Blue-sky thinker - Jim Gavin, the more we see the less we know

Dublin continue to light up game but the glare is not for their manager as his methodical eye stays fixed on the ultimate goal

 

There is a terrific black and white photograph of Kevin Heffernan in which the Dublin manager is walking in front of the wire-meshing where the terrace is already filling up but for some reason nobody is looking at him; they are all distracted, finding their seats. Heffo could be a ghost.

It is summer, 1981: Dublin are playing Laois. Heffernan is wearing dark pants, dark shirt and a dark sports jacket, left hand in pocket and right hand cupped around the cigarette in his mouth. His hair is silver and tousled and he looks lost in thought. In that moment, Heffernan comes as close as any GAA manager ever will to looking like Lee Marvin.

At Heffernan’s funeral in Marino in 2013, the ex-Dublin gods gathered not by club but by era. All-Ireland vintages stand out. Many of the fabled 1970s figures had a role to play in the funeral ceremony but you could see Kieran Duff and the ’83 gang standing together and across the lawn were members of the 1995 team.

Dark coat

Jim Gavin

All future Dublin managers will be judged against Heffernan. How could they not be? He was the creator and he burned with a charisma to which he feigned obliviousness. The stories became legion, depicting a man of a hugely bright, restless, passionate nature; a 1920s city boy made good with an absolute contrary streak.

You can be sure that Jim Gavin has plenty of interesting stories and observations about the godfather of Dublin football and you can also be sure that he will reserve them for private company. In his early days, Gavin pointedly name-checked Heffernan in setting out his vision for how he wanted his Dublin teams to play: open, expressive, go-forward football. He couldn’t have made his respect for that tradition any clearer.

This summer, Gavin will attempt to guide Dublin to its third All-Ireland in four seasons and become the first manager to successfully defend an All-Ireland title since Billy Morgan of Cork in 1990. He is, in short, approaching the rarer rooms of GAA managerial success. And he has become part of the summer furniture.

If Brian Cody is a portrait photographer’s dream, an Easter Island statue in a peaked cap as he stands on the side line radiating a force field of must-win, marble invincibility, then Gavin is a trickier proposition. The summer audience has become used to his ways: always seated, holding that neat folder; the precise, occasional sips of water; the considered way he re-screws the cap on the bottle and the cool appraisal of all he surveys. Everything about his body language invites the eye to pass by.

Jim Gavin watches broiling championship matches with the emotion of a man attending a long afternoon meeting of the company’s midterm financial returns. If that has left him open to the accusation of smugness, then he can live with it.

Gavin is unfailingly polite in his media duties and sees them as just that. He hasn’t shown the remotest interest in palling-up to the GAA’s media fraternity.

After-match, he is always on message and pretty much says the same thing. The only time he ever gets thorny is when he is questioned about disciplinary matters on the pitch. Beyond that, Gavin’s remarks tend to carry the soothing briskness of a public relations man; formal and officious and respectful of whatever team the Dubs have just demolished.

Metamorphosis

The view elsewhere is that ‘Dublin’ isn’t so much a county team now as a huge, businesslike entity that is just going to keep on growing and growing. It is the Google of the GAA world. And Jim Gavin is its CEO.

But that’s from the outside looking in.

“One thing about Jim: a spade is a spade,” says former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who first met Gavin in his days as minister for defence and developed a friendship through Dublin GAA.

“He is an army man through and through. I used to be minister of state in defence and you know with all army people, discipline and camaraderie is a huge part of it. United team: no hostilities, no enmities. Clear facts. He is not an arrogant kind of person who would give it shouting down a microphone. The facts and analysis would be given but it would stay in-house.

“The camaraderie would be there as long as you can carry out your instructions and do your best. Then, you can cry on his shoulder. And don’t expect anything other than harsh treatment if you don’t do that. And I think that’s why things are so organised in the squad.

“And I think people appreciate the huge time commitment he puts in. Preparation, one to one, all winter, talking to guys, analysing guys, making it clear what you need to do to do better, to get more game time, what to do in the gym, all that. After the All-Ireland last year, he was doing that a week later. In the old days, we all know where they would have been. That takes huge discipline, but it takes a passion as well.”

Second Captains

That word ‘passion’ is one of the most common in the GAA lexicon but it is hugely relevant when it comes to Gavin, precisely because he manages to keep his own emotions disguised.

One of the contradictions about Dublin GAA is that although the current team are held up as proof that standards are moving towards professionalism, Gavin is absolute in his support for the amateur ethos. And behind the veneer of professionalism, he is a volunteer.

“Automatically people assume you have loads of resources, people with you, a big squad and plenty of options,” says Paddy Christie, Gavin’s former team-mate and the manager of the Dublin minors.

“That would be very far off the mark. Firstly, if you have a bigger backroom team, you have to manage those people also. So he has to allow them to operate and yet keep tabs on what is going on. The sheer volume of people is one thing that can be underestimated.

“People always assume the bigger, the better. That’s true to an extent, but it has its drawbacks. That goes with the squad as well. There might be only 18 or 19 getting a run on the field and that leaves half your panel, whether it is substitutes or guys not getting into the match-day squad, who are likely to be unhappy. And that is a real challenge. Jim’s a modest fella and wouldn’t want anyone making a big deal, but one of the very practical things he has done is allow fellas to go off and play with their clubs if they are not involved in match-day panels. And I do think that is a clever idea.”

Christie is aware of the perception that Dublin have all the cards, all the advantages. He accepts that the GAA set-up within the county is strong right now and isn’t downplaying it. But for instance, when he takes his minor team on away trips, his jaw drops at some of the centres of excellence around the country.

His Dublin team moves from ground to ground. The main hub is DCU. “Which is brilliant but it belongs to DCU. It’s not as if there is a place we go and you’ll see Jim there and Dessie Farrell and we have a big clubhouse where all the stuff is hung.”

Volunteer work

One of the areas where Dublin have made a significant impact in the past 15 years is at under-21 level. Gavin and Declan Darcy were invited by Tommy Lyons to coach the 2003 vintage and duly delivered the county’s first All-Ireland at the grade. “He stood out a mile as a leader,” Lyons said of Gavin afterwards. And he did, in a low-key single-minded way.

In retrospect, Gavin was always a likely contender. He wasn’t precocious but he was always a presence and always achieving at a phenomenal rate.

At Round Towers, they still list the six Cumann na mBunscol medals he won with Clonburris NS with pride. He was a Dublin minor in 1988 and 1989 and spent the following years concentrating on the Army life – one of the 30 accepted to that year’s cadet corps; one of six to qualify to the Air Corps.

When Ahern was taoiseach, his pilot on the government jet was often Jim Gavin.

“He was on what was called the beach-craft. When we had to go to Brussels or England or up and down to the North a lot during the talks. So you got to know him. He is a kind of a guy where sometimes when you are with him you’d think that the only thing that the fella has in his life is aviation. He is passionate about air safety, standards. And he flies the aircraft himself.

“But he manages to compartmentalise so well, family, aviation, sport. Jim always says it’s a match and a bit of fun as well. But there are ways of making fun . . . better organised.”

Gavin played a full decade for Dublin; never a star but always there. His apprenticeship as a manager followed. In 2009, he put himself forward for interview for the Dublin senior post which went to Pat Gilroy. His response was to win another All-Ireland Under-21 title as manager the following year. It was always a matter of when.

“Not surprised in some ways but I suppose just how quickly it all happened is something else,” says Sean Finnegan, his former manager with the Defence Forces team.

“I’m delighted for him and he was always going to be in management. It was a perfect storm with the quality of players he has. It is the volume of success they are having that is incredible. It can appear very easy but it’s certainly not. He is a very shrewd, methodical, calm individual who logically processes things.”

Conspicuous failure

“People talk about the Donegal match as casting a shadow on the overall record. In fairness, Donegal were very good that year and I think they probably should have won the All-Ireland,” says Christie.

“If that is the only thing that is held against them, well, that’s unfair. That’s why we play a championship: to see if these things happen. Pat Gilroy’s team in 2010 will still be haunted by that Cork game. Nobody talks about that anymore but I felt that was one that got away from Dublin. If you go back further to Pillar’s era, the team was being built up and had to deal with some bad defeats.”

By his own standards, Gavin looked a little ruffled on the sideline that afternoon against Donegal in that he actually left his seat. Afterwards, he said the right things, disappeared and re-emerged for the 2015 season having drafted the blueprint for a sticky and diligent Dublin drift-defence revolving around the excellent positional versatility of Cian O’Sullivan. Dublin retained the league and won the All-Ireland championship back. As a managerial response, it couldn’t have been more comprehensive.

This year, Dublin will defend their All-Ireland title without the reigning footballer of the year, Jack McCaffrey. They will contest it without the current All-Star fullback Rory O’Carroll. Both men have decided to take a year off to pursue the world beyond football. Gavin wished them luck but it wasn’t what he said that was significant as much as how he sounded: proud of them; that they were able to step outside the bubble for a season, and proud that his squad could facilitate that.

His Dublin team are 6/5 favourites to win the All-Ireland title. They are 1/16 to retain Leinster. Kildare, the second favourites are 14/1. Gavin manages in an environment which presumes the Dubs will win, week in and week out. Their combination of physical prowess, foot-passing, sophisticated movement, collective understanding and deathless hunger means they will overwhelm teams by posting scores which will leave counties dispirited of ever beating the city team again. This is Jim Gavin’s Dublin and he will watch on impassively.

“I’d say there is more tension than he shows on his face,” says Ahern.

Next five minutes

Ahern’s first memory of Dublin football teams is of Down visiting for a national league game in 1959. The metropolitans were All-Ireland champions. It was a chimera: after winning the Sam Maguire again in 1963, Dublin’s fortunes plummeted and the team disappeared.

“I used to say to my brothers and Da: will we ever see Dublin win a big match?”

So he belongs to the generation of Dublin supporters for whom what is happening is faintly miraculous. Ahern is impatient at the notion that Dublin are simply too good and too big now: that the city machine will roll eternally through the seasons.

“We have been very good players coming through but the reality is that there are seven or eight guys that are the core of that team. Most of that core has three medals now; some have two. And they will move on as sure as night follows day. There won’t be eight guys to fill those eight positions. It doesn’t happen like that. Even this year will be difficult. In the 1970s we were in six All-Ireland finals in a row. The idea that Dublin will win the next five or six All-Irelands . . . it won’t happen. I keep saying that to the younger supporters. These things come and they go.”

He might be right. If this year’s football championship stays obedient to the deeply grooved form lines, then Kerry and Dublin will meet in the All-Ireland semi-final. It will be a reprise of April’s league final but more than that, it will be the most eagerly anticipated clash between the football’s glamour counties since Heffernan gave the city game its first narcotic rush.

If Dublin are still champions next September, the acknowledgements may flow that this is the greatest city team of all time. Expect no emotional outburst from the manager. Jim Gavin always insists that it is not about him; he is merely there to facilitate the players. And he always deflects the emphasis onto them when the game is over. But he has turned an extremely good team into an exceptional one.

Carry on

Is this just an era then? Time will tell. The more we see of Jim Gavin, the less we know of him other than that this fastidious, detached public figure has designed a breathtaking Gaelic football team. Maybe that’s the message. If you want to know what Jim Gavin is about, you only have to watch his team.

Dublin continue to light up game but the glare is not for their manager as his methodical eye stays fixed on the ultimate goal

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