By and large, it isn’t Jim Gavin’s way to go looking for headlines. Indeed, when he walked himself into a bit of bother with a Newstalk interview earlier this summer, there was a fair dash of irony in the fact he made himself a story by attempting to avoid a straight question.
But in the normal run of things, he’s rarely given to slamming or blasting or any of that jazz.
The only time his dander rises at all is when he turns his attention to the free-count in Dublin games. He first brought it up early on in his time, after an All-Ireland quarter-final against Cork in 2013. He took a big stand on it after the 2013 All-Ireland final and it’s something he has returned to several times since, often unprompted. It is the one pebble he can’t seem to get out of his shoe.
(Before we go on, a slight health warning. Free-counting is an exact science carried out by hurried, distracted GAA reporters who would make comically inexact scientists. Other sports make official statistics available immediately after a game, plenty do it in-game. Gaelic football and hurling, not so much. We do our best to count as we go, we compare notes at half-time and full-time and we generally reach a consensus. But you can take it as read there should be a margin of error of plus/minus one on all match totals given here and plus/minus three on season totals.)
Dublin have conceded 96 frees in their five championship games so far this summer, and have been awarded 59. Last year, it went 76-73 against them, In 2013, the figures read 118 conceded, 110 awarded.
Evening itself out
In 16 championship matches under Gavin, the free-count has gone against Dublin 11 times, for them four, with one game evening itself out. The most it has ever gone in their favour is 24-17 (v Kildare in 2013), whereas they have twice had it go against them by double figures – 32-12 in the 2013 All-Ireland final v Mayo and 21-4 against Fermanagh last month.
“From the players’ perspective it’s frustrating to see the free-count so high,” said Gavin in 2013. “Sometimes you can be a little bit at a loss as to why that is because we do place such an emphasis on our tackling. No one would ever accuse this Dublin team of being cynical. We play open, expansive football. It has been happening all year, throughout the league and championship, the tackle count has been going against us for whatever reason. We’re at a bit of a loss to see why that is.”
In the two seasons since, Dublin have necessarily developed a more cynical edge to their play. It was demanded of them after what happened against Donegal last year and they have been notably quicker to snuff out dangerous attacks by foul means this season – as Cian O’Sullivan showed last Sunday. Nobody would say they’re any more cynical than the rest of the elite teams but the days when Gavin could blithely claim them to be cynicism-free are indisputably gone.
They went, in fact, at the end of that 2013 All-Ireland final, the last inter-county game played before the introduction of the black card. Gavin took time out from his winners’ press-conference that day to angrily reject the 32-12 free-count but subsequent video analysis proved he had no case to make.
The closing stages of that final was such a tiresome grabfest that it would have cleared the crowd at a Tyrone county final. By any objective reckoning – with access to slow-motion replays and all the rest – the true free-count was at best in or around 29-13. Dublin were undeniably more sinning than sinned against that day.
But that still doesn’t explain them finding themselves on the wrong end of the free-count so often. Especially since it makes them anomalous to two particular trends across the sporting world. The first, that teams who win a lot tend to have more refereeing decisions go their way, is obviously inexact and unmeasurable since the logic goes both ways, ie, you can just as easily argue that teams who get more refereeing decisions tend to win a lot. It’s hard to pick the point at which the egg ends and the chicken begins.
Bucking the second trend is more interesting, however. It doesn’t matter what sport you choose, studies have proven time and again that home teams tend to come out on the right side of refereeing and umpiring calls over time (see panel).
Though the sample size with Dublin is still relatively small – it’s hard to prove very much of anything with 16 games – it is reasonable to assert that simple human nature ought to swing the pendulum Dublin’s way more often given that they are the only team in the sport to play all their games at home.
“I could be a real Dub here and say that technically, they don’t play at home,” cracks Mossy Quinn. “But in general, I don’t really have a theory about it. I think maybe you could say that other sports are probably a bit more predictable in the way they are refereed.
"With the GAA, Joe [McQuillan] refereed the game on Sunday his way but nobody knows what way Eddie Kinsella is going to referee the replay. I don't know if the venue can have an effect one way or the other."
In their 2014 book Sportscasting, Tobias Moskowitz and L Jon Wertheim found that the single biggest factor in home-field advantage across all sports was inadvertent referee bias. In the NFL, home teams concede fewer penalties per game for smaller yardage. In soccer, home teams are awarded more penalties than visiting teams and see more injury-time played when they're behind and less when they're in front.
In baseball, home teams have strikes called on borderline pitches more regularly in close games, whereas road teams get the majority of the either/or calls in games where the result is in little doubt. It’s not conspiracy theory stuff – just human weakness.
The bigger the home crowd, the more decisions go the home team’s way over time. Crowd noise plays a part, proximity of the audience to the playing field does too. One study saw a group of referees give 15.5 per cent fewer calls against the home team in a soccer match that they watched on TV with crowd noise than another group who watched the same match in silence.
Another saw a severe lessening of home-bias refereeing in German soccer matches played in stadiums with a running track around the pitch as opposed to those where the fans were just metres from the touchline.
So why not Dublin? Nobody has a definitive answer. One argument is they’re not just as skilled in what Gavin calls “the art of tackling” as he’d like them to be. Another is that they’ve beefed up their darker arts as they’ve gone along – their use of basketball-style screen tackling where one player runs across the line of a would-be opposition tackler, thus freeing up a team-mate with the ball, has become far more prevalent this summer.
But it can’t all be down to them. The free-count in the Fermanagh game was ridiculous, as clear and obvious a case of a referee taking outsized sympathy on an outclassed team.
The crowds for early-round Leinster championship games are lower (and quieter) now than they were a decade ago, so the value of home ground is probably not as high. As with anything, it’s most likely a confluence of factors rather than any particular one.
What's most interesting though is that it's the only talking point about which Jim Gavin is willing to speak up against the authorities.
A man who has been in the military most of his adult life will always be careful about when and how to use his ammunition. The rest of us can read what we like into his choice of target.