Ray Boyne/Twitter
Stat attack

Number crunching: Inside the world of Dublin football's stats man Ray Boyne

Boyne is a key member of Jim Gavin’s backroom team.

NUMBERS. RAY BOYNE’S always been fascinated by them. They’re his life and his hobby.

His day job is with Ulster bank, where he’s Head of Property Estate Management and Facilities.

And he’s a man fascinated by the trends associated with the Dublin senior football team, under the management of Jim Gavin.

What first started off as a favour for his brother with Erin’s Isle has since developed into serious business for Boyne.

He’s Dublin’s stats man, provider of key information relating to training and matchday. Numbers, zones, putting meaning to them. That’s Boyne’s job. 

He began working with the Dublin minor team in 2003 before linking up with the St Vincent’s seniors. 

“I then worked exclusively with the Dublin senior team under Pillar (Paul Caffrey),” Boyne recalls.

“When Pat (Gilroy) came in, I did both the senior and U21 teams and at the end of 2013, I took a step back from it. By December, I’d been asked to do the development squads in Dublin.

Gary Mathews and Ray Boyne 27/1/2008 Ray Boyne (right) pictured with Gary Mathews in 2008. Donall Farmer / INPHO Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

“When people saw that I had an appetite to do something, a little bit more pressure came on me because Stephen O’Shaughnessy on the Dublin county board, who looks after the development squads, also looks after the Dublin minor set-up.

“I agreed to do the Dublin minor piece and out of the blue, I got a request to do the Dublin ladies football in 2014.

“I did that and I was glad I did. I had a cup of coffee with Jim (Gavin) in November of last year and he asked if I had the appetite back for the senior guys.

“I certainly did but I couldn’t really turn my back on the people I’d worked with in the previous year.

“Paddy Christie had stepped in with the Dublin minors, I worked with him, and worked with Gregory McGonigle again with the ladies.”

Even in the short time that he’d been away, Boyne couldn’t believe how things had moved on when he returned to Gavin’s set-up.

Jim Gavin Dublin boss Jim Gavin. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

But he always knew that Dublin were on a journey – a journey to increased levels of humility.

We went through a period in this country where there was a massive level of entitlement. People felt hugely entitled, they felt entitled to have a second house, a bigger car, two or three holidays a year and maybe a holiday home somewhere in Europe.

“That spills over into athletes. I’m on the Dublin team, I’m a member of the panel, I’m actually entitled to get into Parnell Park for nothing, I can say what I want in an interview, I’m entitled to free boots from adidas and I’m entitled to get in wherever I want, and I’m entitled to walk down my local village with my Dublin sweatshirt on and get a clap on the back.

“Pat (Gilroy) came in and his sole purpose in life was to begin a journey of entitlement to humility, where I’m now entitled to nothing. In actual fact, I’ve got to think, not less of myself, but think of myself less. It’s more about the team.

“It was interesting in the first three months that he was in, the amount of charity work that the players did, probably more than was done in the previous ten years.

Pat Gilroy Ê Former Dublin senior football team manager Pat Gilroy. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“Me and Mickey Whelan in sleeping bags on a December night on a 24-hour fast, lying under the canopy at Arnott’s with 32 players. Midnight runs, the Fr. McVerry walks, all of those things.”

Boyne describes Gavin’s attention to detail as “forensic”, and reveals that if you have serious aspirations of being a senior footballer for Dublin, certain criteria apply.

“There’s a self-selection. You have to select whether you want to be of that type of character and you have to be of that type of character to be part of the set-up.

It really is like the All Blacks, a case of minding the jersey, to hand it off better than when you got it to the next guy. It’s about that culture. It’s been worked on for that length of time.

“These guys are not up their own arses but I’ve seen guys down through the years who are. That’s when your back is against the wall. It’s the humble guys who will be able to stand back up and deliver for you.”

Behind the scenes, Boyne plays his part, compiling and analysing data before relaying key messages to Gavin.

“You’ve got to keep the information simple. There’s a team of people feeding stats within both set-ups, the ladies and the guys.

Gregory McGonigle Gregory McGonigle, manager of the Dublin ladies senior football team. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“A couple of guys on matchday for ladies and similar for the lads. You couldn’t do it on your own, take all of the data coming in, but I would have been very forensic and analytical from the very start, pushing numbers all the time and counting numbers all the time.

“Latterly in the last number of years, it’s more about just zoning in on the areas where you’re doing well and more importantly, from my point of view, the areas where you’re being challenged.

If you’re on 100% return from your own kickout, it’s not a valuable stat to anybody. But what is a valuable stat is how many of those possessions are turned into scores. You’re looking at the second phase and third phase of the primary stat, to see where it’s going.”

For Boyne to maximise his potential, he needs to understand the coach’s philosophy and how he wants the game to be played. Then, he knows the key areas to look out for.

“Every coach, and this is the one thing I’ve seen over the years, wants to play the game differently. There’s probably two primary styles of football – you’re either a short-passing, running game and you’re getting everybody back behind the ball and support of the ball when it’s going forward, or you’re playing a more direct style of football, where you would see far more kick-passing.

“The first thing you need to do is have that debate with the coach. ‘What does good look like’ is the question I like to ask. What do you want from each line on the field?

“There’s no point in me measuring something like the number of handpasses if the coach’s preference is to kick the ball. It may sound simple, and it is very, very simple. It’s understanding what the needs are from the coach’s point of view.”

Stephen Cluxton Captain Stephen Cluxton is central to Dublin's gameplan. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

We ask if he keeps an eye on the possessions won in direct one-on-one confrontations, full-back and against full-forward, for example? Not necessarily.

“A lot of that stuff would be very obvious very quickly, from the scoreboard. If you have a Michael Murphy (Donegal) in there and there’s five or six balls going in and no score, the manager himself should know that this isn’t working.

It’s up to you then to provide the ‘why’. That’s what stats guys should concentrate on because there’s not a county team, or even a club team, in Dublin now that you’re going to go to that doesn’t have a really experienced manager and some really experienced selectors.

“They know the game inside out, have played it at the highest level, I haven’t. I can count numbers, I can’t coach a team how to play better or anything like that, and would never claim to.

“The advantage I have over people is knowing at little as I know about the game, because I don’t get caught up like a fan in watching the game, almost. I’m watching it in blocks.

“When you said to me there, you win the ball at midfield, turn and put it into the full-forward line, in my head, what I heard you saying was, what location on the pitch was the ball won, was it won cleanly or from broken ball, was the pass given under pressure or not given under pressure, was the kickout in the first place sent to the zone it was supposed to be sent to, and was the pass put into the zone it was supposed to?

“I think I clocked is the ball in play 12/13 minutes in a whole game? So if you break it down, there’s not that great a number of plays, the average game would have probably 36 kickouts, that’s a restart and a play, I’m looking at plays, how they’re broken down.

Jim Gavin Understanding the way Jim Gavin wants Dublin to play is crucial for Ray Boyne. Cathal Noonan / INPHO Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

“And I’m trying to apply, or overlay, what the coach’s and the team’s philosophy is. If things start going wrong, I’ll be the last person to know why it’s going wrong because a player’s not playing well or out of position, but I will be able to tell you what’s gone wrong from a vector point of view, in what area or space. That’s where the issue is.

Then it’s down to that knowledge that the coaches have to make that corrective action. If something’s going wrong, I need to able to tell before everybody else what it is that we said we would do that we’re not doing, that means this is going wrong.

“I’m looking for trends. I’m trying to interpret what’s inside your head by style of football and what you want. On your day, you’ll have your tactics, your extra man back, wing backs or corner backs pushing on, you’ll have one midfielder that’s allowed to attack, one more defensive-minded.

“There’s all of those things that you, as a coach, automatically expect, a lot of which you can articulate and discuss with the team and do as part of the brief. But it does take a little bit of interpretation, time and experience and it comes from looking at numbers for a long, long time.”

I wonder if Boyne has the power to alter the course of a game with the information that he has at his disposal, the type of stuff that might not be obvious to a manager on the touchline?

“It’s possible. Does it happen every game, every quarter in every game? Absolutely not.

“I can think back on various events in that U21 campaign when Jim Gavin said that was a really valuable piece of information that we didn’t see that actually changed the game for us. If you’re asking me for a real example of that, well I’ll apologise to Greg!

Gregory McGonigle and Kevin Reidy shake hands at full time Gregory McGonigle commiserates with Galway counterpart Kevin Reidy after the 2014 TG4 All-Ireland ladies SFC semi-final. Tommy Grealy / INPHO Tommy Grealy / INPHO / INPHO

“In the All-Ireland semi-final (against Galway) last year, our corner back was playing really, really well but the corner forward in that position was causing a huge amount of difficulty for us.

If something happens once, you register it, if it happens twice, you become aware of it, if it happens three times, it’s a trend and it’s got to be changed.

“On that particular occasion, it was Colleen Barrett playing corner back, having a super game from the point of view of being available for kickouts and moving the ball forward, and playing very well in open play. But we were being hurt by the player she was marking.

“When I was younger, I would have said ‘we’re in trouble there at number 4 because the 13 is cleaning up’ but that wasn’t the case, that wasn’t the fact.

“The number 13 was causing problems but the number 4 was playing really well too so in that case, you’re looking at a switch, getting somebody who’s going to play a little bit tighter.

“So you’re not going to lose the benefits of the player in that position, but you are going to reduce the ability of the opposition to use that as a channel. I think we went three or four points down and after that switch, we came back to level and pushed on from there.

“I would know Greg and Davy Burke, and they would say they didn’t see that, and that it was a change that made a difference for them on the day.”

Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

The package that Boyne uses to record data is SportsCode, renowned as “a revolutionary coaching tool that analyses any combination of play – by player or type of play – even while the game is still being played.”

It doesn’t come cheap, Boyne admits, but he reveals that any of the top teams worth their salt are using the software.

“I would say nearly all of the top counties are using the same package. If you’re playing in Croke Park, and the facilities you have, you have an analysis box which is a really great legacy from when the IRFU were there.

What you see in a rugby match, those guys on the Apple laptops, they’re all using the one package which is SportsCode.

“Dublin use SportsCode, Kerry use it, Leinster Rugby, Ireland. I’d say Mayo and Tyrone do. It is an upper end of the market product. If I’m not mistaken, it was developed in the Australian Institute of Sport as a software package for creating data within rugby games.

“If you’re in Croke Park, you have the luxury of being able to plug all of that type of stuff in but if you’re in Ballybofey, or somewhere like that, you’re competing with maybe every journalist and you’re not going to get to plug anything in so you’re going more manual with whatever you’re using.

Ireland's rugby internationals at Croke Park left a lasting legacy for sports analysts. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“All of the top sports analysis packages come with an extension that works off an iPad. So you could do a limited amount of what you can do off your iPad.

The screen basically becomes a template of the pitch. You have the ability to move people and to record what they do, a little bit like what you would see when Sky Sports are doing the soccer. Pat got it in his first year, 2009.

“The master of it from a Dublin point of view, because it takes hours of work, is Chris Farrell (camera operator), although Jim would be brilliant at it too.

“It would be very user-friendly. Apple products, graphically, present well and tend to interface quite quickly. A lot of club teams are using it but you’d have to question the benefits of it if you’re not getting the game streamed or recorded.”

Away from the field of play, Boyne can also bring his expertise to bear on the training ground, and he’s noticed big changes here, too.

“Every jersey is being designed and made with a place for a GPS (Global Positioning System) holder.

“If I went back to 2013, GPS was the exception. I look at every team going out on the pitch now and they all seem to have the GPS. From that point of view, everybody is advancing.

Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“In training games, you can bring a lot to it, even from the point of view of trying to ensure that in A v B matches, that during the breaks in games, that the information the players are getting is informed.

I don’t think there’s any coach now that wants to go out and say ‘you’re being beaten all ends up in there’. I think they want to go out and say ‘we’re on 33% possession in there.’ It means you’re analysing.

“For a coach, their message needs to be in three points – what the problem is, what’s causing the problem, and what’s the corrective action, or how it’s fixed. If it’s 31% possession in our full-back line, their full-forward line is getting more possession.

“Why is it happening? It’s not always the fact that the player isn’t getting out in front. I always feel sorry for backs. Sometimes it can be that there’s no real press on the half-backs or midfielders coming forward and there’s no pressure on the passer.

“And if the passer has worked with the guy in there, and he in there knows where he’s putting the ball, it’s very difficult for a back to be out in front in a situation like that. A massive piece of what we do is interpreting what the coach wants, and they work on an awful lot of that in training.”

Boyne has also worked with the Leinster interprovincial team in the past, and was part of the Ireland International Rules set-up when Anthony Tohill was manager.

Anthony Tohill Former Ireland International Rules team manager Anthony Tohill. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

But as a Dublin man, that’s the team closest to his heart and he believes that while stats, numbers and trends can go a long way towards explaining positive and poor performances, there’s simply no substitute for good, old-fashioned hard work.

“I would say where Dublin are strong is in their character, the character of the individuals, the players, the manager and set-up.

“There are trends that are indicators of successful teams, when a team is unsuccessful or on a decline. We have those trends mapped from a senior football point of view.

“I have all those stats going back to 2004 and you can see where certain trends have mirrored the level of success. So, when certain things happened, the success grew.

The biggest thing I would say is back to the work thing. My father used to use the word, Jesus, he’s a very ‘honest’ player. It’s that honesty, what you see an honest player do.

“And it’s the guy who does that time and time and time again. That’s what makes the breakthrough.”

Boyne believes that some of the key traits displayed by the Dublin footballers, particularly the aforementioned honesty and hard work, can be applied elsewhere.

“Sport primarily mirrors every other area of life. What you can learn by way of the discipline of athletes, I can apply to my three kids at home.

“Some of the structures that the Dublin players have for their diet, rest, training, can be applied to my daughter’s preparation for her Leaving Cert, and that’s phenomenal.”

In our big Christmas interview, to be published on Christmas Day, Dublin star Philly McMahon takes us on a tour of Ballymun, his home.

Philly McMahon celebrates with the Sam Maguire trophy Philly McMahon with the Sam Maguire Cup. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

It afforded us the opportunity to discover the brilliant work that McMahon does in his local area, work that goes unnoticed.

But he’s not alone in this regard, as Boyne reveals.

“The big thing about a football team is it’s so diverse. You’ve got people from all walks of life.

“You’ve spoken about going around Ballymun with Philly (McMahon), next week it could be working with the homeless with Rory (O’Carroll), who does that, or you could be with Cian O’Sullivan down in the financial district making big deals.

They all have their own nature, habits, belief systems, all of those things come into a mix. Only great managers can harness them.

“Going back to Tom Landry, all of those US coaches, Jim is a forensic student of the game so he has looked at all of those successful coaches and keeps coming back to the simple.

“You have got to put yourself in a position to be the best that you can be, so he and me and all of the backroom team, it’s not about us, it’s solely about those players and solely about what I can do, what contribution I can give to help support those players to do that.

“If you’re the player and you want to know your individual stats or the stats on the guy that you’re marking, or whatever it is, if that’s going to make you a better player, you’ll come to me and ask me and I will give you that stuff. And I’ll be there to serve you.”

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