Ask anyone who has played under Jim Gavin what sets him apart as Dublin football manager and it's not long until his piloting skills come up. After his two decades with the Air Corps and, now, the Irish Aviation Authority, it seems managing a football team is not too unlike flying a plane.
Kevin Nolan, man of the match in Dublin’s 2011 All-Ireland win under Pat Gilroy, singled it out last week when asked about playing another three years, on and off, under Gavin. “With his involvement in the air corps, being a pilot, he’d always be looking at what happens in an aircraft, accidents and stuff, and would say it’s down to complacency,” he said. “That’s what a lot of the failures are about, major disasters. It’s down to a lot of complacency, so he’d make sure each and every one of us in the squad isn’t complacent.”
Nor, one would suspect, is Gavin superstitious, or indeed sentimental: it’s the reason Bernard Brogan and Diarmuid Connolly neither started Dublin’s semi-final win over Tyrone nor are guaranteed to start Sunday’s final against Mayo.
Nothing superstitious so about Gavin’s reluctance to be pictured holding the Sam Maguire Cup after his three All-Ireland wins to date – nor, presumably, if he wins his fourth title in five seasons this weekend, and with that Dublin’s first three in a row since the 1920s.
“It’s just the players have earned the right to put their hands on it,” said Gavin, in one of the more unusual insights from his pre-All-Ireland press briefing. “As a management team we’ve always taken the view that we’re there to facilitate players. That’s been very consistent.
“Everyone on the management team is volunteering their time, making sacrifices to be with the players at the training sessions at night-time. We’re just there to get them to be their best. And that has been our core philosophy.”
Most All-Ireland-winning managers can’t wait to get their hands on the Sam Maguire, or indeed the Liam MacCarthy. Gavin actually lists off several of them as influences, successful managers at both county and club level, and from other sports too.
“You’re always looking elsewhere to see where you can pick up. I’ve been influenced by Dr Pat O’Neill, obviously. By Mickey Whelan, Tommy Lyons, managers like that that I’ve come across and given me opportunities to play. There’s a whole raft of them.
From a coaching perspective there's a fascinating dynamic that goes on between the various elements in American football
“I’m passionate about any Irish team playing any sport. Be it soccer, rugby, American sports – American football, baseball, basketball – I’d be interested in them all. I suppose the tactical dimension, particularly in American football. From a coaching perspective there’s a fascinating dynamic that goes on between the various elements in that particular sport. And they are transferable to Gaelic football.”
Gavin admits he’s never too far away from his job or his family, despite the hours of commitment expected with the Dublin job. “I don’t see it as work. I don’t see my job with the Irish Aviation Authority as work. I’m passionate about aviation and I’m passionate about Gaelic football and sport. And I’m passionate about my family. So they’re the three things I have in my life. It’s easy when you have a passion for something.”
Contrary to the perception that demands on players, and management, are constantly increasing, Gavin suggests he has backed off a little this year: sometimes less is more.
“We take a very smart approach to how we train our players. They all have professions. We place a heavy emphasis on the academic year and guys getting their exams. They have to live outside sport. They all have partners, and those relationships need to be always nurtured and maintained. The football can’t become the epicentre of their life. There has to be a balance.
“So we’re always striving to get that balance. So we pay a lot of attention to the load that the players have, and that’s been consistent throughout our time. Last year was a very long season. We were still playing in the first week in October, and we started off in the first week in January.
"So we've said it before: the season is way too long. And it's no surprise that the Club Players Association have gotten traction. So it was a conscious decision."
Something else Gavin said ahead of this game deserves singling out: how part of his own motivation – hunger, perhaps – stems from the fact that after winning the All-Ireland with Dublin, in 1995, he won nothing else after, dropped from panel in 2002.
“Definitely, yeah. I suppose you’ve felt the pain of those defeats. But what it has taught us is just to focus on one game at a time. This particular Dublin team has grown up with a lot of expectations. That expectation has always resided with them. We really take it one game at a time, and for us it is just a game of football. We’ll go after that performance.”
There's lots of elements, both our attacking and defensive play, that we need to improve on. We've been working on it diligently
Which is what Sunday is all about: not the three in a row, and not after knowing Dublin possibly underperformed in their All-Ireland win over Mayo last year.
“We did, yeah, and we’ve been working on it during the season, that’s for sure. There’s lots of elements, both our attacking and defensive play, that we need to improve on. We’ve been working on it diligently during the National League and during the championship games. The ultimate test is an All-Ireland final against a great Mayo team. That’s where we’ll know if the lessons of last year have been learnt.”
No complacency, that’s for sure.
JIM GAVIN ON . . .
The Mayo challenge on Sunday "There's been three management teams we've met now in the last few years, and each one of them have brought something different and something unique, and they've all been very good. A very good backroom team, they're very well prepared. They seem to have a good blend this year. You don't get to four All-Ireland finals in the last six years not having that resilience."
The lessons from his five years as Dublin manager "You have to improve: you can't remain static. Each season that we've taken the team we've tried to evolve. Each game we've tried to evolve. Even from the game against Tyrone we've identified things we have to work on, and we're going to have to get them right against Mayo. I think the game is evolving all the time. We just have to keep pace with it.
What he enjoys about All-Ireland final day "You're at the summit. Both teams are at the summit. It can be claustrophobic. Lot of pressure on both teams, and expectations. We're just really focusing on our game plan and getting that bit right. That's probably the most enjoyable bit from a coaching perspective, preparing for a team for any game – and in the high-pressure situation that is an All-Ireland final."