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

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

Sat, Sep 21, 2013, 01:00

“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.”

Capt Jim Gavin, Air Corps Chief
Flying Instructor, December 2004

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.

Football isn’t so neat and tidy though. The sorrowful mysteries of Dublin’s lost years after 1995 needn’t detain us here – no more mourning and weeping in this valley of tears, thanks all the same. But it’s worth pointing out that in the chaos of succession from O’Neill to Mickey Whelan to Carr to Tommy Lyons, Gavin played a further seven seasons for Dublin and didn’t win so much as another Leinster title until his final year.

He was never an All Star. He was never an All Star nominee. When the Dubs got 12 nominations in 1995, Gavin was perhaps inevitably one of those who missed out. He was the prince of unseen work yet no manager wanted to be without him. His job took him into the skies and around the world but his commitment was absolute and his standards unimpeachable.

And he was tough. Small and slight and not a lot to look at but made of iron if you were of a mind to test him out. Seán Finnegan managed the Defence Forces football team for six years and Gavin was his captain for all six. This was a team that contained among Anthony Rainbow, John Finn, Mark O’Sullivan and Dermot Earley among others but for Finnegan there was no choice to make.

If he had any doubt, it was drowned after a trip to the US in 1999. New York were preparing to enter the Connacht Championship that summer and so Finnegan and McStay brought the Defence Forces’ side over to Gaelic Park for a couple of challenge matches one weekend in April. The GAA sent a few pressmen too. It was obvious from early on that New York wanted the word to go back home what they lacked in ability, they might just to make up for in knuckles and elbows.

“Jim gave one of the best performance of physical leadership I’ve ever seen that night,” says Finnegan. “He was getting destroyed every time he went near the ball. He was playing at centre-forward and he was high profile because he’d won an All-Ireland with Dublin. He was targeted, no doubt about it. And they were hammering into him with or without the ball. The punishment he took was huge.

“But at half-time he just stood up in the dressing room and said, ‘We will show them that we won’t be intimidated. We are the Defence Forces, we represent Ireland. We won’t be beaten down.’ And in the second half, the more they hit him, the more he demanded the ball.”

In the baking of Jim Gavin as a football manager, those years with the Defence Forces team were the yeast. As a player under Finnegan and McStay, he was restless and curious and exacting when he didn’t always have to be. A year after Finnegan left, Gavin took them over. It was his first official managerial gig.

“All he wanted was to see how can we get the best out of this bunch of fellas,” says Finnegan. “And to be honest, especially on the trips away, a lot of the guys were more interested in touring than in playing. He enjoyed touring as well but he wanted to know the details of everything. What sort of pitch were we going to be on, how long would it take the bus to get there, how long would we warm up for, what was the training plan. He didn’t want to just turn up and be told what to do.

“He couldn’t tolerate fellas just going through the motions and he would tell them that. He was the tough little guy from Dublin and his standards were what drove the team. He wouldn’t have been in the top five or six on pure ability but he was the one we turned to. I lost count of the amount of times where we went, ‘Jimmy, we’re in the shit – get us out of it.’”


Surplus to requirements
By the mid-2000s, Gavin’s playing career had wound down and his coaching one was in full-swing. Lyons pulled him and Declan Darcy aside at the end of 2002 and told them they were surplus to playing requirements but that if they fancied it, there was a decent under-21 team there for them to train. Lyons would still be the manager but essentially it would be their team. Dublin hadn’t won an under-21 All Ireland in the competition’s 40-year history but that team did, beating Tyrone in the final.

Concurrently, he was by now the chief flying instructor at the Air Corp’s flying school. Every day was about moulding young men, getting them to buy into something bigger than themselves, teaching them self-control and expertise that they’d be able to access under extreme pressure.

“We concentrate highly on airmanship,” he explained in a Day In The Life piece in the Sunday Independent at the time. “That’s the mental process pre-flight, during the flight and post-flight. Not only do we want good stick-pilots, we need them to have a good mental capacity as well. In an emergency don’t jump in and start pulling switches and moving levers. Instead we want them to analyse the situation, prioritise and then act.”

At the Dublin press day ahead of the final, we asked him about his almost eerie lack of reaction to Kevin McManamon’s goal against Kerry. It wasn’t difficult to draw a line from the answer he gave all the way back to his flight-school manifesto.

“I was 20 years in the military and there is obviously a culture and ethos in the military based on you doing certain things. Ultimately, soldiers, airmen or seamen are designed to go to war. Ultimately, that’s what they are there for – to protect people. So if you have weapons on you need to keep a focus and a calm about you.

“When Kevin McManamon’s goal went in there was still enough time for either them to score or us to score more. So you’re trying to work that one out, not trying to get too emotional. During a game it’s for me to try and see the play develop and see beyond the next play. I keep my focus and I haven’t changed my management style that much from under-21 level.”


Serious play
After that initial year with the under-21s, he drifted away from the Dublin scene somewhat. He was flying the government jet for a while, a job that demanded drop-of-the-hat excursions to all corners of the planet – especially in those days of money and spin-the-globe ministers.

But by 2008 he was back in harness with the under-21s and when Pillar Caffrey walked from the senior job at the end of that year, Gavin made a serious play to take over. He got as far as the interview stage before being passed over for Gilroy.

“He was in the frame, definitely,” says O’Neill, who was on the interview panel. “And I would say he was somewhat disappointed not to get it. The feeling was that he was committed to the under-21s. And of course, Kevin Heffernan was on board as well and he would have leaned very much towards Pat.”

Yet Gavin kept at it and made the best of it and after five seasons and two All-Irelands, his time came last October. And for all that the team he’s fashioned has entertained and wowed all summer, they are still built on the touchstones of his life. Esprit de corps. Targets. Method. Precision.

Live your life in the skies and you come to see the whole picture just by instinct.