THE BALANCE of probability suggests Kerry are likely to regain Sam Maguire in 2012, but don’t take our word for it: this is also the verdict of Arpad Elo, a Hungarian-American physics professor and chess master who died 19 years ago.
Elo became important beyond those specialised fields. His system for rating chess players is itself rated so highly for fairness and accuracy that it has been adopted by more mainstream sports.
The NCAA uses it as part of its method for ranking US college gridiron teams; FIFA use it for their women’s world rankings; and USA Today publishes Elo ratings for most major American sports.
The system even got a mention in the Oscar-nominated film The Social Network, in the scene where Mark Zuckerberg explains how the ‘hotness’ of female students will be ranked online.
We thought it would be interesting to compile a similar rating list for inter-county football teams. And whatever else you think of the results, there is no denying that they are interesting.
They told us that Kerry had a 59 per cent chance of beating Dublin in the recent All-Ireland final. However, they also gave us ample warning before that match that the Dubs were ‘startled earwigs’ no more.
Even before Stephen Cluxton turned the Gaelic football world on its head, Dublin’s phenomenal improvement under Pat Gilroy stood out in the ratings. Since summer ’09, they have shot up 75 points. It is important to note how unusual such a quick change in playing strength is; while every football observer would agree that Tyrone are on something of a slide, this takes time to be reflected in the ratings; they were only overtaken by Dublin after the All-Ireland final.
But Dublin have come on in such bounds and leaps that they have rocketed, and the system now tells us that they are the joint second-best team in the country, with Cork. However, if the Boys in Blue continue to beat the best with the regularity they did last year, they will soon challenge the consistent excellence that has Kerry ranked number one.
The beauty of the Elo system is that it is not whether you win that counts; it is how strong the opposition were. Roscommon fans might object to seeing their team in 17th, but Sligo are the highest-ranked team they have beaten in the championship in the past two years. Similarly, a Derry team that has made early summer exits in recent times might look out of place in sixth; but they consistently beat strong teams in the League and Championship, and lose to strong teams as well.
What does the League matter? More than the traditionalists might have you believe. The team that made the biggest ratings jump during the 2010 NFL was Down. Last year, the best-performing league team was Donegal. A believer in the Elo system would not have considered the excellent Championship campaigns both went on to enjoy as any sort of surprise.
Which brings us back to Dublin. It is hard not to conclude that the Dubs’ first trip to a NFL final since 1999 is related to their first All-Ireland final win since 1995. Remember, it is not how many games you win, it is whom you beat to win them; and the Dubs could boast at least one victory over every other member of the top five in 2011 alone. There is only one team that has made a greater improvement these past three years, and that is Down, who went from losing to Wicklow to losing the All-Ireland final by a point in little over a year.
You may not have needed a ratings system to tell you that Dublin were a coming force, but there are other fascinating trends.
Note, for instance, how counties that fare well at U21 level tend to follow up with strong showings at senior level. Derry are the only top 10 team that have not at least been to an All-Ireland U21 final in the past decade; Cavan are the only team outside the top 13 who have been to an U21 decider in that time.
It is on this basis that we suggest a county like All-Ireland U21 champions Galway, who still have a decent rating despite recent travails, might return to competing with the best in the next couple of years.
Another fascinating way to look at the system is in how key injuries affect a team. If you drew a graph of Derry’s rating, you would see it fall sharply the moment they were shorn of the Paddy and Eoin Bradley last summer. Likewise, Kildare’s improvement seems to stall whenever Dermot Earley is injured. Cork fans might also point to the injured list as an excuse for their loss to Mayo this year.
That was a result that shocked most of us; but the ratings suggest that Mayo were never as bad as we thought they were. Most of us believed they were a poor side on the back of one bad day in 2010, when they lost to Longford. Few other sports put such emphasis on one-off knock-out results.
Elo knew that a chess player, like a football team, can over- or under-perform on a given day. That is why London have made no ratings jump; it will take consistency, rather than a win over Fermanagh, to convince our old friend Arpad.
The other fascinating aspect is, of course, that Cork are still rated very highly. Kerry still have a healthy lead, the Dubs are closing fast, and Mayo, Donegal and Kildare are all moving in the right direction.
Perhaps the main thing Elo’s ratings are telling us is what lovers of football were hoping: we have entered a seriously competitive era, and the summer cannot come quickly enough.
Rank County Rating Change last yr Change since NFL 09
1 Kerry 2513 +7 -6
2= Cork 2467 +6 +46
2= Dublin 2467 +47 +75
4 Tyrone 2462 -10 -27
5 Mayo 2409 +2 +9
6 Derry 2385 +2 -30
7 Donegal 2378 +46 +35
8 Kildare 2375 +26 +11
9 Galway 2361 -29 -54
10 Armagh 2312 -17 +4
11 Meath 2302 -24 +9
12 Down 2296 +16 +90
13 Laois 2280 +22 -12
14 Monaghan 2278 -41 -44
15 Wexford 2256 -11 +1
16 Limerick 2186 +9 +44
17 Roscommon 2177 +18 -7
18 Sligo 2174 -34 -2
19 Westmeath 2164 -1 -57
20 Louth 2154 -11 +12
21 Antrim 2144 -8 +25
22 Tipperary 2133 -12 -5
23 Cavan 2132 -9 +3
24 Offaly 2127 +14 +12
25 Longford 2097 +14 -30
26 Wicklow 2086 +10 +46
27 Fermanagh 2078 -26 -65
28 Waterford 2064 -13 -1
29 Leitrim 2058 -8 -47
30 Clare 1989 -10 -5
31 Carlow 1954 +22 +11
32 London 1834 -2 -35