Kieran McGeeney: History is written by the victor

Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney after the game. Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Quarter-Final, Armagh v Donegal. Athletic Grounds, Armagh.

“History is written by the victor”
(origin unknown)

As Sunday approaches and the column inches get filled, we hear more and more theories and stories about what each team is doing and why one will prevail over the other. At the same time, everybody is in fact hedging their bets (me included, as you will read later) just in case people ever find out that nasty secret about most experts. That is, they really are no better at predicting the future than anybody else a lot of the time (‘The Signal and the Noise’ by Nate Silver is worth reading if this topic interests you). And once Sunday is over we will be led to believe that what the victor did was all right and what the loser did was all wrong. It brings me back to 2005, to what was in fact one of Armagh’s more successful years but where eventually everybody told us we were doing everything wrong.

So Armagh had one of its best years which included a National League title, an Ulster title, and an All-Ireland semi-final which we only lost by one point — not a bad run you would think. However not everyone saw it that way, and in fact we were told in the days following our loss that everything we were doing was all wrong, and everything Tyrone was doing was all right! It definitely made you wonder. Surely not everything we were doing could be that far wrong and not everything they were doing was that perfect? So what is the real truth behind defeat and victory?

The truth is there is no simple answer. There is no one singular component or aspect of the game responsible for either. Within each game played there are so many permutations that could happen at any one point, it is difficult to pinpoint where exactly it was won or lost. If it was just one thing surely would Mayo (to name but one) not have discovered this before now and written a different history for themselves in their quest for the Holy Grail?

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Tactics, gameplans and the ability to deal with the ‘what ifs’ have been drawn up for this weekend and practiced over the year. However, how players react to any given situation or adversity is always hard to predict. These “tactics” act as an outline to how the game should be played but how this outline is filled in lies with the ability of the player to adapt to that particular situation. So surely each team and each set of players must be doing a lot of things right to get so far in the competition and play amongst the top teams in the country. So when you look across both teams and look at the common denominators, you get your starting point for what can lead to success.

So what common denominators do we have for Sunday’s game between Dublin and Mayo? We can see both teams have the basics you need to get to the table in a high-movement contact sport. They are both physically strong, very fit, and very aggressive in how they play and how they impose their game on their opponents. They both feel equally adept at the kicking game as they do the running game, so both can adapt to whatever style is thrown at them or whatever style must be incorporated to break down their opponents.

They have proven match-winners in Diarmuid Connolly, Bernard Brogan and Kevin McManamon for Dublin, while Aidan O’Shea, Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor can do likewise for Mayo. They also have great defenders like Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle and Keith Higgins on one side and James McCarthy, Jonny Cooper and Philly McMahon on the other. In the middle, they both have great endurance players in Seamus O’Shea and Donal Vaughan against Michael Darragh Macauley and Brian Fenton.


Although Dublin’s year has been one of consistency and great results and the story that everything that they are doing is right, Mayo’s has been somewhat different. The players took a huge chance in looking for a change of management and in fairness to all involved (especially the outgoing management), everybody put the good of the county first, bit their tongues and moved in the one direction. A couple of bad results in the league and the stories started that everything the new management was doing wasn’t right but then that changed with better results at the end of the league. That changed again when Galway beat them and was revised once more after the Tyrone game. Now they find themselves back against a team that they traditionally do very well against, even in recent times.

So what will the story be after Sunday? Who will write their story in the history books? A Dublin team aiming to become the county’s best ever or a Mayo side breaking that glass ceiling they’ve been under for65 years. All in all, you have what looks like a cracker in store for Sunday. The feeling out there is that Mayo stand little or no chance against the juggernaut of the Boys in Blue but, like the last time we discussed this, all is not what it appears to be. So what do the numbers tell us this time (and thanks again to Brian from BMAC for these stats)?

So for all the nerds out there this is what we see. Having examined the scorelines of all games in the All-Ireland series from quarter-final onwards since 2011, we can see that Dublin and Mayo have both played 16 games during this timeframe. The Dubs winning 13, drawing 1 and losing 2 — scoring on average 19.3 points and conceding 15.4; Mayo have won 9, drew 2 and lost 5 — scoring on average 19.0 and conceding 16.7.

In 2016 the teams have moved in different directions, as Dublin have scored more (20.0 on average) and conceded more (16.5), whereas Mayo have scored less (16.0 on average) and conceded less (13.0). So is the 'Mayo 2016’ defence strong enough to withhold the improved ’Dublin 2016' attack?

In three finals appearances, Dublin have averaged 15 points (1-12) and conceded on average 13.3 (Goals 0.7- Points 11.3). Mayo in two final appearances have also averaged 15 points (Goals 0.5 - Points 13.5) but conceded 17.5 on average (2-11.5). Mayo's final problems seem to centre around goals. In their last two final appearances, they have only scored one (2013 v Dublin) but conceded two in each game (2012 v Donegal and 2013 v Dublin). So unless Mayo can keep the goals out it looks like Dublin should shade it, but like most good analysts out there I will hedge my bets and say that, for a change, Mayo seem to have a bit of luck on their side — even though it hasn’t been their strongest year performance wise. And sometimes it is better to be lucky than good on final day.

In conclusion it’s worth mentioning that Sunday’s game is a culmination of many nights’ of training and effort from these young men, and a day that will live forever in their memories. And, depending on how the result goes, players and management will get lauded for their victory or possibly abused for their defeat. However, as I have tried to explain, there is not a huge difference in how both got to the end of this journey and both teams deserve our respect and admiration for stepping into the arena. Regardless of how history views them after Sunday they all still are our local heroes and are inspiring our next generation of players, supporters and volunteers.


On that note I want to leave you with an actual player’s thought. When thinking of writing this for Sunday, I asked a few players what winning an All-Ireland might mean to them and I got some fantastic answers. This is one:

“To win an All-Ireland would be the realisation of years of dreams since Armagh started winning Ulsters in 1999/2000. Satisfaction that you have brought so much joy and memories to your loved ones, family, friends, the people of your village and the people of your county. Content that you have inspired the next generation and provided a lifetime of dreams to them. Also quietly satisfied that you have been able to perform on that stage and have come out on top. The satisfaction that everybody is looking up at you because nobody could match or better you that year.”