Lots of people think of GAA statistics as counting wides and turnovers, but there are many out there who look to add colour and depth to gaelic games history.
Lots of people think of GAA statistics as counting wides and turnovers, but there are many out there who look to add colour and depth to gaelic games history. 

Adding depth and context to GAA history, one record at a time

By Kevin Egan

Depending on your point of view, the art of keeping statistics in sport probably reached an all-time high, or else an all-time low, when the Detroit Lions played the Chicago Bears on December 11, 2016.

Matthew Stafford was quarterback for the Detroit Lions, and as he came out onto the field to talk to the rest of his team in advance of a play late in the game, the CBS network that was broadcasting the game flashed up the information that he had made four glove changes that day, and that this was a career high for him.

It has often been said that in America, the purpose of sport seems to be to generate statistics as much as it is to provide entertainment for either players or an audience, while things operate a little differently on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. When it comes to reporting on gaelic games, aspects such as a hook/block/tackle count in hurling, or maybe the number of foot passes completed in football, rarely leave a team’s dressing room, if they even make it that far.

Historical information tends to be that little bit more accessible to the general public, though here too, there can be considerable variance from county to county in terms of what is made available. Late last month, veteran Offaly forward Niall McNamee scored a remarkable 3-8 in Rhode’s 4-12 to 3-13 win over Ferbane in the county’s senior football championship, and one local historian, Pat Donegan, was able to note that this was McNamee’s fifth ever ‘hat-trick’ in two decades of playing adult football for Rhode, while it was highest ever tally in a single game.

There are other counties where if a player was to replicate McNamee’s feat, it wouldn’t be so easy to put that achievement in context, but dotted around the country, there are a number of volunteers and enthusiasts who are trying to fill in the colour and the sharpen the lines on the incredibly rich and detailed canvas of GAA history.

Laois GAA historian Eoin Culliton. 
Laois GAA historian Eoin Culliton. 

Eoin Culliton is at the forefront of that work in Laois, and in recent weeks he came to the attention of plenty of people online when he posted some fascinating details surrounding the recent All-Ireland finals through his @GAA_stats twitter account. While noting the 31st anniversary of the death of Donal Keenan, former President of the GAA, he remarked that Keenan – who won All-Ireland senior medals with Roscommon in 1943 and 1944 - was the top scorer across the All-Ireland finals played in that decade.

Other details included the fact that when Tyrone and Mayo went nearly ten minutes without scoring at the start of the second half, that was the slowest restart since the 1926 final replay.

The result may have been the only thing that mattered to the two counties, but the huge level of interest in his work shows that there is a considerable appetite out there for this type of material, and former Laois GAA PRO Pat O’Sullivan recognised this and brought Eoin on to the PR committee in the county.

“I was sitting at home one day around 12 years ago, Tullamore had just won their 26th senior football title in Offaly and Portlaoise were around the same at the time, and that’s the one that sparked it, thinking had they won in tandem or something close to it. I went looking that up, then I went looking for more and more” Eoin recalls.

“Then I started to get into club championships and it was a natural progression from there.

“I was always interested in numbers anyway, anything where you could write numbers down and have a winner, I was always interested.

“I used to love the board game “Páirc”, but I never used to like playing against anyone because they’d do it wrong! I played against my sister once and I said ‘you’re never playing this game again’ because she scored about eight goals and no points, and that’s not a proper GAA score!”

Eoin built on the incredible body of work done by John Phelan, who compiled the ‘Laois GAA Bible’ and now he’s central to maintaining and updating that archive of historical information surrounding GAA activity in the O’Moore County.

He spoke of how they were delighted to be able to recognise county football stalwart Ross Munnelly when he made his 100th league appearance against Longford in 2019, 16 years to the day after he made his debut against Down.

“The countdown was coming to Ross’ 100th appearance, and due to an injury, we could see that it was going to pan out that he was going to play his 100th league game for Laois on the anniversary of his first appearance, 16 years later” said Eoin.

“So we noted it, and then on the day Laois played Longford and Ross started, he played an outstanding game and he scored three points. We put it up on the scoreboard, Ross 100 up, and then as it happened his parents were in the crowd and it was just a lovely moment, and great to be able to acknowledge it. People don’t always realise that even a player who only pulls on his county jersey once has probably trained for years and years to make that dream a reality, and it’s great to have a proper record of it”.

Ross Munnelly's 100th league appearance was the type of milestone Eoin would like to see officially marked on a consistent basis. 
Ross Munnelly's 100th league appearance was the type of milestone Eoin would like to see officially marked on a consistent basis. 

The topic of record keeping and historical statistics also came to the fore in this year’s championship, where Joe Canning became the top scorer of all time, and earlier in the year when David Tubridy of Clare became the highest scorer in the history of National League football, overtaking Mickey Kearins of Sligo. 

Culliton feels that these milestones are very significant.

“What anyone involved in this would love to see is an All-Ireland database, and they would love to know what the records are. For example the David Tubridy record a few months ago, when he became the top scorer ever in the history of National League Football, that came from Pádraig Ferguson.

“It’s a phenomenal record for any player to have, especially for a county like Clare that would have endured some tough years in the league in that time. People are mad to get their hands on this information, and there are people out there that have done a lot of work and if that was collated, that would be a framework from which to build. People like Pádraig have drawn a line, and things can’t go backwards from there”.

While he doesn’t want to see such a project become a “money pit”, saying that those involved in this type of work are always eager to share their data and to see it improved. This isn’t a case of an artist looking for recognition, or for his creation to be left as it is in perpetuity.

“I’ve always said about my Laois information that every detail that is corrected is a step closer to it being perfect. I don’t think I’ll ever achieve perfection but I like people correcting mistakes because when they do, the information is one bit better than it was before.

The Laois GAA Bible, compiled by John Phelan, has been a building block for much of Eoin's work. 
The Laois GAA Bible, compiled by John Phelan, has been a building block for much of Eoin's work. 

“I don’t like doubling up on other people’s work because I am of the belief that eventually, this will become part of a central database. Leo McGough has done incredible work on the hurling, then you have local experts like PJ Maxwell in Tipperary, Pádraig Ferguson has information across a wide range of counties, these guys have done all the work.

“Anybody who has done the work would love to see this on a properly maintained national website, to be able to look up a player and see how many games he has played, and how much he scored”.

There are always challenges, particularly in the earlier days of the GAA where the calendar year in which games took place would not always correspond with the championship season that they pertain to, but as Eoin says: “it’s not like the records are in mandarin Chinese, it’s just a case of going back through the newspaper archives and finding them”.

“If there was one thing I'd change, it would be to put a statistical value on pre-1892 goals. To cover the 1891 final, they'd have to worth nine points,” is one other observation, which would make for an interesting motion at a local club AGM this winter!

Having served his local club Mountmellick as a player, and then as treasurer, Eoin Culliton has since found a unique way to fulfil his own passion and to add to the depth of information out there about gaelic games. And as his growing number of online followers attests, there is a clear appetite out there for his work, and that of so many other devoted historians and statisticians, all looking to add colour and depth to the GAA’s story.