Final drumbeat build-up may grow louder but Jim Gavin’s values still call the tune
Manager’s core philosophies have guided Dublin through his first year in charge
The drumbeat build-up to an All-Ireland final can be one of two things. It can be a riot of percussion, with cymbals crashing and bass thumping or it can be a steady four-four. Mostly, you’ll fall somewhere in between but with Jim Gavin on the riser, Dublin were never going to stray too far out of time.
It has been one of the defining characteristics of his first year on charge that his message has never changed.
Ask him almost anything and he is able to bring it back around to the same themes. Or core philosophies, as he’d put it himself.
Memories of 1995
At the Dublin press night a couple of weeks ago, we tried to get into what his memories were of the one All-Ireland final he played in, back in 1995. Without flinching, he turned it into a speech about what his younger players can expect this weekend.
“I was 24. Within Dublin there is an expectation for you to win, that’s a given. But the biggest thing is that they go out there and express themselves, to play with freedom.
“That’s the way the current Dublin management believe that football should be played.”
Even when he did go back and take the question a second time, his answer was brief and pretty perfunctory.
“It was quite a war of attrition, really. It didn’t go by in a flash. We got a player sent off early and that put us to the pin of our collar. But we showed great heart. That was mentally a very strong team that year. There was a desire to win it. It was enjoyable.”
Rhythm and rhyme
This is the rhythm and rhyme of Gavin’s Dublin. All forward motion, no looking back. If the past matters, it’s only in respect of the traditions he feels his players should uphold. But in everything there is an appreciation for the future – and the immediate future at that – mattering above all else.
“There’s an expectation there in Dublin right from the underage to the senior level. Every time a Dublin team takes to the field, they’re expected to win. I’ve grown up with that expectation and I’m used to it.
“There’s an expectation for every Dublin manager to win a game and that’s the philosophy that we’ve taken. We’ve gone from game to game. We’ve never looked beyond any game we play.
“Our sights were firmly fixed on Kerry and in the dressingroom afterwards we set our sights on Mayo. Whether that brings us success, we don’t know, but that’s the approach we take.”
The final will be their 16th game of the year in league and championship. Of the 15 that have gone before, Dublin have won 13, drawn one and suffered a single defeat – by a point to Tyrone in the league.
When he goes through the season and tries to pinpoint the game where he saw things beginning to come together, it’s the draw against Donegal in Ballybofey in April he settles on first.
“There have been a couple of games. The national league game against Donegal was one of those moments where you could see it. We made quite a lot of changes at half-time and mixed it up and there was a great mental strength shown by the team to stick in there against a very passionate crowd.
‘The guys really went for it’
“There were fantastic Donegal supporters and they obviously needed to win that game; we didn’t and there was nothing at stake for the Dublin football team. But we just played the game as we always do and there is an expectation there for us to win every game and the guys really went for it.
“Probably the Leinster final was one of those milestone moments as well. Meath play football like ourselves: open and passionate and really go for it, and it was a great game of football to be involved in.
“They asked serious questions of the team as well and in a very claustrophobic and hostile environment a lot of our debutants really stepped up and showed character.
“I think in the national league final against Tyrone there were serious questions asked by Tyrone of us. Their defensive structure – they clogged up the channels – and guys had to figure it out for themselves. Not us on the sideline. They did that on a good few occasions coming down the stretch. To finish the way they did in a final, that was very pleasing.”
The ace in Gavin’s sleeve all year has been his bench, deployed from behind glass any time trouble has raised its head. From Denis Bastick turning the tide in midfield against Meath to Kevin McManamon’s goal against Kerry to Dean Rock’s dead-eyed reliability every time he’s gone on the pitch, it’s a club in Gavin’s bag that no other manager in the country has been able to use so effectively.
“I wouldn’t expect anything else, having known the guys over the last number of months, the philosophies they have, the values they have and the way they believe football should be played.
“It doesn’t surprise me. They know when they go out on to the pitch, they’re representing their squad and their county. They have a duty of care to the jersey and the squad to put in a big performance. Whether they start or finish on the pitch doesn’t matter to them.”
Which is all very well but it’s no different to what every manager in every sport says about their replacements. And not every manager gets it back in the spades Gavin has this summer.
There doesn’t appear to be any resentment in the Dublin ranks at proven match-winners like McManamon and Rock having to wait their turn. That alone is a signature achievement for a manager in his first year.
“Certainly all the teams we’ve been involved in always buy into that philosophy,” Gavin says. “It is a 30-man game and those that don’t get the privilege to take to the field, they’re probably more important to me. I’d look to them more than the guys that start probably. They set the agenda.
“If there was [resentment], I would expect those players to walk away. I wouldn’t have them involved. If those players have that attitude, I certainly wouldn’t want them around.
“I would openly say to them, if they’re not enjoying their football, we’re not doing the right thing as coaches or they just haven’t bought into the ethos that we’re trying to create.
“But there isn’t a hint of that. There’s a great esprit de corps. A great bond. And a great belief.”
In the end, he is trusting that belief to sustain them through until Sunday evening. He’s made a point all year of giving his players the day before matches off to do with what they please and that will hold for the final.
Dublin’s players won’t be congregating on Saturday, they’ll be encouraged to relax and switch off. Gavin preaches freedom on the pitch and the idea of bolting them all up in a hotel when they haven’t done so all year wouldn’t really chime with that.
Come game time, there will be plans for everything but once the whistle goes there isn’t a lot he can do. He’s okay with that. Or at least resigned to it. Mayo will throw at them what they’ll throw at them – his players are the ones who need to react accordingly.
“It’s for ourselves – we need to be adaptable and flexible. And that’s one of the key things we would say to the guys – that they would be able to move from different game plans we have, either running the ball or kicking the ball.
“That’s one of their key strengths. A lot of the time they will figure it out. Not only are they naturally talented, their game intelligence is very high as well. That’s maybe from the underage structures they came up with.
“They can figure a lot of that out themselves without us having to say they need to switch to a particular tactic.”