Jim Gavin: the Dublin footballer manager and pilot on living the high life

In his first one-on-one interview, Dublin’s Jim Gavin on how leadership skills honed in the military have helped him become one of the most successful Gaelic football managers of his era

Jim Gavin with the 72-year-old biplane he will be flying at the Bray Air Display. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/Inpho

Jim Gavin does not want to do this. The Dublin football manager would very much appreciate it if he could be anywhere but in this room at this time talking about this man. This man is him, in case you hadn’t guessed. And, thanks all the same, but he’d rather talk about something else if that was okay.

Thing is, here we are. A quiet room, a closed door and an hour squared away. We're upstairs in the Irish Aviation Authority office in Dublin city centre, ostensibly to talk about the upcoming Bray Air Display Show. That much, he can do. Give him an hour and he'll fill an hour. Give him a brief and he'll carry it out to the letter.

And we'll get to that. We'll get to the Irish Historical Flight Foundation and the Boeing Stearman E75 that he'll be flying on the day and the Aermacchi MB-339s flown by the Frecce Tricolori team from Italy and the Red Arrows – "The granddaddy of air display teams" – and all the rest. We will. Promise.

Dublin manager Jim Gavin and Stephen Cluxton soak up the atmosphere in an emptying Croke Park after their All-Ireland final win over Kerry last September. Photograph: Donall Farmer
Jim Gavin in the 72-year-old biplane he will be flying at the Bray Air Display. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/Inpho

But you must understand something. Jim Gavin has been the manager of the best team in the country’s biggest sport since late 2012 and this is the first time he’s sat down alone with a newspaper reporter. We’ve asked countless times and the answer has always been polite and always been no.


“I’ve always steered away from one-on-ones,” he says. “Because it genuinely is not about me. It’s about the team. And I’m very conscious of that, that this doesn’t become my mug on the front of it. I have no problem doing it but I don’t want it to be about J Gavin.

“I’ve always been very conscious of not doing that kind of thing because it’s not about me. I know what you’re saying – managers do have lives outside of football. But my whole ambition and desire is getting those footballers to perform.

“In my profession, I don’t trade off the Gaelic football. It’s completely separate. I’m a commercial pilot with a skill set and I prove myself that way. There’s no correlation with the football and it has no relevance really. So I don’t want this to be perceived as promoting anything only the air show, least of all me.”

“Least of all me” is the kind of thing most managers say from time to time. Some of them even mean it. On the whole though, they are a breed that can generally live with being thought of as the mastermind. Oh sure, they’d really rather you didn’t talk like that but they’ll get over it.

Gavin isn't that guy. Granted, it's never been easy to work out precisely who he is. His success at remaining unknowable is surpassed only by the silverware Dublin have amassed during his time in charge. Two All-Irelands, four Leinsters, four Allianz leagues. In league and championship under Gavin, Dublin have played 59 games, won 49, drawn four and lost only six. They are unbeaten in 25 games, stretching back to early March 2015.

Throughout his time in charge, he has done his level best to melt into the background and disappear from view. His is not a false modesty. It is instead an almost visceral modesty, a borderline aggressive desire not to take credit. His dealings with the outside world are always the same – professional, a little detached, never a hair or a word out of place. He does not see it as his role to provide insight into Jim Gavin.

Sadly for him, he carries the curse of being interesting. His studied, management-speak persona is a world away from the cartwheeling, compelling football his team plays. Most managers are teachers, most of the rest of them are their own boss. Jim Gavin is on the sideline in Croke Park one weekend and flying in an airshow the next. Yet he insists on there being nothing to see.

Well, not nothing. There’s the Boeing Stearman E75, a 72-year-old biplane that was originally used to train fighter pilots in Florida before sending them off to war. There are 48 aircraft taking to the skies over Bray next weekend and the Stearman is Gavin’s ride. As soon as we move the conversation away from him and onto it, he visibly relaxes. Enjoys himself, even.

"It's a robust aircraft, solid performance, beautiful lines. The interesting thing about it is that it was built in 1944 and the wings are made from Canadian spruce that was planted in the 1880s. Lloyd Stearman designed aircraft in the 1920s and '30s to service postal routes. When World War II came along, they were looking for aircraft that were robust enough to use in the primary training of fighter pilots for the US military effort.

"After the war, a US Army pilot bought the plane and brought it around the US airshow circuit throughout the 1950s and '60s. A UK collector bought it next and did the same with it in Europe. Then in 1999, when Ryanair got their first Boeing 737, Tony Ryan and Cathal Ryan wanted to join the future with the past. So they acquired the Boeing Stearman, renamed it The Spirit Of Tipperary and put in in the skies."

Gavin is a safety officer now for the IAA and can talk endlessly about process and protocols and all that, down to the last decimal point. But he got into it the same way every boy who wants to be a pilot does. He stood on the ground and looked up at the sky and thought what he saw was cool.

"Where I'm born and bred on the banks of the Grand Canal in Clondalkin, our back garden was on the approach to the south runway in Baldonnell. My first exposure to aircraft really would have been in national school, standing in the yard at lunchtime and seeing them overhead. When the aircraft turned for their final approach on a visual circuit, you could see them and hear them.

“That’s where the flame was lit. It was definitely a case of thinking, ‘Well, that looks like an interesting job.’ The Silver Swallows had the Fouga CM.170 Magisters and I would have seen a lot of them flying over as I was kicking football at home. That’s where the interest in aviation stemmed from and having seen those boys do their stuff, that gave me the thought of doing military flying.

"My first flight was with Darby Kennedy, a very famous pilot, ex-Aer Lingus. He had a flying school out in Weston and my dad brought me up with him sometime in the mid- to late-80s. My dad didn't like flying at all but he was a very brave man and he brought me because his son wanted to experience flying. We took off out of Weston, just a straight up and down flight."

The handy shorthand with Gavin has always been that his military background has helped him in management. Good with details, no stone unturned, calm in a crisis, that sort of thing. The deeper we go into his background, however, the clearer it becomes that we’ve actually been underselling it a little.

“I spent 18 months in cadet school doing an infantry officers’ course. The practical training back then was fantastic in terms of leadership development. Essentially I was qualified as an infantry platoon commander coming out of cadet school, even though I was going back to fly aircraft. But that whole concept – in cadet school, you’re an officer first and pilot second. You’re there to serve. You serve to lead – and then you fly.

“So there’s that sense of service. Of leadership. Part of that is instruction – you’re there to serve people. It’s very much like the football – you’re there to get these people to be the best they can be. I know that’s sometimes thrown back at me but that’s what it is. You serve to lead.

“In some ways, facilitation might be too loose a word because it is more than that but in the military context or in pilot training commercially, it has to be that you are serving the person rather than the other way around. That’s what instruction is all about – it’s bringing them from the cradle and then letting them off for their first solo flight.

“In the military, they really look for people who are team members. They develop your leadership and management skills. In my opinion, most leaders are nurtured, rather than nature. It depends what your background is, your socio-economic background, your parents, your peers, your teachers. These are influences that made people what they are. But from experience, leaders are nurtured rather than being born.”

Gavin spent two decades in the military. He flew the government jet for a spell, he was the chief flying instructor by the time he reached his early-30s. In amongst it, he played for Dublin for 10 years and was part of the All-Ireland-winning team in 1995. By the time he became senior manager in 2012 after a hugely successful stint at under-21 level, he had moved to the IAA.

For a tiny island with one major airport, Ireland has an incredibly busy airspace. Due to our global position at 56 degrees north, 90 per cent of all trans-Atlantic air traffic passes over our heads. That's the IAA's bailiwick. They manage the traffic, are responsible for safety and promote aviation where and when they can. Hence, the Bray Air Display Show, which is the biggest of its kind anywhere in Europe in 2016.

Gavin has been to and taken part in plenty of airshows before. He’s been the aerobatics guy doing loops and rolls, he’s been part of battle recreations like the Battle of Britain in 2006. He flies once a week as part of a commercial crew and naturally enough, it means he can find himself abroad occasionally when there’s training going on back home. He’s not the type to be feverishly fielding calls 24/7 – when he’s gone, he’s gone.

“Training went ahead without me when I was in London for two days last week and the same goes sometimes for players too. If they find they have to miss a session because of a deadline they have to meet or whatever, so be it. We take a very mature look at it. There’s obviously a massive level of trust between all parties. There are no written rules, that’s the culture within the team. Everybody is there for the right reason and if you can’t give the time and you want to do sometimes else with your life, so be it.

“The GAA will always be there for you. There’s a couple of glass balls in your life. The first is your family and your relationships, that’s a glass ball that you can’t drop. Second is your professional life or your academic life in some cases, that’s a glass ball you can’t drop. So around exam time, players take as much time as they need to attend to their exams. But always, the one that has a bit of flexibility or give in it is the sport. Because we’re not contracted by anybody. People do it for the passion.

“Obviously, there will be pinch points in any season. There are sacrifices that players make. I’m sure a lot of careers have stagnated because of choices players have made not to go for that promotion because it might impact upon their football but that’s the price we pay as volunteers. We can all walk away. If players are going to make those hard choices, then that bit of respect for a player’s dignity in his professional life and academic life is crucial.”

Gavin is doubtless correct in what he said at the start about football being of no real relevance to his working life. But the more he describes that life, the more obvious it is that it has informed his management over the years, both in style and in substance.

“It’s a team sport. It’s a collective. It’s the aviation model, what I’ve learned in the military. A team as the sum of its parts in a very efficient commercial operation has two pilots up front and that might be all you see. But they have the cabin crew who serve the needs of the passengers, the maintenance crew who service the aeroplane, the air traffic controllers, the baggage handlers – so there’s a big team there. Aviation is about the collective.

“And football is about the collective too. We’re not individuals in a sporting sense. And yet we are in a personal sense. It’s about that person. We take a very player-centred approach in Dublin, as I’m sure all the intercounty managers do. It’s about the individual, satisfying his needs, having respect and building up his self-esteem to the point where he can be creative.

“It’s Maslow’s theory of self-actualisation. He would have said himself that the history of the world is the history of people selling themselves short. In the management team, our job is to get those players not to sell themselves short. To be the best they can be.”

So there you have it. The Irish Times hereby apologies to Jim Gavin for making him the focus of this piece about the Bray Air Display Show. But that thing Abraham Maslow said about the history of the world really left us with no choice.

The Bray Air Display Show is on this weekend. For more details, go to brayairdisplay.com