Try­ing to break the hand­pass chains

The pro­posed rule changes in foot­ball have di­vided opin­ion but it must be ac­knowl­edged that a huge amount of se­ri­ous work went into their draft­ing

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Malachy Clerkin:

‘Do play­ers get a say in these rules? Some ab­so­lute ridicu­lous de­ci­sions . . . why change the game based on one or two bad matches? The #GAA has lost its mar­bles with all these rule changes.” – Ben McKin­less, Derry goal­keeper.

“It’s em­bar­rass­ing for some of that rules com­mit­tee that they went to print. There’s no logic to it at all. I don’t know if they even played the game. It was em­bar­rass­ing to even read it. But for them to sit down and waste time, and to let that go to print . . .” – Dar­ren Hughes, Mon­aghan foot­baller.

Lads, lads, lads. What­ever hap­pened to the old dic­tum of it be­ing bet­ter to stay quiet and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and re­move all doubt?

The pro­posed rule changes in foot­ball have di­vided opin­ion, as of course they should. But it surely ought not be be­yond the wit of man to take a dim view of them while at the same time al­low­ing that a huge amount of se­ri­ous work went into their draft­ing.

If not, any­one with mis­giv­ings should sit down with Rob Car­roll. He won’t try to change any­one’s mind – he is nei­ther for nor against the changes to any great ex­tent. But an hour in his com­pany is en­light­en­ing, most es­pe­cially when it comes to the data un­der­pin­ning the work of the Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on Play­ing Rules in Croke Park.


Car­roll goes var­i­ously by Gaelic-Stats and The video an­layst on­line and has worked with sev­eral county teams over the past decade.

The 35-year-old has been the stats man for the In­ter­na­tional Rules team un­der Paul Ear­ley as well. He talks in the calm, un­dra­matic man­ner you would ex­pect from some­one of his back­ground and has no bone to pick with any­one, re­gard­less of their out­rage.

“No, I have no vested in­ter­est here at all,” he says. “I didn’t come up with the rules, I was only in for a cou­ple of meet­ings, I gave them data and some sam­ple clips for the ar­eas they were look­ing into. But no, I wasn’t there when they de­cided how to shape the rules or pick the num­ber of hand­passes to cut off at or any­thing like that. That’s not wash­ing my hands of them but I don’t want to over­play my role ei­ther.”

Back in 2011, Car­roll took a no­tion of do­ing sta­tis­ti­cal anal­y­sis of all tele­vised matches in the foot­ball cham­pi­onship. Partly it was scratch­ing an itch but partly it was to make him­self more valu­able to teams look­ing to bring new stats peo­ple into their back­room set-ups.

“I worked with teams here and there and they were very good at hav­ing and analysing their own info but not so much with op­po­si­tion.

“They might take a game here and there but there was no sense of, ‘Is this what they al­ways do? Or, ‘What were they like last year and how have they evolved?’ And then when man­agers changed and back­room teams changed, all that info got dumped most of the time.

“So I just thought it would be a good thing to have at my dis­posal when I started work­ing with a team, that I could show pat­terns and trends across the board. It’s not that many games. It’s not like the Pre­mier League in soccer where they have 380 games in the course of a sea­son. It’s 60 games at most re­ally. So I thought it would make me more useful.”

So he be­gan col­lect­ing num­bers on pretty much any­thing that hap­pened in a tele­vised game. Ev­ery hand­pass, ev­ery foot­pass, ev­ery shot, ev­ery foul, ev­ery turnover. Any­time a player touched a ball, that was a record­able event. So far, he has built up a data­base cov­er­ing 322 foot­ball matches over eight sea­sons of cham­pi­onship.

Back at the start, he got in touch with Pat Daly in Croke Park and asked had they any of this sort of data at their dis­posal. Daly said they didn’t but they’d love to have it. Not with any great pur­pose in mind but you’d never know when it would be­come useful. And so, when the com­mit­tee – of which Daly is a key mem­ber – set about com­ing up with rule changes ear­lier this year, they got Car­roll in to give them a pre­sen­ta­tion.

“Some­thing that has jumped out at me and it prob­a­bly is the driv­ing force be­hind the pro­posed play­ing rule changes – the num­ber of team pos­ses­sions in a game has plum­meted since 2011. If you take a pos­ses­sion as a goal­keeper kicks it out to a team­mate and the team­mate moves it on un­til there is ei­ther a shot or a foul or a turnover, in 2011 there was on av­er­age 130 of those in ev­ery game. Now, in 2018, that av­er­age is down to 97.


“You’ve gone from a sport where it was, to an ex­tent, ‘you have it, then we’ll have it, then you have it’ pat­tern to the game. What we have now is a sit­u­a­tion whereby even though the games are longer be­cause of the ref­er­ees us­ing proper added time, even though the ball is in play way longer and even though there are more shots and more scores, there are sig­nif­i­cantly fewer pos­ses­sions in ev­ery game. So what that tells us is that the num­ber of turnovers is way, way down.

“When a team has the ball, they hold on to it un­til they can have a shot. It means teams are down from around 65 pos­ses­sions a game to around 45. Mean­while, the num­ber of scores needed to win a game has gone up.

“You gen­er­ally have to get 20 points to win now, out of 45 pos­ses­sions. If that’s, say, 1-17, you need to score 18 times. You only score 50 per cent of your shots, give or take, so that’s 36 shots you need to take in a game. There­fore, you can’t turn the ball over more than eight-to-10 times in a game.”

As a re­sult, the turnover stat has be­come one of the most fo­cused-upon num­bers in the game. A player who gives the ball away twice or three times in a half knows it long be­fore the stats man si­dles up to him at half-time. Pos­ses­sion is sa­cred, there­fore the hand­pass is ven­er­ated.

“This is al­most com­pletely a pos­ses­sion game now. I think the com­mit­tee – and I wouldn’t want to speak for them at all but this is my sense of it – their start­ing point is that the over­whelm­ingly pos­ses­sion-based game is some­thing that they want to change. So you have to put in an el­e­ment of risk-re­ward in or­der to in­cen­tivise that.

“I would imag­ine that’s what the new mark rule is de­signed for. At the mo­ment, it’s just too risky to kick it in to the in­side for­ward line be­cause even if the for­ward catches it, he’s dou­ble-marked so what’s the re­ward? Play­ers know them­selves not to at­tempt it be­cause the over­ar­ch­ing need is to pre­vent turnovers. This could bal­ance that up a lit­tle. Man­agers now might have to go, ‘Well, we won’t win all of the balls kicked in there but if we win two out of four, that’s two points on the board.’ That tilts the bal­ance back a lit­tle.

“Even in the noughties, teams kicked so much more be­cause es­sen­tially they knew they were go­ing to get it back. You could try that di­ag­o­nal 40-yard ball into the full-for­ward line be­cause you knew that if it didn’t come off, the other team would soon try it too, maybe even in the next pos­ses­sion. And you were get­ting up around 65-75 pos­ses­sions a game.

“Over the course of this decade, teams have ba­si­cally changed their mind­set to one of, ‘We are go­ing to keep this ball. We don’t know when we’re go­ing to get it back so we’re mak­ing sure we keep you away from it for as long as pos­si­ble’.”

The largest bank of data Car­roll had for the com­mit­tee con­cerned the hand­pass. Over the 322 games, he ex­am­ined al­most 100,000 hand­passes, com­ing up with num­bers on how of­ten one hand­pass led to another and, cru­cially, how the av­er­age num­ber of con­sec­u­tive hand­passes – or ‘hand­pass chains’ in the ver­nac­u­lar – has changed over the eight sea­sons.

In 2011, the long­est hand­pass chain he recorded went through 14 pairs of hands be­fore some­thing else hap­pened. In 2018, that num­ber rose to 23. In a way, be­cause those fig­ures are out­liers, they’re not mas­sively useful to the con­ver­sa­tion. But they ob­vi­ously point to an over­all trend.

For the com­mit­tee, the more rel­e­vant num­bers are over at the other side of the charts (left).

In 2011, 83 per cent of hand­pass chains lasted no more than three con­sec­u­tive hand­passes. In 2018, that num­ber has fallen to 68 per cent. In ef­fect, what this means is that the num­ber of hand­pass chains of four or more hand­passes has dou­bled in eight sea­sons. Once the com­mit­tee de­cided to cur­tail it, they had to set­tle on a cut-off point. Us­ing Car­roll’s num­bers, they landed on three.

“No­body knows what the limit should be. But if you take In­ter­na­tional Rules, the limit is six. If you look at the graph, mak­ing the limit six in Gaelic foot­ball would make al­most no dif­fer­ence. You would only be deal­ing with chains that cur­rently make up less than 10 per cent of moves in the game. So by pick­ing three hand­passes as the cut-off, you are tar­get­ing 32 per cent of hand­pass chains and elim­i­nat­ing them.

“Now, whether they turn into con­testable kick-passes or not, only time will tell. I think as a gen­eral prin­ci­ple, what the com­mit­tee were aim­ing for is to make the game a lit­tle bit more chaotic and a lit­tle bit more ‘What’s go­ing to hap­pen next?’ Rather than one team has it and moves pa­tiently up the pitch and then the other team does the same when it’s their turn.”


The game evolves and shapeshifts all the time. On a lark – and not that it’s rel­e­vant in any way, shape or form – Car­roll watched the 1965 foot­ball fi­nal once and found that the game was 13 min­utes old be­fore he counted the first hand­pass. No­body, not even the most misty-eyed tra­di­tion­al­ist, is look­ing for a re­turn to those times. But there does ap­pear to be a crit­i­cal mass of opin­ion that feels it has tilted too much in the di­rec­tion of keep-ball-for -all.

Plenty dis­agree, as they should and as they must. Be an­gry by all means, be out­raged, knock your­self out. But don’t imag­ine this stuff hap­pens on a whim, dreamed up on a Mon­day night for re­lease on a Tues­day af­ter­noon.

What­ever the rights and wrongs, the last charge that can be lev­elled is Dar­ren Hughes’s one of there be­ing no logic to the changes. And as for Ben McKin­less and his “one or two bad games”, it’s prob­a­bly best not to run that one past a man who sat through 322 matches and pored over the thick end of 100,000 hand­passes.

“I was purely there to give them the num­bers and what they did with them then was up to them,” says Car­roll. “I’m just in­trigued as much as any­thing to see how it plays out.”

On that, he’s far from alone.


Fer­managh’s Barry Mul­rone makes a hand­pass dur­ing the Ul­ster cham­pi­onship semi-fi­nal against Mon­aghan in Omagh in June.

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