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Special few always manage to succeed


Jack Charlton

Jack Charlton

Jack Charlton

You can get a degree in sports management. Professors will line up to tell you how to upgrade your network modules to optimise the crucial attributes necessary to build an elite portfolio of graduate programme skills. Or you could have a look at how Jim Gavin does it.

Gavin has guided Dublin to five All-Ireland senior football titles in six seasons.

When asked how he does it, he points out that he's head of a management team.

"It's about being in the moment, planning the season and driving after it as best we can in a very smart way," he's explained. "The multidisciplinary back-room team volunteer their time. We, as a management team, volunteer our time - it's our choice."

Over the decades, Ireland has been blessed to have had a variety of notable sports managers who've not just been successful with their teams but have also lifted the spirits, inspired us and made us proud.

There have been plenty of managers who've pulled off sensational sporting coups by guiding teams to victory against the odds.

Then there are the special few who've done something remarkable year after year after year.

And, amazingly, they've been self-effacing, inscrutable and mesmeric.

Above all, they've been passionate and driven.

Mick O'Dwyer, Kevin Heffernan, Seán Boylan, Jack Charlton, Billy Walsh, Brian Cody and Joe Schmidt all have something in common with Jim Gavin.


Sure, they've achieved remarkable results but all have been reluctant, often enigmatic, heroes.

Joe Schmidt, the man who changed the face of Irish rugby, began his Irish odyssey as player-coach with Mullingar.

Even then, he was quietly making an impact.

"He made everything simple, but to us it was ground-breaking", a former teammate Dave Farrelly has said.

"If you needed a kick in the arse, you got it. If you needed an arm around the shoulder, you got it."

Seán Boylan, a former hurler, became manager of the Meath senior football team in 1982 because things were so bad nobody else wanted the job.

Over 23 years, he built and re-built All-Ireland winning teams. "We changed from losers to winners," said Colm O'Rourke.

In attempting to understand the person he describes as "a complex man", O'Rourke said: "Values such as honesty, loyalty and common courtesy dictate his very existence."

These are traits we believe we can detect in those other notable managers whose work has thrilled us over the years.

In my dealings with the great man over the years, I can vouch for having noted the same attributes in Kevin Heffernan, another coach who reinvented how his chosen sport was played.

Jack Charlton was an apparently ordinary man who, ignored by the English FA, did an extraordinary job in turning Irish football into a glorious enterprise on the world stage.

At a time of stagnation, he revived the mood of the nation and infused Irish people with a new-found sense of pride and self-worth.

Jack's Zen-like mantra, which he repeated to me many times, was simple. "Football's not complicated," he explained.

And his advice on how to succeed would, no doubt, be echoed by other successful managers.

"There's no substitute for hard work," he would say.

A man whose appetite for success is insatiable, Kilkenny's hurling boss Brian Cody has been frequently described as a man "obsessed".

Hear Cody speak and, as with the other greats, people such as Kerry legend Mick O'Dwyer, certain key signifiers become blindingly obvious. He's in the zone, alert to his subject, astute and focussed, capable of skilful analysis and blood-pumping motivation.

Their personal magnetism aside, all these great managers have another shared trait.

They've all built a support structure around them that's talented, loyal and efficient.

And each one's passion is so extreme, it transforms a mere job to the level of a vocation.

Billy Walsh cried for nights when he was let go by the IABA.

His subsequent Olympic success with Team America saw him hailed World Boxing Coach of the Year.

Gavin gave an insight into the collegiate thinking of great managers when he said: "It's a pleasure to witness the collective will. They see the prize, they see the county and not the self.

"A lot of players didn't even get game-time and they never showed their disappointment. It's the team, the team, the team."