Football review: Grey sky, Blue day

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IT WASN’T a great game of football. The conditions had an awful lot to do with it – the floodlights were needed by 4:10pm, such was the overcast downpour on this September Sunday – but while the firefight between the two most potent attacks in football did not materialise, neither did the defensive brilliance that we thought might have been the difference between the sides.

But at the end of it all, few can argue with the final outcome. Dublin demolish most teams (especially in Leinster) not simply because those other sides are so collectively weak, but because Dublin are simply so fearsome themselves. All but one or two teams can go toe-to-toe with them, and few are able to do it consistently enough to rumble them. Kerry were the reigning champions but Dublin have been the highest-rated team in our Elo ratings since midway through their (victorious) League campaign and they’ve now conclusively proven that they’re the top dogs in the land.

Our Elo rating only accommodates fixtures from the start of 2010 but that range now includes six full Championship campaigns, and the current Dublin team have a higher rating than any other this decade. That alone should be testament to how Jim Gavin inherited a great team and turned it into a brilliant one.

Our end-of-year football ratings, predictably enough, show a lot more movement between sides than the hurling ones. That’s partly down to the fact that it’s so tough to bridge the gulf in class between hurling sides, but also a testament to how unexpected runs through the back door or provincial championships can help a side to gain much more momentum than they would otherwise have.

It hasn’t been a great year, but both competitions have been won by one of the all-time great teams. Well done to them, and long may we have sides that simply force the rest to pull their socks up and chase.

Football rankings
(end of 2015 season)
1 +1 Dublin 2052
2 (-1) Kerry 1908
3 (+1) Mayo 1862
4 (-1) Donegal 1726
5 (+1) Tyrone 1685
6 (-1) Cork 1682
7 Monaghan 1663
8 Kildare 1507
9 (+3) Galway 1458
10 (-1) Derry 1457
11 Meath 1392
12 (-2) Armagh 1368
13 (+2) Roscommon 1365
14 (-1) Down 1310
15 (+8) Fermanagh 1309
16 (+1) Cavan 1234
17 (-1) Tipperary 1233
18 (-4) Laois 1207
19 (+2) Sligo 1194
20 Westmeath 1192
21 (+3) Longford 1091
22 (-3) Wexford 1076
23 (-1) Clare 1036
24 (-6) Louth 1021
25 Limerick 1016
26 (+3) Offaly 982
27 Antrim 934
28 Leitrim 849
29 (-3) Wicklow 761
30 (+1) Carlow 682
31 (-1) Waterford 616
32 London 563
33 New York 362

Football preview: An Clasaic

THE 2013 VIDEO says it better than most. After a season that stuttered and started, that exploded and misfired, that provided precious few memorable moments, it climaxes with the old order. It’s the Barcelona-Real Madrid, the Brazil-West Germany, the Hendry-White, the United-Liverpool. The third Sunday of September will see Dublin (1st, 2009) meet Kerry (2nd, 1951).

When the sides met in the 2013 semi-final there was a sense that the game would ascend into a fire-fight, and that the strongest attack would survive. Indeed, so it turned out to be: despite Kerry roaring into an early lead, it was a flurry of Dublin scores at the death that sent the Metropolitans into a seven-point victory.

This time around I personally suspect the match may instead be won by the better defence. Dublin will be well served by getting two decent games against Mayo; they will have learned much more about themselves in squandering one seven point lead, and solidifying another, than in any facile destruction of Westmeath or Fermanagh. Just as Kerry were well served by getting two games against Cork, so too will Dublin be all the better for an extra clash.

But both finalists learned in their drawn games that their attacks are in good shape – and it’s their defence porousness that will be the greater cause of concern. Kerry conceded 3-12 in the drawn Munster final; Dublin shipped 2-15 to Fermanagh and then 1-15 and 1-14 against Mayo (albeit with Mayo being a more potent force). If both attacks function to their best, the game will transform into basketball. It will be the more solid defensive six that will win this game. And with that in mind, maybe Kerry are better served leaving Marc Ó Sé to see out the final stages than have him start and tire when the Dublin bench gets unloaded.

On neutral ground the Dubs would be 56.6% likely to win this one. Notionally, because they are playing in the same place they play every Championship match, they are fancied by 67.4% (almost the same advantage they held over Mayo second time out). But Kerry are never more at home than in Croker; it will almost be as if both sides are at home.

Let’s hope it goes as it should.

Hurling review: He’s the boss, he’s a pip…

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IT WAS NOT a champagne season, it must be said. And while the final looked to be genuinely in the balance for 45 minutes or so, the nature of Kilkenny’s late dominance meant that even Galway’s injury-time goal would not be enough to inject some excitement.

Kilkenny may not be as outwardly overjoyed about their 36th All-Ireland but outsiders have to realise that being top dogs – or rather, Top Cats – is the new normal on Noreside. The team’s identity is to be All-Ireland champions; anything other is a source of tragedy (see the loss of the 2010 final, and the back-door travails of 2013).

In the grand scheme of recent years, this Kilkenny team are not the greatest – but one of the beauties of our Elo model is that we can compare the sides with their predecessors. The Cats finish the year with an Elo rating of 2280, slightly higher than their final outcome last year (2267) or 2011 (2220). Only the winners of 2012 – again, over Galway – had a higher rating at the end of a recent season (2306 – which would have been higher had Galway not pushed them to a replay).

So, in short, this Kilkenny side might not be the greatest of recent years – but in the grand scheme of things, they’re no pushovers either. And they have the medals to prove it.

Galway end the year in third, with Waterford and Cork bringing up the top five. Tipperary’s narrow semi-final defeat sees them hang onto second place over the winter. It’s a placing they would rather forget.

The changes listed below compare the side’s rating to the end of last season.

Hurling rankings
(end of 2015 season)
1 Kilkenny 2280
2 Tipperary 2090
3 (+2) Galway 2039
4 (+4) Waterford 1977
5 (-2) Cork 1910
6 (+1) Dublin 1853
7 (-3) Limerick 1833
8 (-2) Clare 1810
9 Wexford 1683
10 (+3) Kerry 1534
11 (-1) Offaly 1531
12 (-1) Laois 1499
13 (+3) Westmeath 1334
14 Carlow 1311
15 (-3) Antrim 1298
16 (+2) Kildare 1286
17 (-2) Down 1267
18 (-1) Meath 1199
19 Derry 1184
20 (+1) London 1097
21 (+4) Roscommon 1080
22 (-2) Wicklow 1061
23 (+4) Armagh 988
24 (+2) Tyrone 922
25 (-2) Donegal 894
26 (-4) Mayo 863
27 (-3) Fingal 768
28 (+2) Monaghan 743
29 (+2) Longford 610
30 (-1) Fermanagh 609
31 (-3) Louth 575
32 Warwicks 522
33 (+1) Leitrim 367
34 (-1) Sligo 364
35 Lancashire 173

Football review: And so it is, like they said it would be

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AS GARY LINEKER might have said, football is a simple game. 30 men chase a ball around for 70 minutes, and at the end Mayo lose.

One must wonder how much longer the current crop of Mayo footballers can keep going. Ever year without victory simply adds to the weight of recent history, makes it ever harder for the class of 2011-15 to keep climbing the mountain. Five years as Connacht champions have each failed to see them reach the true summit. Hope springs eternal and in February they might well be up for it. But not every February can begin that way.

And as for the Dubs… another final against Kerry. The more things change…

Football rankings
(w/e September 6th, 2015)
1 Dublin 2009
2 Kerry 1951
3 Mayo 1862
4 Donegal 1726
5 Tyrone 1685
6 Cork 1682
7 Monaghan 1663
8 Kildare 1507
9 Galway 1458
10 Derry 1457

Hurling preview: And now, the end is near…

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…AND SO WE face the final curtain of an All-Ireland championship which has, in all honesty, failed to match the frenetic brilliance of the last few.

Kilkenny (1st, 2242) face Galway (3rd, 2077) in a repeat of the Leinster final; just as they did in 2012, when Galway took provincial honours but Kilkenny emerged as national champions following a replay.

There seems to be a strange sense of ‘momentum’ about Galway – the perception that, because they shipped three goals to Tipp in the semi-final and still managed to beat them, that there is a fate written in the stars somewhere that This Is The Year. Maybe that’s the ideal use of Elo ratings – to defuse the emotion from the case at hand.

From this writer’s vantage point there doesn’t seem to be much different about Sunday’s match than to the Leinster final, when Kilkenny seemed to be able to muscle their way to victory without a huge amount of discomfort. The only differing factor is that Galway have since been through the wars against Cork and Tipperary and emerged smiling.

Is that a positive thing though? Can a team like Galway, which has yet to make the ultimate breakthrough, turn on that sort of intensity twice in a month? Time will tell but there’s some scepticism on these pages.

Elo says Kilkenny will win by 68.1%. We shall see.

Football preview: Hello, second coming

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Let’s just park the disciplinary appeals process for a moment and look at the 30 who make it to the field on Saturday. Is it possible that Mayo (3rd, 1908) can stop the Dubs from building up another big lead – or, if they did, is it possible that they could haul it in a second time?

Or, is it possible that Dublin (1st, 1963) could somehow avoid to build up another significant lead that would make them uncatchable?

Elo’s model gives Dublin a 67.1% chance of victory – again, largely influenced by the venue of Croke Park – but we might all simply hope that the game is played in a better spirit than last week.

Football review: Just time to catch breath

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WELL NOW – that was something. Or was it? Yes, the last ten-to-fifteen minutes were extraordinary – Dublin somehow conspiring to squander a seven-point lead when ensconced in the safety blanket of Croke Park. Perhaps it was that sense of panic and frustration that led to Diarmuid Connolly’s late red that might have prematurely ended his season.

Post-match analysis is better left elsewhere – for now let it simply be noted that Dublin are now almost equal to Kerry in our ratings.

Football rankings
(w/e August 30th, 2015)
1 Dublin 1984
2 Kerry 1951
3 Mayo 1887
4 Donegal 1726
5 Tyrone 1685
6 Cork 1682
7 Monaghan 1663
8 Kildare 1507
9 Galway 1458
10 Derry 1457

Football preview: Begin with the end in mind

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ATTACK versus defence. Heartlessness versus meanness. Scoring versus saving. Sunday’s clash of Dublin (1st, 1984) versus Mayo (3rd, 1887) is a ying and yang affair.

For tactical analysis readers should look elsewhere – predominantly to the analyses of Darragh Ó Sé in the Irish Times, and his brother Tomás in the Irish Independent. Both point to the Dublin kick-out as being a key point; Darragh’s piece is particularly striking:

Cluxton is already thinking about his kick-out while attempted shot is still in the air. He doesn’t care if it’s a point or a wide at that point, he’s switched into kick-out mode already while you’ve got your neck craned to see where the ball is landing. […]

So the speed at which he takes his kick can catch you out. He has his players totally tuned in to his wavelength so they’re already moving into position. A few of them are making dummy runs that they know won’t be hit but they’re drawing your men away with them. […]

Hesitate at the wrong moment and bang, he’s hit it 40 yards into Cooper’s chest. Or whoever’s chest. You didn’t do a whole lot wrong and yet you’re on the back-foot while Dublin pour forward in possession.

If Mayo can pour as much energy into this game as they did into their demolition of Donegal, they can confound the Elo model. As it is, Dublin are favourites with a 71% probability of winning.

May the best team win.

Football review: Heads up, Hands down

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Their seventh game of the Championship season – and their 14th competitive match of the year – turned out to be too much for Tyrone, who simply ran out of steam to allow Kerry a four-point victory.

The Red Hand will finish the year in fifth in our rankings – they began it in sixth, on a comparable rating (1636 at the start, 1685 at the end). However it may feel like a return to form, Tyrone are only really keeping the pace.

Meanwhile, Kerry march on. Death and taxes.

Football rankings
(w/e August 23rd, 2015)
1 Dublin 1984
2 Kerry 1951
3 Mayo 1887
4 Donegal 1726
5 Tyrone 1685
6 Cork 1682
7 Monaghan 1663
8 Kildare 1507
9 Galway 1458
10 Derry 1457

Football preview: The Way Old Friends Do

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IT’S ALMOST LIKE something from a decade ago. Kerry and Tyrone, locking horns in the latter part of an All-Ireland football championship.

Kerry (2nd, 1913) on the face of it seem like obvious favourites. They’re the reigning champions, they had two decent tests in the provincial finals against Cork, and have made it here through the straightforward way.

Tyrone (5th, 1723) on the other hand have had to come the hard road. They were the first team eliminated from the Ulster championship (by Donegal in the preliminary round) but they’re now the last surviving northern side, having come the whole way through four rounds of qualifiers and a nasty quarter-final against Monaghan. This match will be their seventh of the summer, and it must be said that while they’ve never looked mighty, they’ve become increasingly strong as the summer has gone on.

So where does that leave us? Elo is keen on form but blind on momentum. On that scale, Kerry are 70.6% favourites. But whether the heart follows the head…