Friday 20 October 2017

Paul Kimmage: Is winning all that matters?

‘We’ve seen the photograph of Gavin in ’95. We love the photograph of Gavin in ’95. It’s the portrait of a man who has reached his Everest’
‘We’ve seen the photograph of Gavin in ’95. We love the photograph of Gavin in ’95. It’s the portrait of a man who has reached his Everest’
Jim Gavin. Photo: Sportsfile
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

'The majority of the stuff that has been written about Kilkenny over the years is positive, but when Brian has no control, he gets edgy. His big fear is the insidious danger of complacency and softness creeping in and he always saw the media as a vehicle for creating those issues. When Martin Fogarty was involved, he used to co-ordinate and organise all media requests but Brian always had the final decision. We were always told to say nothing. Sean Cummins, who was on the panel for a few years, came out with a comment once which encapsulated everything Brian thought, and wanted us to feel about the media. 'Treat them like mushrooms; fill them with shit and keep them in the dark.'

Jackie Tyrrell,

'The Warrior's Code'

It's okay, Brian. No need to apologise. We've been shat on by bigger than you. Who? That's a good question. Ummm . . . well, there was he-who-must-not-be-named, obviously . . . and Lance Armstrong, naturally . . . and that one time with Roy Keane. Ummm . . . let's see now . . . Greg Norman springs to mind . . . and Ernie Els and Dave Brailsford and Bradley Wiggins . . . and we've put up with it from Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho for years.

So no hard feelings. And no complaints. We don't expect to be treated with decency or respect. We've read your bible and spread your babble.

"Winning ugly is still winning."

"A winner never quits, and a quitter never wins."

"If you don't see yourself as a winner, then you can't perform as a winner."

"Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."

We get it. We understand. It's nothing personal. This is how winners do business.

So it's probably naïve of us to expect more from an amateur game and amateur players. And it's possibly unjust of us to dwell on the negatives when there were so many positives about last week, and it's probably unfair of us to hold different people to different standards.

But we do.

The game had finished almost an hour when they arrived in the interview room under the Hogan Stand. Stephen Cluxton, perhaps the greatest goalkeeper in the history of the game, had just won a fifth All-Ireland. Jim Gavin, perhaps the greatest Dublin manager of all time, had just completed a three-in-a-row and a fourth All-Ireland title in five years. But it was hard to tell from their deportment. And from the moment they sat down you had to pinch yourself and wonder.

When did winning become so completely and utterly joyless?

Twenty minutes had passed since Stephen Rochford had left the room. For the second successive year he had witnessed his team lose the All-Ireland by the narrowest of margins and though absolutely crushed he could not have been more gracious: "You just tip your cap to Dublin," he said. "Today is really about them. In fairness, it's a phenomenal achievement to win three-in-a-row and sincere congratulations to Jim and Stephen."

Cluxton doesn't do phenomenal and there was no surprise when he sat down and parried the bouquets thrown at him: "I'm just holding on to my jersey," he announced, modestly. "I have to chat to this man here (Gavin), see if he wants me for next year. Once January comes around I'm going to be battling against another goalkeeper to try and win the jersey. That's just the way it is."

The surprise was Gavin.

Okay, so we've laughed for years at the mask he wears at these things - the constant deflection, the comic understatement, the refusal to engage.

"It's not about me, it's about the team."

Sure, Jim.

"It's not about this year, it's about next year."

Fine, Jim.

"It's not about this generation, it's about the next generation."

Right, Jim.

We understand all that, we get it. And not only do we get it, we really admire Jim Gavin for it. We know that just beneath the façade is a truly decent man with the kindest of hearts. We've seen the photograph of Gavin in '95. We love the photograph of Gavin in '95. It's the portrait of a man who has reached his Everest; a testament to sport and the joy it can bring.

What we do not understand is what happened to him last Sunday.

Maybe it's just me. Maybe I've just grown tired of all the psychobabble about 'sticking to the process' and 'staying in the moment' and - sweet Jesus! - taking 'one game at a time'. Maybe it's wrong to expect emotion when you've done three-in-a-row. Maybe there's no place in sport these days for compassion or empathy. Because Jim wasn't showing any.

"How's the heart?" Someone joked, as he pulled back a chair.

"Fine, how's yours?" He snapped.

It was as if he had been stung by a wasp. But what if he had tried this: "Oh boy! I'm ready for a transplant. What a contest! What an incredibly exciting game. Fair dues to those Mayo lads, they really put it up to us. But we came through, because that's what champions do."

Would that really have hurt Dublin's chances next year?

He was then asked if he had any sympathy for a Mayo team who had come so close, yet again, to slaying the ghost of '51. "We've been there," he chirped. "We were there ourselves this year in a national final and we lost by a point and it is tough!"

The lack of empathy was astonishing.

Later he was asked about the final minutes of the game when three Mayo players were wrestled to the ground after Dean Rock's free, a scenario, as Vincent Hogan observed in Monday's Irish Independent, that was unlikely to have been instigated by a team trailing by a point. But Gavin was conceding nothing.

"I think it was like that from the start," he replied, impassively. "It was a very physical game, a lot on the line. Both teams going hard at it. I wouldn't expect anything else from either team."

Twelve minutes it lasted. And as the captain and the manager exited the room, you were reminded of other years and what winning really sounds like: The happiness. The joy. The laughter. The tears. But not this day. Today the winners had sounded like losers. It was a dispiriting end to a glorious day.

In the final chapter of The Warrior's Code, his outstanding autobiography, Jackie Tyrrell tells a story about a conversation with Brian Cody in November 2016. Eight weeks had passed since the defeat to Tipperary in the All-Ireland final and Tyrrell had spent most of them mulling about Cody's decision to leave him on the bench that day.

They arranged to meet at the Springhill Hotel at 5.0pm on November 8. This is how Tyrrell describes what happens next:

"We sat down in the little coffee dock in the lobby. There was some small talk about the club before I inhaled deeply and said what I had come to say. 'Look Brian, I'm considering my future and I wanted to touch base with you before I made my decision. What would your thoughts be if I decided to go back?'

"Brian was sitting back in his chair. He shuffled up, into a more upright position. 'You've had an unbelievable career up to this point,' he said. 'But the team is taking a different shape now. There will be a lot of changes.'

"Brian sat back in his chair. I sat up. 'I appreciate your honesty,' I said. 'I just wanted to have that conversation with you before I made any decision. Whatever I'm doing, I'll keep you in the loop.' And that was it. Like a click of the great man's fingers, the show appeared to be finally over.

"A waitress just came over and asked us if we would like to order tea or coffee, or anything from the evening dinner menu. We politely declined as we both got to our feet."

Tyrrell had first met Cody in fourth class at primary school. Between them, they had won 22 All-Irelands with Kilkenny. Their final meeting had lasted exactly seven minutes. Think about that. What does it tell us about winning? What do we learn when it becomes the only thing? All that time. All those games. All those medals . . . and they didn't even share a cup of tea!

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