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Ciarán Murphy: Predictions are embedded in sport but why do we need them?

Pundits often find out these things are taken to heart and can come back to haunt them

Predictions are the stock in trade of the modern professional pundit, as Rio Ferdinand discovered to his cost last week. On the eve of England-Scotland, he confidently predicted a convincing England victory, and then after the game he just as confidently blamed his pre-match ebullience on the pandemic – basically, ‘I got emotional, it’s been a long two years, what can I say’.

Confidence is never in short supply in that parish, and maybe that’s what you need to call results before they happen these days.

Ferdinand might have gotten gleefully destroyed from all quarters last weekend, but one is well within one’s rights to ask what exact function the pre-match prediction has in the broader scheme of things. Every GAA championship preview you read this week will include a host of predictions, and quite frankly you’d be disappointed if they didn’t.

All you can do is set out the drama, like a Shakespearean chorus, give us the major characters, and get out of the way

It’s the last thing TV anchors ask pundits before crossing to their commentator, and he or she will often ask their co-commentator for one before the game starts for good measure. It’s an attempt to try and put some order on what is essentially a series of unknowable future events with an incalculable number of factors feeding into a straight two-way fight.

In reality, and this is something John Giles in particular seemed to understand throughout his broadcasting career, all you can do is set out the drama, like a Shakespearean chorus, give us the major characters, and get out of the way.

Subsequent anger at a pundit for getting it wrong, as Rio did with such conviction last Friday night, has plenty to do with the ever-increasing ubiquity of gambling as the vector through which so many people now watch sport.

Pundit class

It’s not a stretch to suggest Dublin will win the Leinster football championship this year, but if you bet €1,000 to realise a €50 profit (or whatever the odds are on Dublin to win the Leinster championship – I’m not going to check for you), and that bet fails to come in, you might be inclined to view with contempt the pundit class who failed to see this coming, and failed to warn you to keep your money in your pocket.

Anyone who predicts that Kildare will end 2021 as Leinster champions might well have seen green shoots of encouragement from their recent league win over Meath, might take into account Jack O’Connor’s pedigree as a coach, and might even look at what county other than Dublin has won multiple underage provincial titles over the last 10 years or so . . . but they’re still not thinking rationally.

That’s obviously not to say that Kildare can’t win, it’s just that we’re not talking about the balance of probability. So what pundits want to do is not baldly state who they think will win, but to equivocate at the right moment, admit the unknowability of much of what we’re about to see, and allow us to come to our own conclusions. The betting slip allows for no such vagueness.

I would certainly have no real interest in any ranking of TV or newspaper pundits that included their ability to predict a result as a major factor. Pat Spillane suggested Kerry could have 'a field day' against Cork in last year's Munster semi-final, and he's had that mentioned to him a couple of times in the intervening period I'm sure.

Predictability is becoming a bit of a problem in the GAA, as Dublin and Limerick look set to continue their domination of Gaelic football and hurling

But he was proved wrong long before Mark Keane’s last-minute goal because Cork were competitive throughout the game, due to an overly-defensive Kerry set-up which we’d already seen before in last year’s league.

Spillane’s error wasn’t failing to predict a Cork win, it was failing to see that the game might pan out as it did.

Precarious

And if it were simply a matter between pundits and punters, then that would be fine – an acknowledgement that it’s a natural, if uncomfortable, part of their job. But we know that’s not true, because players and managers take this stuff to heart too.

The people best placed to know how precarious an environment sport is, who know better than anyone that an analysis of any opponent gives you nothing more than a fleeting edge in a drama that hasn’t been written beforehand, are the people quickest to ram an incorrect prediction down a pundit’s throat. They take it personally.

Predictability is becoming a bit of a problem in the GAA, as Dublin and Limerick look set to continue their domination of Gaelic football and hurling. Getting these things right shouldn't be much of a problem . . . but that's not how this works. As Anthony Daly put it in 2015 – "sure look, hurling. A thousand mad things and someone comes out on top". That might not be a prediction you can take to the bookies, but it captures the essence of it better than most.

(Oh and by the way, the provincial champions will be Mayo, Dublin, Kerry, and Tyrone in football, and Limerick and Galway in hurling, and the two All-Ireland champions will be Dublin, and Galway . . . and I’d stake my entire professional reputation on it.)

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