Success means different things to different teams, depending on context. Winning trophies and celebrating on the field are familiar sights at this time of the year but at the other end of the scale, the avoidance of disaster also brings jubilation.
Scenes from two very different venues on Sunday indicated as much. On Merseyside, Goodison Park has become almost accustomed to final-day deliverance, as the sorrowful mystery of Everton’s seemingly eternal battle with premiership gravity plays out.
Despite the availability of money, different players and constantly changing managers the outcome is frequently a struggle to survive and the celebration of these existential arm wrestles is now a substitute for the ecstasy of winning.
Coming out on the right side of these excruciating matches and leaving it to the supporters of other clubs and their children to weep at their terminated status has become a season’s high.
So it was in Wexford at the weekend. In soccer parlance they started the day in the relegation zone and were handed the tough task of taking something off a Kilkenny team that had been functioning at a higher level all year. If not, the other part of the equation – Westmeath losing to Antrim – was scarily on the cards and duly came to pass.
Playing at home was a perceived advantage for the two sides. Everton can always rely on the howling of their supporters to generate a weird energy that fuels the on-field efforts.
So too Wexford Park in previous championship matches against Kilkenny or on the memorable evening nine years ago when they took down then All-Ireland champions, Clare, has proved an atmospheric venue and conducive to the required synergy of supporters and players.
Both the prematch trepidation and the post-match relief compared the importance of the afternoon to the day four years ago that the most recent Leinster title was won.
Ironically, though, it was the team’s home form that provided the most conspicuous sign of malaise all year. After a league that began disappointingly with a sizeable defeat by Galway in Wexford, they proceeded to lose both of their home matches, including a meltdown against Clare when they conceded six goals.
So although having the vital match against Kilkenny at home was seen as a crucial advantage, experience this year hadn’t been promising. Antrim were beaten but only after rebounding hard to close the gap. The disaster against Westmeath was also in Wexford Park.
There had already been evidence of the unreliability of home form when the All-Ireland quarter-finals were played on a round-robin basis in 2018 and 2019 – the so-called Super 8s.
How a team manages its home fixtures can be a matter of controversy. Dublin hurlers and their manager Micheál Donoghue took a lot of flak for deciding that Croke Park now suited their playing style better than Parnell Park and its tight confines.
But results – the ultimate determinant – have supported the decision. Atmosphere may be funereal in Croke Park but Dublin remain unbeaten over the two matches, beating Wexford by a point and drawing with Galway on Sunday – extending the remarkable record of never having lost a championship match to the westerners in the stadium.
Munster has turned out to be equally ambivalent about the benefits of home advantage. One of the most interesting aspects of the provincial round robins has been the extent to which teams can build a challenge on the basis of playing matches in their own familiar venues.
To date, the 10 group matches have yielded just three home victories: Cork v Waterford, Clare v Cork and Sunday’s Limerick v Cork. The rest have been draws or away wins, a strange trend given that the record attendances in the province surely accentuate the home advantage.
There’s no real suggestion that Gaelic games differ from other sports in the impact of home advantage on competitive fixtures. The evidence is that the figure for home wins is up in the high 50s, as is the case for much of the sporting world.
Research by Lee Rooney and Rodney Kennedy of the University of Ulster at Jordanstown into the football league between 2010 and 2018 put the figure at 57.4 per cent, which is comparable to similar field sports.
Interestingly, Division Three consistently returned a higher rate than the overall during the period under review. It’s unlikely to be a coincidence that the division has consistently been the most competitive in the league.
On the one hand that makes away wins more likely because there is less between the teams but more likely, that overall competitiveness means that home advantage can tip results when the gap between teams is consistently narrow.
In the new Sam Maguire round robin, now two weeks in progress, the outcomes are remarkably counter to the league findings. It’s too early and the sample size too small to draw definite conclusions but of the eight round-robin fixtures to date, just two have ended in home wins, Galway-Tyrone and Armagh-Westmeath.
These fixtures haven’t been outliers either but on paper, very competitive and with a presumed bias to the home team.
What happened the first day was Mayo’s win in Killarney, All-Ireland and Munster champions Kerry’s first championship defeat at Fitzgerald Stadium since Cork beat them in the 1995 provincial final. Clare lost to Donegal and Sligo’s draw with Kildare probably exceeded home supporters’ expectations.
Then at the weekend, there was a second and third failure by provincial champions to exploit home advantage, Dublin and Derry dropped points to Roscommon and Monaghan, respectively. In the latter case it was all the more surprising because Derry had beaten them comfortably at a neutral venue (Omagh) in the Ulster semi-final.
There had already been evidence of the unreliability of home form when the All-Ireland quarterfinals were played on a round-robin basis in 2018 and 2019 – the so-called Super 8s.
Over the two years of this format, there were 16 fixtures designated as “home advantage” and of these just six were won and 10 weren’t, including the one draw in the sequence.
All told, contemporary data is beginning to question the impact of home advantage and it would be interesting to see qualitative research on the matter when a larger sample size becomes available.