Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Gaelic Football: A Diagnostic, Part I

The GAA published a press release last October blowing their own trumpet – and covering their own back – in the matter of black cards, and how scoring in football had increased in consequence of the card’s introduction. Those figures, unsurprisingly, did not stack up, as discussed here at the time.

Six months on, controversy flares again over the health of Gaelic football, which is either in the full bloom of robust health or anointed and ready for the Next World with no position possible in between. However, we now have two like-for-like datasets to compare – the football league just over, and the football league of last year.

Whether total scores is the best metric to measure the health of the game is open to debate, but as scores are the lingua franca of the current debate, it makes sense to start there. These are the average total scores per game between this year and last year, broken down by Division.

The figures are stark. Scoring is down a total of three and a half points per game across the Divisions. The difference is negligible in Division 3 and 2, while Division 1 and 4’s differences are much more dramatic. Scoring is down by five points per game in Division 4, and by a remarkable eight points per game in Division 1. Here are histograms of total scores between this year and last year (click for a close-up):

Is the scoring drop off county- as well as division-specific? Looking at each individual county (click for a close-up), Tyrone’s is the heaviest loss, followed by Wicklow, Derry and Mayo. Tyrone and Derry have both been relegated, but Wicklow and Mayo remain as they were. Sligo had the best scoring turnaround of all the counties in the League, but Sligo remains in the middle of Division 3. There isn’t a pattern here. The drop-off isn’t a county thing.

The balloon went up on this whole death of Gaelic football debate when Dublin beat Derry in Croke Park by 0-8 to 0-4 two weeks ago and Jarlath Burns tweeted that game as symbolizing “the death of Gaelic football.” How do the head-to-head comparisons work out between last year and this year? Again, click the graph for a proper look:

The Derry and Dublin matchup is there in third place in terms of greatest difference in points scored between this year and last year. Derry and Dublin managed twenty points less between them in 2015 than they managed in 2014. But again, there isn’t a pattern in the matchups per se – it’s all part of the overall pattern that scoring is well down this year compared to last year. It’s impossible to argue otherwise.

So how do these statistics reflect on the health or otherwise of the game? Here, as in so many other issues in Irish life, it all depends on the hobby horse you rode in on.

For instance, the eternally vocal Joe Brolly went in hard on Mickey Harte in over the weekend, accusing Harte of having ruined the game. This is ironic in a number of ways, not least as when “puke football” debuted in the consciousness of the nation in the summer of 2003, Brolly was the blanket’s Number 1 fan.

Has Brolly seen the light, like Paul on his way to Damascus? Or is Brolly eager not to have a black card debate, he himself having passionately argued that the black card would take the cynicism out of the game?

There are two other questions to be answered here, that seem simple but that aren’t, really. What is cynicism? And what is the game? When does doing your utmost to win a game mutate into cynicism, and when does the game you’re playing stop being the game you’re playing, but some other hybrid mutation of it? Come back tomorrow, when we’ll try to figure it out.