out the field in a more withdrawn role.

Kerry's Eoin 'Bomber' Liston in action against Offaly in the All-Ireland final in 1981. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
Kerry's Eoin 'Bomber' Liston in action against Offaly in the All-Ireland final in 1981. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

In the same game, Kerry handpassed the ball 95 times, with a lot of their scores originating from space being created through quick hand-transfers.

When Kerry and Offaly met in the 1981 final, there were 82 handpasses in total. How would that compare with modern figures? Last year’s All-Ireland final replay recorded 426 handpasses.

Forty years on, Gaelic football is a completely different game, but there is a perennial debate about the health of the game, and the measurements used to gauge its overall state.

Is football better now than it was 40 years ago? Even the best games back then, the classics of old, do not tend to hold up well to modern scrutiny.

They were of their time and era, but emotion and feeling determine how matches are really remembered. It’s always hard to make comparisons between different eras, but with so much evolution and changes to the modern game, how can we really determine the modern game’s health, especially in its current guise?

Back in April, an excellent study on Gaelic football which appeared in the International Journal of Performance Analysis in Sport, shed some interesting light on how Gaelic football is now played, coached, and analysed.

Titled ‘Determinants of Successful Possession in Elite Gaelic Football,’ the paper was produced by Ben McGuckin, Johnny Bradley, Mike Hughes, Peter O’Donoghue, and Denise Martin.

The study provided the first comprehensive investigation of possession in a full SFC season, with the research providing “an exciting opportunity to create a more holistic understanding of the nature of possessions in Gaelic football and the influence of the various factors which contribute to shot creation”.

Data was collected by analysing all 33 teams for the complete 2016 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship (64 games in total).

Some of the findings were stark and very revealing. Losing teams had nearly 20% more kick-outs than winning teams and were more likely to kick the ball long — 56.5% versus 51.3% of winners’ kick-outs; winners were securing scores from over a quarter (26.8%) of their total kick-outs and conceding scores from just 8%; by contrast, losers were only scoring with 18.4% of the kick-outs taken and were conceding scores from 13.4% —being particularly punished on short kick-outs lost.

The breakdown of turnover-related possessions revealed winning teams win more turnovers (52% versus 48%) and convert a third of these possessions to scores, compared to losing teams’ conversion rate of 27%.

It was the first study to compile average performance data for a full championship.

Profiling the 6,174 possessions played throughout that season created a picture of how and where possession was gained, its duration, the number of passes involved and which factors were important in leading to a shot. The paper detailed how, in the 2016 SFC, the average team had 48 possessions; they lost nearly half of these as turnovers (48%) and converted a third to scores (31%), averaging 1.14 or 17 points.

The paper also revealed how winning teams had more possessions (49), lost fewer turnovers (45%) and were more efficient, scoring 1.17 (20 points) with 41.4% of possession.

The findings revealed for the first time the origin of possessions, made up of kick-outs and turnovers in almost equal measure (49.4% and 48.5%, respectively) with throw-ins accounting for the remainder.

The study found average shot efficiency in 2016 to be 53%, with champions Dublin recording 57% mean shot success from an average shot count of 32.

When compared with other studies on the same theme, the figures over time also supported the theory of a trend towards improved accuracy. Even though football has become more defensively orientated, teams are increasingly being coached to be more clinical with the shots they attempt.

Football has certainly changed in the last four decades.

The game will, of course, continue to change — but the paper by McGuckin, Bradley, Hughes, O’Donoghue, and Martin certainly contributes to everybody’s understanding and measurement of what it actually takes to win in the modern game.

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