I don’t know how may people remember the 1980’s. I wasn’t even alive, but the people I know who were old enough to remember the time describe in a certain way. “It was a simpler time. Things were less… complicated”. Common themes emerge of a nostalgic simplicity no longer present in modern society.
I am not one to go on about the complexities of society overall, the changing scaling of community ideals and acceptable terms and unacceptable behaviours. It is fitting that Australia was reminded of the decade that was the 80’s by the loss of one of our countries most popular leaders, who held office during that time.
The current generation of fans are constantly regaled with stories of yesteryear. The full forward kicking bags of 10 goals plus, and the odd full back that could get the better of them. Midfielders going head to head for 120 minutes and not coming to the bench, or leaving each other’s sides. Wingmen playing their true position and being the link-man for their team on the fat side. The positional play and combative style of the decade is often referred to as the purest time in the game’s history.
But the focus of this article is the period just after the exalted 80’s. The 90’s…more precisely (as the statisticians would prefer) 1996 and the introduction of hardcore statistics to the AFL. Prior to this time, games were judged on a basic set of statistics that included possessions, marks, goals and hit-outs, all judged by the eyes of the fans in the outer. The game style of the day lent itself to titanic duels between giant personalities and gifted individuals in all areas of the ground.
Australians were somewhat naive of the depths (or heights) that statistics could take our game. Rotations, disposal efficiency, ground ball gets, contested possessions/marks, effective tackles, metres gained, clearances and then the subsequent breakdown of clearances and stoppages (clean, dirty, repeat, boundary, centre) as well as sources of scoring (for your team and the opposition). It must be said that Champion Data continually goes above and beyond itself to find the next statistic that could offer a slightly greater insight to the paid expert and the simple fan in the outer.
In the modern age, every armchair expert has access to “the stats”. Player ratings are done by every site with players judged totally on statistics. Still, there is a beauty to going to the football and watching a game with your own eyes. No commentators. No statistics coming across the screen or an expert commentator chipping in with a random indicator they predicted to occur. My favourite part of going to the footy is trying to test my eye for actually watching the game. Reflecting on each quarter and deciding who I thought played well and had an impact. My unfortunate wife (or brother) is usually in charge of letting me know how I compare. I usually have some major differences. Probably because I’m not the best judge of footy (if I was any good, surely, I would be getting paid for it!).
If you were to flick on any footy analysis show on a Monday night (and there are a multitude to choose from) you would find none of them would go five minutes without mentioning a statistic. They are the backbone of any analysis. Commentators can now seem to get any statistic imaginable if they wish. You can hear how a player has decreased his output by 4.7% from last year in a key statistical category based on a 2% decrease to their time on ground, which means they are producing less.
You know what else could lead to that? Touch. Their teammates giving them less of the ball. Being a metre to the left or right of where you want to be. There is a myriad of reasons that can be attributed.
My favourite moment from the last weekend was during the Geelong v North Melbourne game. The game was just “flowing” at the time, with the Cats getting on top after North Melbourne failed to convert their early dominance in the first quarter. The ball was moving forward for Geelong along the wing and David King stated in the commentary that Gary Ablett Junior (arguably one of the five greatest players in AFL history, if not the greatest) was running through the middle of the ground on his own. King, known for his statistical analysis (which is absolutely superb), simply informed everyone that he was alone on the field and was too smart and dangerous to be left like that without hurting the opposition. Sure enough, moments later, the ball was kicked long to the Geelong forward line, a contested situation occurred, the ball came out and who was waiting on the edge of the attacking 50?
He then steadied and kicked he goal for Geelong. It was at this moment that King may as well have been a fan in the outer. You could hear them in your imagination. Sitting their screaming “Who the hell is on Ablett?!”. “Why is he on his own?”. No stats. No critical analysis. other than ‘there is a dangerous player on his own in the middle of the ground’. It was the telling moment of the first half.
Along with this change to heavy statistical analysis akin to American sports, came an array of terminology that has changed the vernacular around our great game. Terms such as “Quarterback Role”, “Dee-fence” and not “defence”. “Offence” has even started to creep in instead of the more traditional “attack” or “Attacking 50”. That’s not say that these terms don’t assist with conveying the message the experts and commentators want to get across, as most pundits do understand them as they also watch the American sports where these terms are used consistently.
It does depend on who you speak to if they like the change or not. It took this writer a long time to get used to “ball-in”.
Most people can now rattle off the statistics of their player of interest better than their partner’s birthday. They become huge sticking points for any discussion around recognition. Game day medals, All-Australian Selection, Media and Coaches Awards. Everything that pits a player against another and the statistics come flying. Ultimately though, players are selected/voted by “experts” on a panel who use the stats to narrow their field, but then use their keen eye to truly judge which player/s are better or more deserving.
This is not to say that this writer doesn’t like stats. I have used them many times in discussions with fellow fans. The problem is that statistics can be manipulated to suit your argument. Carlton fans still argue they are the most successful club in the land, despite a large chunk of them never having seen them play in a Grand Final. That is not to say their history doesn’t count in the modern competition, but stating “we still have more premierships than you” after another clubs wins the Grand Final, kind of falls on deaf ears when the opposition supporter has actually experienced more flags than you. Tell me – who has enjoyed more success, you in the history books, or them in the stands?
Another fitting reminder of this came last week when Tom Boyd retired. The overwhelming consensus from AFL followers is Boyd was the true Norm Smith medallist of the 2016 Grand Final. This is taking nothing away from Jason Johannisen. JJ’s stats show he played an incredible match on the game’s biggest day. But Boyd had a special presence on that day that everyone other than the “exerts” seemed to recognise. I often harken back that games are not won by defenders intercepting the ball and kicking long out of defence (That’s how they are saved). Games are won by big forwards taking big marks and kicking big goals and Boyd did that in spades, not only on Grand Final day, but in every one of the four finals the Bulldogs played in.
The hardest position I think you can apply this too is the full back. Often isolated with minimal disposals and locked in one-on-ones with the opposition’s best forward, the fullback is only as strong as the defence around them. It’s their role to provide support and the ability of the midfield to apply pressure to the delivery coming in to the forward.
Again, a great example of this was evident in the Cats v North game. Blicavs v Brown was tracking in a predictable fashion. The Cats midfield were applying pressure to the North mids, and Geelong defender Tom Stewart was providing expert support and clean up after contests to allow Blicavs to attack. Then something changed. Tom Stewart left the field with a concussion concern. North got on top in the middle and delivered some clean ball into the attacking 50. Lo and behold, Brown took 3 marks on the lead in a row with Blicavs trailing him every time. He converted all three possessions into goals, propelling North back into the contest. The statisticians loved it. On the Monday night you better believe multiple shows mentioned that Tom Stewart was off the ground for 22-minutes and that North scored oh-so-much during that time. No mention of the clean ball out of the centre, a lack of pressure from the Cats, a lucky bounce or something akin to it. No mention of anything else other than Stewart being off the ground and the effect that his absence had on his teammates.
Over the past 24 years, statistics have grown and grown to the point where they now dominate the vernacular surrounding the AFL. It is true that statistics provide us with a greater level of insight and understanding unknown before they were around. But we must be careful not to rely too heavily on them to form our opinions. You should have an opinion on the game and find the stats that support it. However now it seems that people are told statistics from experts and the statistics shape the opinion.
This writer just hopes that there are still some other pundits out there who enjoy a simple game. No constant statistics being rammed down our throats. Just your eyes judging the game and the noise of the crowd and banter between supporters to judge a player’s worth during a game.
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