How 'magpie' Gavin has feathered Dublin's nest
No other inter-county manager has presided over so much success in his first three seasons. And tomorrow Gavin leads Dublin in pursuit of a ninth major title in 10 competitions as they also attempt to extend their dominance over a Kerry team intent on a fightback
Published 23/04/2016 | 02:30
Whatever about real magpies and their supposed fondness for shiny objects, the man who described his coaching style as having elements of the black-and-white birds' approach certainly likes silver.
Jim Gavin has already presided over eight successful All-Ireland, Leinster and Allianz League campaigns from nine attempts with Dublin, a yield that could increase to nine from ten tomorrow.
It's an extraordinary strike rate for his first three seasons, surpassing so many other high-achieving managers, including Mick O'Dwyer, Kevin Heffernan and Brian Cody.
Heffernan won six titles in his first three years (1974-76) with Dublin; O'Dwyer landed five (1975-77) with Kerry while Cody's haul was four in 1999-2001 before Kilkenny established themselves as the most dominant hurling power in GAA history.
Dublin are a long way from that level yet but with the 2014 All-Ireland Championship the only missing link in the silver chain over the last three seasons, there's understandable optimism among supporters that it will grow a whole lot longer.
In fairness, the process had started pre-Gavin, although he had an indirect input as a successful U-21 manager.
It made him the obvious choice for the senior role when Pat Gilroy stood down after the 2012 Championship, where Dublin's attempt to retain the All-Ireland title ended in defeat by Mayo in the semi-final.
Dublin were disappointing throughout that season, winning only three of seven League games and running a winning, if uninspiring campaign to retain Leinster, before struggling to close out Laois in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
They were out-classed for long periods against Mayo in the semi-final before putting in a big finish which nearly saved them.
They eventually came up three points short with a squad that looked capable of a whole lot more.
A year later, the vast majority of them were aboard when Dublin won the League, Leinster and All-Ireland treble under Gavin.
That's not to point the finger in any way at Gilroy for the 2012 blip.
On the contrary, he deserves huge credit for his role in ending Dublin's barren run in 2011, having launched a complete overhaul of the squad after the 17-point defeat by Kerry in the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final.
With Dublin having won three of the last five All-Ireland titles, the frustrating days before that are easily forgotten.
It eventually changed in Gilroy's time and while Dublin weren't All-Ireland champions for the handover to Gavin, they had so much proven talent, plus an emerging young layer of exiting potential, that it seemed inevitable they would be a major force for a long time to come.
Gavin's decision to target the 2013 League as an early priority was a wise move. For some reason, Dublin had a cold relationship with the League for a long time prior to then, with the exception of 2011 when they reached the final, losing to Cork.
Gavin made it clear from the start that the League was an immediate target, which was duly reached in April 2013, the first time since 1993 that Dublin had taken the title.
It wasn't a one-off either as Dublin's determination to win the League has remained as strong as it was in his first season.
That's proven by results which show only five League defeats from 35 games since the start of 2013.
It's a remarkable level of consistency which has, of course, been backed up in the Championship, where the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Donegal remains the only blemish under Gavin.
It leaves him with just six defeats from 53 League and Championship games.
When that's applied in English soccer terms, Gavin can boast a better record than even the most successful managers in the Premier League.
Dublin have won 30, drawn three and lost five of their last 38 games (the number in a Premier League season).
If that's computed into points under the soccer system, it gives Dublin 93, a total which would usually win the Premier League quite comfortably.
Gavin outlined his approach to management at a business conference the week after Dublin's All-Ireland win last September, describing it as a two-way process.
"We're there to facilitate. We have a vision and ours is simple, to be the best we can be. Simple as that. If you're consistent with that, it can be that compact, but once the culture is created, they (players) can express themselves," he said.
"We give them a framework in a tactical sense. We don't want 15 robots playing for Dublin. We have a structure - sometimes we get it wrong but once they express themselves, that's the key."
As for learning, it's an on-going process: "As a coach, I'd see myself as a magpie, going to various people, getting ideas from people and contextualising that through my own life circumstances.
"The challenge is to put the key points together.
"Continuous learning is the key. I have a roomful of books at home and I don't read them all but I do flick through them, adding layers on layers. The game plan for Dublin four days ago (2015 All-Ireland final) won't be good enough next year," he said.
Referring to motivation in sport, Gavin said "it's about the why, not the what" as players strive to be the best they can.
"Why do play? They don't live a professional lifestyle but they prepare professionally.
"There are no financial rewards so what drives them is pride, the parish, the club and the love of the game."
All the ingredients have come together in a very successful mix for Gavin and Dublin over the last three seasons and, with the average age of the squad still in the earlier stages of the prime period, the future looks extremely bright.
The next big test for Gavin is to reconfigure the defence to take account of the absence of Rory O'Carroll and Jack McCaffrey.
It hasn't been a big issue so far this year but the Championship is different and, however strong the panel may be, the pair will be missed.
Specialist full-backs like O'Carroll and a talent like McCaffrey, who won the Footballer of the Year award at the age of 21, can't be taken out of any team without leaving gaps.
Dublin are well placed to cope with the loss but it still leaves Gavin with a challenge he would not have expected to face.
He recalled last year that one of the first things he learned in military college was what Napoleon said about leaders giving people hope.
It's ironic that he mentioned Napoleon who, on the subject of a specific army leader, said: "I know he's a good general, but is he lucky?"
Gavin seems to satisfy both requirements. His title haul and Dublin's overall performance figures show how effective he has been at providing structure, leadership and tactical expertise.
They are all vital ingredients in the mix but would count for little in terms of winning titles unless the raw talent to make it happen was available.
That's where luck comes in as he would be the first to admit that he's in charge of Dublin at a time when the county is overflowing with exceptional talent, possibly the best they have ever had.