GAA statistics: Carlow rising avoiding small county curse of player turnover

Fermanagh and Carlow have both maintained a compact and consistent squad

Carlow's rising under manager Turlough O'Brien has been all the more remarkable given that his team have been without their talisman Brendan Murphy for seven of their 13 championship matches under his tenure.

The former AFL professional footballer is one of the finest midfielders in the country. To try and put his quality into figures, operating largely from the middle of the field he has scored 3-30 in 15 championship games for his county. He is averaging just under 0-3 a game, with all but one 45, one free and one sideline kick coming from play.

Murphy opted to depart O'Brien's squad and head for the US following the county's long-awaited promotion from Division Four. In his absence Carlow have already beaten Louth and Kildare by a combined margin of 18 points to qualify for the Leinster semi-final, with just fellow Division Four rivals Laois standing between them and a first provincial decider since 1944.

Since making his Championship debut upon his return from the AFL in 2010, Murphy has played in 15 of Carlow’s Championship matches and missed 10 of them through either suspension or travelling. He has won only four of those 15 championship matches, and in the 10 without him Carlow have also won four.


Five years ago and Carlow wouldn’t even be dreaming of beating Kildare and reaching a Leinster semi-final without their star man. But O’Brien has developed a settled panel and team who are not dependent on individuals but rather their possession-based game plan. And hard work.

So far he has sidestepped the major killer for smaller counties – player turnover. That said, Carlow do (like any team) have a number of players who are crucial to their system.

Murphy's namesake Sean in the middle of the field has been a match for any opponent he has faced in recent years. Daniel St Ledger and Darragh Foley are the only two players who have featured in all of Carlow's eight Championship wins over the past decade. Six of those have come in O'Brien's term.

Placed balls

So far this year (league and Championship) Paul Broderick has accounted for 44 per cent of the team's overall total. His frees – the corner forward has scored 0-50 from placed balls – add up to 30 per cent of Carlow's total. Broderick has scored 3-65 already in 2018.

Since taking over his native county in 2015, O’Brien has handed Championship starts to 36 different players over 13 matches. Looking beyond that, however, and 10 of those players have started in eight or more matches. The average number of starts made in that four-season period (the fourth season is still under way) is five per player. While 10 more players featured off the bench.

Compare that to Leitrim as an example, and the Connacht side have played 52 players in championship football over those same four seasons. They have started 44 players in their 10 Championship matches during that period.

Similarly, fellow strugglers Limerick have started 37 players in just eight matches, and overall 47 Limerick footballers have featured in less than four full Championship seasons. They take on last year’s beaten All-Ireland finalists Mayo on Saturday, with just one Championship win to their name over the past three summers. And they only managed one win in Division Four this year. The sides last met in the Championship in 2002, when Mayo won by a point. But with Limerick’s squad in constant flux a similar battle is not anticipated this time around.

To put Limerick and Leitrim’s mass player turnover into perspective, Dublin are in pursuit of a fourth All-Ireland in a row and after playing 21 games they have started just 29 players.

Leaps and bounds

Fermanagh, like Carlow, are another example of a traditionally weaker county who have maintained a compact and consistent squad of players in recent years. And have come on leaps and bounds as a consequence.

There has been 31 Fermanagh players who have started games in their 14 Championship outings since 2015. That year they reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals for the first time in 11 years. This summer they are in their first Ulster final in 10 years.

Carlow face familiar opponents in Laois this weekend. They haven’t beaten their near neighbours in the Championship since 1988 – although they have met three times since 2010, with Laois taking the bragging rights on each occasion with an average winning margin of 10 points. They also met in the league earlier this year, and in the league final, with Laois again winning both times.

Still, Carlow’s familiar squad will fancy themselves against familiar foes. For the superstitious fans out there, in 1944 Carlow beat a Dublin team in the Leinster final who had beaten Longford in the semis. Imagine.