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Comment & Analysis

Cold stats can’t beat passionate writing



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FOUR months into this fast-unravelling century I landed my first proper job. For a modest wage, I was to be a computer technician in a call centre.

My knowledge of desktops and laptops and servers and the like was sparse, yet by the end of the year I was the second-best technician on our team of 10. The only fella who ranked consistently higher than me was the one lad who knew less than I did about computers.

We had the cult of statistics to thank for our Old Firm like reign over our little league.

It quickly became apparent to myself and my clueless colleague that we were in over our heads with all these technological malfunctions.

So instead of spending years learning all this boring crud we decided, independently, to do whatever it took to hit our targets of five-and-a-half hours’ time online, with 25 calls a day processed at a resolve rate of 75 per cent.

The time online wasn’t a problem; any dope could stay plugged in.

We hit the calls processed target by trouble-shooting any issue presented with the usual “switch it off, unplug the computer, face east, close your eyes and switch it back on, slowly”. If that didn’t work (you would be amazed at the number of people who figure out their own problems while there’s someone on the other end of the line doing nothing much more than encouraging them) then it was time for something more dramatic. You’d veer towards replacing hardware or else doing a software reinstall: wipe the C drive and start again.

And there’s a step further than “format reinstall”. It’s called debug. Yes, it is as drastic as it sounds. Debug means you clear the hard drive and all the partitions and have to start assigning, from scratch, drives for the CD ROM (remember those?) and printers and scanners as well as the C drive and everything else.

I once caught my table-topping colleague insisting a customer debug his machine because the mouse wasn’t scrolling perfectly.

Our diagnostics were on the agricultural side of the IT revolution, so you would imagine we would have come a-cropper with the resolve rate. This stat was affected by repeat calls: if you didn’t fix the problem, the customer would ring back within a week, the new call would be logged so the original techie would forfeit his “fix”.

For some reason, our resolve rates were never far below 80%. The pair of us could never quite figure out why this was. The most plausible theory we could advance was that customers were so disillusioned after speaking to us that they’d be loath to call in again, no matter how violently their desktop was spitting flames into the scorched wall.

Our theory was supported by the evidence that the one truly conscientious guy on the team (who got ridiculed for getting through just 10 calls some days – he actually was trying to help people) had a low resolve rate. He was so decent that folks were eager to ring up the next day for any old reason.

As far as the team leader was concerned his knowledgeable, thorough worker was a liability, while myself and my fellow joker were keepers.

I always think of that multi-billion dollar, multi-national corporation whenever I see statistics in sports articles.

Loads of today’s sports articles include stats. Really, I should go through every article from every paper, magazine and website from the past five years and come up with the exact percentage. The cult of the stat demands it. Anything less would be lazy!

Because of my previous with stats, however, I am highly sceptical of their worth.

There were always a few stats floating around in sport; stuff like shots on target in soccer, scrums lost against the head in rugby, wides in GAA.

Now, no self-respecting Gah hack will put finger to keyboard until he’s figured out how many turnovers in the opposition’s 65 Dublin averaged during the second half of league games, and how many points were kicked as a result. Off the left side. Into a force-three crosswind.

Stats are not limited to hacks. In rugby, you’ll see a bank of fellas poring over laptops behind a brooding coach. GAA teams are rapidly getting up to speed, with some unfortunate results.

Like we were on the IT coalface, players are well aware they are being monitored, so they alter their game accordingly. Instead of playing a long ball from midfield into a full-forward who is obviously marked by at least one man, you see plenty of low-risk handpasses across the field. Nobody wants to lose possession; nobody wants an unfavourable percentage next to their name.

I’m convinced that stats are only worthwhile when the subject doesn’t know he is being analysed. Alternatively, the subject needs to have the courage to do what seems right and not worry about the stats. And he needs to have a manager who understands that stats are important, but will never give you the full picture. That’s a rare combination. I fear we’ve travelled too far down the number-crunching road to come back.

Sports journalism is certainly 95-and-a half per cent of the way down that road. Books like Moneyball by Michael Lewis (which is excellent) and Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski (also excellent) did so much to deconstruct the myths and hokum surrounding their sports.

Only now, everyone is under pressure to be a mockie-ah Lewis or a mini-Kuper.

Con Houlihan, probably Ireland’s best ever sports writer, rarely used stats. He drew on his knowledge of sports, literature, labouring and everything else in his life to produce pieces that told you not just about the game you’d seen, but where it fitted into the wider world.

I fear that if there is a young Con Houlihan in the long grass, he’ll struggle to break into the industry … A rustic, mumbling, scribbler, who avoids the press box and stands with the fans on the terrace then goes for few pints and then turns in handwritten copy that puts words to how you felt – not just what you saw – during the game, and expands your experience of the match with what John B Keane described as “the sheer breath of Con’s vision” … no chance.

There are no terraces now, no late deadlines, nobody with enough time to transcribe scrawled words … No room for anyone doing much other than pressing send from their laptop within 30 seconds of the final whistle.

The next wave of coverage will attempt to forensically decode the key plays of the game.

Absolutely, there is a place for hard analysis.

Ask yourself though, which would you prefer?

“Kerry conceded 23 frees to Dublin’s 33. The Kingdom disputed eight of those decisions, the Dubs complained about 14, none more crucial than when Mikey Sheehy lobbed a distracted Paddy Cullen in the 32nd minute.”


“Suddenly Paddy dashed back towards the goal like a woman who smells a cake burning. The ball won the race and it curled inside the near post as Paddy crashed into the outside of the net and lay against it like a fireman who had returned to find his station ablaze.”

Given the choice, I’ll take Con Houlihan’s account 99 per cent of the time.

Trouble is, despite the vast amount written about every occasion of merit, choice is diminished.

The rise of the stat should not come at the expense of sound instinct. Instinct is far from some hastily-arrived-at conclusion. It’s your life experience; what you’ve done, what you’ve seen, what you’ve read, what you’ve dreamt, what you feel … all processed by the most complex computer you’ll ever use: the human mind.

… And you cannot question my authority on computers: my stats are impeccable.


Focal scór: As if to underline the point that we live in a strange world that can’t be explained by numbers alone, this happens: during the writing of this column, my fellow call centre pc vandal befriends me on Twitter. We haven’t had any contact in at least five years. You couldn’t even begin to work out the odds.



Ronan Early

Ronan Early is Sports Editor and columnist with The Irish Post. Follow him on Twitter @RonanEarly

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