Jim Gavin leaves Dublin with history made and Gaelic football transformed
Malachy Clerkin: Modest manager would have you believe his role was minimal
The first real sense that the end could be close at hand for Jim Gavin came during his press conference after the All-Ireland final replay. If the fact that his father was sitting quietly up the back of the room that Saturday night wasn’t hint enough, his tangent on the work Stephen Cluxton had done in the 24 hours after the drawn game definitely felt like a tell of some kind.
Not only did Gavin go into detail with an actual anecdote (!) concerning Cluxton’s annoyance at the Kerry goal, he almost allowed himself a foray into some fruity language along the way. “He (Cluxton) had a bloody laptop, trying to replay in slow motion what way his feet and positioning were,” Gavin said. “That’s somebody who’s a master of his craft.”
Now, that may not come across as especially revelatory in bare black and white. But this is Jim Gavin we’re talking about here. And in that room at that time, there was something in his bearing that told you he was allowing more of him to be seen than would be the case if he was coming back in 2020.
This was not the Jim Gavin who for seven years had played a Geoffrey Boycott dead bat to questions about this player or that. It wasn’t the one who, after his first All-Ireland in 2013, remarked with an entirely straight face that other teams were already ahead of Dublin in their preparations for 2014. Not the one who, above all else, by tone and deed set the table for a group that ended up going where no GAA team before it had managed.
He leaves the job with Gaelic football transformed. By the numbers alone, Gavin’s Dublin have been a phenomenon. Under him, they competed in 21 competitions and won 18. He presided over just one championship defeat in seven seasons. Eight of the starting team in the All-Ireland final replay have never lost a summer game.
On top of which, of course, are the biggies. The first ever team to win five All-Irelands in a row. Just the third ever team to put four National Leagues back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Seven Leinster titles in a row, encompassing 21 wins from 21 games, all but two of them by double-digit margins.
On a more granular level, Dublin are currently sitting on a streak of 37 championship games unbeaten. This comes on top of their run of 36 games unbeaten in league and championship between March 2015 and April 2017. The former will be added to and taken beyond 40 next summer. The latter may never be matched.
In years to come, indeed, that 36-game league and championship run will sit comfortably alongside the five-in-a-row as a tribute to the culture Gavin created. Through it, Dublin dug out draws and narrow wins not just against Mayo in the autumn but against all other Division One teams in the spring. These were games that nobody would have taken them by the ear for coughing up, games that every GAA team since the dawn of time have let slip without censure.
But the Dubs danced when nobody was watching. Those closing 10-12 minutes are where they lived. Philly McMahon said one time that they wished games could be longer, that when the board went up for added time they were always hoping for bigger numbers. Drill down into their record and you can see why.
Under Gavin, Dublin played 107 times in league and championship. Go through the results and you find that 32 of those games were decided by a goal or less. Of those 32, the Dubs lost just nine. It was one thing living with them and taking the game into squeaky-bum time. But actually being ahead when the music stopped, that was another day’s work entirely.
Beyond all the winning, the most impressive aspect of Gavin’s stewardship has been his ability to freshen and regenerate along the way. Dublin’s final game of 2012 and 2013 were both against Mayo – Gavin changed a third of the team in 12 months and won his first All-Ireland. As the years ticked by, he kept the average age of the Dublin team down by phasing out darlings of the Hill, perfectly unruffled by sentiment.
Paul Flynn, Bernard Brogan and Diarmuid Connolly were pillars of his teams over the first three or four years. Didn’t matter. Over time, they were replaced by Niall Scully, Con O’Callaghan and Brian Howard. Philly McMahon was the only Dublin defender to play every minute of every final under Gavin between 2013 and 2018. Didn’t matter. This year he didn’t feature in the drawn game at all and only saw the last 15 minutes of the replay. Davy Byrne and Eoin Murchan have both passed him.
Rory O’Carroll, Paul Mannion and Jack McCaffrey all went travelling at various times and for various periods. Didn’t matter. Gavin always had another card to play. On that front, his fortune in having a rich seam of underage success to mine, particularly at under-21/20 level, must be acknowledged. But the slick workings of the Dublin talent factory only made Gavin’s triumphs possible. No All-Ireland starts life as an inevitability.
He learned plenty along the way and adapted accordingly. In Gavin’s first season, Denis Bastick spent most of the league in the doghouse (ie, on the bench) after getting sent off in the O’Byrne Cup final. Internally, it was felt that Bastick was being made an example of, a sledgehammer taken to crack a nut. By the back end of the Gavin reign, it’s fair to say a more realistic view of indiscipline had taken hold – Dublin are the first ever team to have a player sent off in three successive All-Ireland finals.
Over his seven years, they have developed not only into the game’s best team but also its most ruthless and, when the occasion demands, its most cynical. Dublin are masters of the tactical foul, be it up the field to prevent a breakaway or last-ditch to stop a goal. Con O’Callaghan pulled one off with such stealth and alacrity in this year’s replay that he was halfway back up the pitch by the time Conor Lane was mistakenly carding Mick Fitzsimons for it. Whatever else they were under Gavin, the Dubs were no angels.
They couldn’t be. Gaelic football is gradually emerging from the fog of the worst blanket defence excesses and Dublin are due no small amount of credit for that. But to survive it and overcome it, they had to meet it head on.
The accidental-on-purpose screens they set in attack to make room for Dean Rock, Paul Mannion and Ciarán Kilkenny coming out on the loop have arrived directly from basketball and ought to be whistled for a foul far more often. But until such time as that happens, you can only admire Gavin and Jason Sherlock for devising it, drilling it, perfecting it.
In Sherlock and Declan Darcy, Gavin has had the perfect consiglieres. A few months ago, TG4 showed the 2001 All-Ireland quarter-final between Dublin and Kerry in Thurles, aka the Maurice Fitz game. At one stage in the second half, Sherlock was lying panned out on the ground after being poleaxed with a heavy tackle, Darcy was standing over the free and when the camera panned to the bench, Gavin was sitting there looking frustrated.
What’s forgotten about that game is that the Dubs came back from the dead and were a decent kickout away from seeing it out. Fitzgerald’s sideline ball became immortal but he should never have had the chance to take a pot at it. Kerry won the replay and Darcy, Sherlock and Gavin saw another year fizzle out.
It has always felt significant that the three of them have been at the vanguard as Dublin have assumed complete dominance of the scene. All three are affable, good company in real life but when it comes to football, there is no shortage of steel there. Their own reality as Dublin footballers was year after year of promise wasted and each of them retired from playing unhappy. Their time in charge has been driven by a sense that Dublin should never find itself back where they were.
If that was the weather system, then the 2014 defeat to Donegal was the cloudburst. For a game that wasn’t part of the five-in-a-row, it was still arguably the most important 70 minutes in the making of it. Dublin were caught repeatedly on the counter-attack that day and their murderously high-press was used against them.
It made Gavin go away and dream it all up again. Two things happened across that winter. One of them was Brian Fenton, arriving fully formed to take over the Dublin midfield. The other was the creation of a sweeper system, usually with Cian O’Sullivan in the deep-lying role but later, as injury caught up with him, a more rotational affair. That it took a while to bed in is reflected in the fact that 2015 was, by a distance, the lowest-scoring championship of the Gavin era.
They still won the All-Ireland though and haven’t lost one since. Bit by bit, they have commandeered Sam Maguire for themselves alone. In the 2019 championship, the rest of the country featured a mere 16 non-Dublin players who have won an All-Ireland in their career. For context, the hurling championship featured 61 non-Tipperary Celtic Cross holders.
Dublin have eaten the game whole across the back half of the decade and regardless of the fact that it doesn’t feel like a particularly healthy state for the game as a whole to be in, it has been a monumental achievement on Gavin’s part. The advantages Dublin have, both natural and artificial, can tend to obscure his worth, a state of affairs that has always suited him down to the ground. In his borderline aggressive modesty, he would have you believe that his role in the whole thing is minimal enough.
Whoever follows him is about to find out just how hollow a pose that has always been.
Jim Gavin honours as Dublin manager
7 Leinster titles
5 National Leagues
49 All Stars
4 Footballers of the Year
Overall Record - Played 107 Won 86 Lost 11 Drew 10
Championship - Played 48 Won 44 Lost 1 Drew 3
League - Played 59 Won 42 Lost 10 Drew 7
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