GAA weekend that was: Jim Gavin’s lesson in psychology

Even ‘The Sunday Game’ themselves fell for it. Maybe Connolly should have been let off?

Dublin manager Jim Gavin hit out at Pat Spillane and ‘The Sunday Game’ over comments on Diarmuid Connolly. Photo: Inpho

Dublin manager Jim Gavin hit out at Pat Spillane and ‘The Sunday Game’ over comments on Diarmuid Connolly. Photo: Inpho

 

Analyse that. The last two provincial football semi-finals, two extremely different results, one a victory for mind over matter, the other a defeat for the broken hearted and, in the end, perhaps fresh lessons for us all in the psychology of Gaelic football.

Begin at that end, because as unexpected as Jim Gavin’s rage against the media machine was, sit back in the warm light of day and think about it: Gavin was protecting his players for sure, only not just Diarmuid Connolly.

This all sounded more like a coldly calculated piece of sporting psychology, one of those little tricks of the mind that all good managers are deftly capable of playing along the road to success – and every journalist in the press room under the Hogan Stand on Sunday evening fell for it.

Not only that, we all gleefully sucked it up like the last dregs of a sweet milkshake and made it the highlight of the day.

What is the single biggest topic for discussion on the GAA table right now? The ever expanding gulf in class between the rich and the poor? Between the strong and the weak? Between the proper contenders and absolute no hopers?

And what is the biggest topic for discussion on the GAA table this morning? Gavin’s irk and unease at trying to explain Connolly’s 12-week suspension to certain bands of Dublin football supporters?

Even ‘The Sunday Game’ themselves fell for it, mostly side-stepping the proper car crash material of the day – the most lop-sided Leinster football semi-final of modern times. Pat Spillane, luckily or otherwise, wasn’t in the studio to defend his good name, leaving Dessie Dolan and Joe Brolly to effectively sympathise with the poor Dublin manager. Maybe Connolly should have been let walk?

Gavin, naturally, couldn’t entirely protect his players from the sound bites of absolute superiority and the highest hymns of praise but he must at least felt like he’d done a pretty good job. Dublin have won every game in Leinster by a double-figure margin since 2013 and Kildare, everyone knows, are simply lined up next against the wall.

Westmeath, meanwhile, were left nursing the potentially fatal wounds of Dublin’s biggest shooting in Croke Park since Gavin took charge. The 31-point margin should speak for itself, although strictly for the record, it was the biggest championship defeat Westmeath have ever sustained, and Dublin would have to go back to their 10-13 to 3-8 win over Longford in 1960 to come up with a higher score in championship.

And having lost by 15 points last year and by 13 points in 2015, it brings Westmeath’s three-game margin of defeat to 59 points.

And more so the manner of it – something Gavin would also have been acutely aware of, and equally deftly avoided making the main story on Sunday evening. Dublin had 11 different scorers, Westmeath had four, and that only begins to tell the tale of their differences.

Gavin would say it’s not his fault, and he is right about that, but Westmeath’s bold tactic of taking on Dublin, man-on-man, with no sweeper, soon left them playing Russian roulette among themselves, with all of its inevitable consequences.

Westmeath, now more than ever, must feel that gulf in class between themselves and Dublin, between the rich and the poor, between the proper contenders and absolute no hopers. Is there a sports psychologist in the country who would possibly talk these Westmeath players through that scenario?

If so, they might want to start by sitting these Westmeath players down and showing them a video of Saturday evening’s Ulster football semi-final between Down and Monaghan.

Because this, more than any championship so far this summer, was an exercise in reverse psychology; Down producing a 21-point swing on last year’s quarter-final, when Monaghan beat them by 19 points – Down’s worst ever championship defeat.

Now, however, Down have set up their first Ulster football final appearance in five years in the process with Tyrone awaiting them in Clones on July 16th.

For Down manager Eamonn Burns, it must certainly have felt like he had put all mind over matter, defying all predictions – possibly even his own – to hand Monaghan a lesson in self-belief.

Down went the entire 2016 season without a victory of any sort; on Saturday, they came in fresh from their first championship win in four years, over Armagh, and soon picked up exactly where they left off there.

From the moment the ball was thrown in, Down got under Monaghan’s skin, kept scratching and itching and biting until the end, and at the same time gave them a complete lesson in sports psychology, chapter and verse.

Burns’s own positive psychology provided much of the platform on the sideline, but he also recently brought in sports psychologist Brendan Hackett – the former Offaly, Longford and indeed Westmeath manager – to work with his players and help rebuild some confidence.

Hackett took charge of Westmeath for the 2010 season, when the county had also gone the previous year without a win – league or championship – but after just a few months in charge there was a minor mutiny in the camp and, come April, Hackett and Westmeath parted ways, the word among some players being he was putting a little too much emphasis on the psychology.

There is no easy way of reversing the psychology of a 31-point defeat, although it’s not impossible either. Westmeath might want to start by inviting Hackett back in for a little chat.

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