Seán Moran: Jim Gavin respected Dublin legacy by making it stronger than ever
Like Kevin Heffernan, outgoing Dublin football manager appreciated county’s distinctive place in GAA
The incremental introduction of new players for six of Jim Gavin’s seven years owed nearly everything to his ability to see qualities he could develop on the senior team – and they all paid off. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/©INPHO
In one of those strangely overlapping events, it was in Jim Gavin’s first competitive weeks with Dublin that Kevin Heffernan died. One of Gavin’s most detectable traits, shared with other senior Dublin figures from Heffernan onwards, was a sense of the county’s distinctive place in the GAA and football in particular.
At an informal media briefing in February 2013, Gavin gave a quick PowerPoint presentation on what he saw as the traditions of Dublin football: skilful, inventive and attacking. He said he had learned something from all of the managers he had worked with and intended to work in keeping with that heritage.
A few weeks previously, on the weekend of Heffernan’s passing, Dublin lost to Kildare in the O’Byrne Cup final – Gavin’s first competition and one of only two competitive defeats the team would suffer that year. Afterwards he paid tribute to his predecessor.
“We mentioned inside before the game the virtues and what Kevin brought to the game of football. He was a visionary, a strategist, and those guys stand on his shoulders. Certainly I, and the guys there, wouldn’t be where we are in Dublin GAA without the vision of Kevin Heffernan.”
It was in ways poignant that the rise to power of Dublin football took place immediately after its modern pioneer had died but Heffernan would have greatly enjoyed the subsequent march to six All-Irelands, the fact that four of them featured wins over Kerry and especially that the county was first to five in a row.
Dublin’s unbeaten sequence against Kerry in championship now stands at six whereas the previous high-water mark was two and dated back more than 40 years.
It was one of Heffernan’s disciples and Gavin’s first senior Dublin manager, Pat O’Neill, who made the point that Heffernan didn’t set out to revive Gaelic games in Dublin. He set out to win and if promotional opportunities followed, well and good.
Therein lay some of the difference. Gavin wasn’t particularly obsessed with Kerry, as Heffernan – who as a player at minor and senior level as well as manager had been tormented by them – acknowledged himself to have been.
As a player Jim Gavin never played against Kerry in his entire championship career. He wanted to win all matches and never ended up in a debit situation with any county – hardly surprisingly having been beaten just once in 48 matches.
After his departure
It was always likely that the scale of his achievement would only become apparent after his departure from the county game and that is the likely outcome.
Six All-Irelands in seven years marks unprecedented riches for Dublin, exceeding the target of one-in-three confidently announced in the Blue Wave strategy document in 2011.
How quickly and successfully can a new regime be put in place? Will Stephen Cluxton stay involved beyond this watershed? Might he be enticed by a role as player-selector – his monumental status making dressing-room resentment unlikely?
Making history this year required an intense focus. It was almost like Gavin felt his operation was in danger of – if not running on empty, then stagnation. For the first time he wasn’t in a position to unveil a new guaranteed starter for the championship and for the first time the All-Ireland final line-up had all previously marched behind the band on the big day.
There was an emerging problem with older players remaining on the panel but not getting much game time. The manager appeared to opt for the more emollient approach of keeping people around rather than engaging in high-profile cuts.
Then there was the return of Diarmuid Connolly, which probably wouldn’t have happened in another year – in 2016, for instance, there was no move to get Jack McCaffrey back involved after his time out travelling and volunteering in Africa despite his being Footballer of the Year.
The tensions in the back-room team had been evident with Jason Sherlock’s on-off near departure earlier in the year and it was likely that fairly radical changes in the management would be necessary to reinvigorate the challenge for next year.
Factor in a young family and promising career opportunities and Gavin did the right thing to make way or, as he put it himself, “hand back the reins”. He has done his time and left strong foundations.
His strengths were the constant updating of tactical strategy – his interest in other sports was voracious from the start – and a brilliant eye for a player.
The incremental introduction of new players for six of his seven years owed nearly everything to Gavin’s ability to see qualities that he could develop on the senior team and they all paid off – Fenton, Scully and Murchan to name three of the less obvious ones – and those whose coming was foretold, like O’Callaghan and Howard.
As a group his teams have carried themselves well with many active in the community. They also pursued eclectic interests – for example led by Gavin, they visited the battlefields of the first World War before the championship 18 months ago.
He was a graduate of Pat O’Neill’s 1995 All-Ireland winning team, which has featured an extraordinary number of managers.
Gavin, Pat Gilroy, who relieved the famine in 2011, and Dessie Farrell, likely to be the latest, all lined out in the same attack during the 1990s – filling successive jerseys, 11-13, in the 1996 Leinster final.
A strange aspect of the trio is that they were all born within little more than four months of each other between late June and early November 1971, but counterintuitively their management careers have come in reverse order with Gilroy the youngest and Farrell the oldest.
Pat O’Neill remembers the 1995 All-Ireland.
“One of my abiding memories was at the Jury’s Hotel function that evening. I stood with Jim for about half an hour in the function room – I think his father was there as well – and we were chatting but not about much and he was calmly smiling away. Everyone was in great form but I remember thinking that the happiest man there was Jim Gavin.”
He can continue to be happy with what he’s done for Dublin football – less a hard act to follow than an impossible one.