Methodical, meticulous, precise - Jim Gavin’s life in the Air Corps prepared him for management
The Dublin manager has never been flashy and always under-appreciated until now
As a player Jim Gavin flew under the radar but as manager it looks like he might hit the heights of success. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
“In the flying school, you have to be very precise with time – there’s no clock five minutes fast. But my wife does that, which kind of irritates me a bit. I can’t get my head around that concept. She puts it five minutes fast, so she thinks she’s five minutes early. But invariably she’s late anyway, so it doesn’t seem to work.”
For about as far back as anyone can bear witness, Jim Gavin’s life was about precision. It was about targets and it was about method. It was about doing what needed to be done and squaring everything else away.
A Dublin minor in 1988 and ’89, he all but gave up football for a couple of years in order to devote his time to getting into the Air Corps. The Defence Forces took on just 30 cadets each year, of which only six qualified for the Air Corps. Even then not everyone was guaranteed to make it through to flight training. Those who weren’t up to it went back to the Curragh and stayed with the army.
Yet Gavin was flying one of the Air Corps’ six Fouga Majisters before he was 22, performing loops and rolls and spins in the same planes he used to watch the Silver Swallows fly in formation over his back garden in Clondalkin as a boy.
“Everything in my life seemed to be at 100 miles an hour then,” he told Keith Duggan in 1999. “They were French aircraft which possessed everything that attracted me to military aviation. Fast jets, aerobatics, formation flying, military gunnery – really demanding, but great.”
It was only when he’d made it over the initial hump that he turned back to football. Though Dublin made it to a Leinster under-21 final in 1992 without him around, by the following spring he was in the senior side that beat Donegal in a replayed league final while the best of that under-21 team had to be content with filling out the bench.
Tom Carr was sent off after just two minutes that day yet Dublin manager Pat O’Neill didn’t make a single substitution all game. On the bench were Dessie Farrell, Pat Gilroy and Mick Galvin but the only one of the younger brigade trusted to see it out against the reigning All-Ireland champions was Gavin.
Two years later, he was wing-forward on the Dublin team that won an All-Ireland of its own. Or rather, he was a wing-forward who wasn’t. Kevin McStay says that for years afterwards the army lads ribbed him about it, calling him the best wing-back Dublin ever had. In the days long before blanket defence, Gavin was a number 12 whose main job was defensive, tasked with shutting down the likes of Graham Geraghty and Ciarán O’Sullivan who liked to motor forward from wing-back.
“He was given a specific role,” says O’Neill. “He lined out as a half-forward but he had a major function of covering back through midfield and into the half-back line. In that era a number of the counties had substantial half-backs who were doing a lot of damage, notably in Meath and Cork and Kerry.
“We were talking about this recently and probably indulging in a bit more back-slapping than was necessary but we would have been one of the first to try something like that and Jim Gavin would have been maybe even the first player in that mould. He adapted to it very well and did it with great application and proficiency.
“He was such a diligent player, he would carry out directions to the letter. Other forwards would not have been enamoured at all if we’d asked them to do it. They’d have told us straight out that wasn’t what they were there for. We had that experience too! But that was the role that was needed given our opposition and Jim did it exactly to specifications.”
Certainty and method
In time, he rose through the ranks in the Air Corps to the surprise of nobody who knew him. It is an environment where certainty and method are a way of life. A pilot must have two alarm clocks. A pilot shaves every morning and shines his shoes before work. A pilot is allowed one half-glass of wine with a meal 12 hours before flying. A pilot does not fly if there is trouble at home or if there’s something on the pilot’s mind. A pilot does or a pilot does not – no in between, no grey.