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How stat man Johnny helps pundits get the huge calls right

Facts and figures: Derryman Johnny Bradley crunching
the numbers for RTE
Facts and figures: Derryman Johnny Bradley crunching the numbers for RTE
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

Not sure if you heard, it was, after all, kept terribly low-key, but Joe Brolly will not be part of the RTE coverage of the All-Ireland final today, not for the live broadcast nor the late-night highlights package.

Not to worry. There will be a Derry flavour to the punditry in any event with Maghera man Johnny Bradley drilling down on every action of the game for analysis purposes so that, when arguments are presented, they have the evidence to back it up.

Bradley is a sports analyst, but at the same time an accidental analyst. He joined the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland back in 2007 as a web developer, but as a player for the Glen club he found himself intrigued by the work of the High Performance Unit and soon involved himself in the performance analysis side of things through Denise Martin.

Drilling down in what those numbers meant saw him catching a bug that would lead to a change of career and set him on the path of sports performance.

Before long, he was in Seamus 'Banty' McEnaney's backroom team with Monaghan, as well as offering support to Irish hockey, the Northern Ireland netball team and various athletes across swimming, rugby and others, as well as spending time in Kieran McGeeney's Kildare backroom team.

Now he is the Programme Director of the MSc Sports Performance Analysis at Institute of Technology Carlow, which is where RTÉ come in.

"Declan McBennett, who is head of RTÉ Sport, called me back in February," explains Bradley.

"One of the things Declan was adamant about this year was to give the pundits information to surmise the game a little bit quicker. Give them an evidence platform that they can form their opinions on, or a narrative of the game.

"Declan felt the pundits were spending so much time writing stuff down that it was making their job a bit harder. We showed them the benefits of performance analysis so they could take the feed in from RTÉ and give a breakdown of the game from a football and hurling perspective. Compile information that the pundits could use; where the puckouts and kickouts were going. Where are the turnovers occurring?

"That's how it all started, and what the pundits get is the dashboard, updated in real time, and the key information that is telling the story essentially."

Bradley makes it clear that he is not there to impose the statistics upon pundits, but offer it as a means to highlight and reinforce their opinion.

"Every game is different, and I always say to the pundits, 'look at the game, see what you think and if there is anything here I can help you with or steer you in certain directions, I will," says Bradley.

"But from a Gaelic football perspective, how much are teams retaining from their kickouts? Even saying that, there is the short and the long kickout, so how much are they winning from their long kickout and, ultimately, how much are they scoring from their kickout and how much are they scoring from their turnovers?"

The evolution of statistics from wides and break balls won used as a reliable indicator of victory has become more sophisticated, the more Bradley studies the game. Pathways to victory emerge among the numbers.

"The big thing I looked at this year was productivity," he says.

"It's very much a possession game now, so we look at the productivity. We look at all the team possessions and we look at their total points.

"From those, we can say that, 'Dublin are scoring from every 10 possessions they have'. That's a really good measure of how much return they are getting from their possessions."

How can we look into who will win today's replay based on the statistics the first day?

"If you look at that game now, and the last 12 minutes - and we identified this with Colm O'Rourke on the first day - from the 66th minute, and it went on to 78 minutes, Kerry didn't get one score off," points out Bradley.

"There lies the whole premise of why performance analysis is important. Kerry won five kickouts, won all their kickouts, but they got turned over around the middle.

"You are asking the 'why' of what happened. We have identified the 'why', so now we look at the 'what'.

"Dublin had five shots as well, and it was poor enough shot selection. So we can look at that component, that phase of the game, and say, 'well, Dublin did really well to come back but also they had the opportunity to win that game'."

All that is said with the context of Dublin playing with a man down for 43 minutes. He won't blatantly come out and say it, but it all points to history being made by Dublin.

So, who embraces this brave new world?

"I think everybody wants information. Some pundits have a brilliant recall memory, some just want a different insight just to re-affirm and confirm what they have," he says.

"But in the football, the likes of Ciaran Whelan, Tomás Ó Sé, Malachy O'Rourke, Brolly, they all do ask questions and I suppose that is a really good indication that they find it useful.

"In hurling, you have Brendan Cummins, Donal Óg Cusack, Henry Shefflin and Derek McGrath, they really want to do the best job they can when they are there and to frame the narrative.

"So that's the challenge, but it is amazing how it all comes together in such a short period of time."

The live show can still be fraught with danger. Opinions are high on the agenda and can lead to errors of judgement, such as the drawn All-Ireland final when Brolly and Whelan called the two bookings for Dublin defender Jonny Cooper seriously wrong.

Where Bradley's work really comes into its own is for the highlights show.

"I had no idea of the work that goes into it, the production meetings and so on, for people who are coming back in at 6pm and the show goes out at 9.30pm," he says with incredulity.

"In fairness to him, Declan McBennett has given me the opportunity to do this, but also to give the accurate and valid information to the pundits to help them create a better show," he adds.

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