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
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.