Friday 19 January 2018

Jim Gavin – Dublin's master of cool

Former Air Corps pilot relies on precision and patience in Blues' quest for Sam

In the coming week Jim Gavin will combine managing Dublin with his busy day-job
In the coming week Jim Gavin will combine managing Dublin with his busy day-job
Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

If it had been any of their teams, Alex Ferguson would have leapt in the air and gesticulated wildly, Davy Fitz would have done a war-dance of All Blacks proportion and hell, even taciturn Mayo boss James Horan might have allowed himself a little fist-pump and a holler.

But when impact sub extraordinaire Kevin McManamon soloed through the Kerry defence in injury-time to scored the second most valuable goal of his career, Jim Gavin's stony expression never changed.

When Dublin's management subsequently spilled onto the field to celebrate that All-Ireland semi-final victory, Gavin was nowhere to be seen, slipping away quietly to the privacy of the dressing-room before the back-slapping had even begun.

An All-Ireland winner with Dublin back in 1995 in a team filled with particularly strong personalities, there was no inkling back then to the sort of manager Gavin would become.

His Dublin predecessor – Pat Gilroy – was a high-profile businessman who immediately realised that handling the media as efficiently as possible was a vital cog in successfully managing one of the most marquee names in Irish sport.


Within weeks of his appointment, Gilroy held an informal meeting with the country's top GAA correspondents, to suss out their requirements.

Then he did two things which Gavin has replicated; he appointed a media liaison manager for his team and held eye-watering early-morning press-conferences on match weeks, one, famously, at 7.30.

But, after the first few months, when he had a firm take on the temperature of the enemy, Gilroy visibly relaxed around the media.

Sometimes he dropped the shirt and tie for a team track-suit and, eventually, the stiff 'top-table' format was all but cast aside.

That's not for Jim Gavin, though.

He always sweeps into his 8.0am press-conferences in the Gibson Hotel, opposite the O2, immaculately suited, booted and brief-cased and never lets his guard down.

To those who knew him in his previous guises – as a Round Towers and Dublin player and particularly as Dublin's U-21 manager – the formality of his approach and his language, which is strongly couched in business and military jargon, has come as a surprise.

A phrase he regularly uses is 'esprit de corps' and, in that single military phrase lies the clue to Gavin's uniquely disciplined focus which equipped him to take such a detached and focused attitude after Kerry blasted in three goals and threatened to unleash all hell on his side.

All airline pilots require precision and calm and, as a member of the Irish air corps, Gavin used to pilot the government jet.

Air-force personnel can retire particularly early and usually then move into commercial aviation and Gavin (just turned 42) is now a flight operations inspector for the Irish Aviation Authority.

In the coming week he will combine managing Dublin with his busy day-job, sometimes office-bound or visiting other airports and also up in commercial aircraft flying and inspecting them.

He chuckles when you suggest that he is aviation's equivalent of a referees' inspector: "Yeah, I'm the supervisor in the sky!"

His military training is surely vital to keeping cool in the heat of sporting battle?

"Maybe," he concedes. "I was 20 years in the military and there is obviously a culture and ethos in the military based on you doing certain things.

"Soldiers, airmen and seamen are designed to go to war. Ultimately that's what they are there for – to protect people – so, if you have weapons on, you need to keep a focus and a calm about you.

"I haven't changed my management style that much from U-21 level," he insists. "During a game it's for me to try and see the play develop and try and see beyond the next play.

"When Kevin McManamon's goal went in there was still enough time for either them to score or us to score more, so you're trying to work that one out, not trying to get too emotional."

Every word is carefully chosen and military ethics, like respecting and protecting those under his charge, are writ large in Gavin's language.

When Dublin have internal games they're not labelled 'A v B' matches, they mix the personnel constantly.

Every member of the panel has "a duty of care to the jersey, and the squad, to put in a big performance and whether they start or finish on the pitch doesn't matter to them."

Ah c'mon now, surely you get the odd diva strop when you drop someone, or some intermittent sulking from the subs-brigade?

"If there was I would expect those players to walk away," he says flatly. "If players have that attitude, I certainly wouldn't want them around.

"I would openly say to them, if they're not enjoying their football we're not doing the right thing as coaches, or they just haven't bought into the ethos that we're trying to create. But there isn't a hint of that. There's a great esprit de corps, a great bond and a great belief."


Before Kerry were beaten, he had identified three pivotal points in Dublin's season.

He made a lot of half-time changes in their final, drawn NFL game in Ballybofey where his players "showed great mental strength to stick in there against a very passionate crowd."

"In the league final against Tyrone they clogged up the channels defensively and guys had to figure it out for themselves – not us on the sideline – and they did that on a good few occasions coming down the stretch."

And then there was the Leinster final.

"Meath asked serious questions of the team and, in a very claustrophobic and hostile environment, a lot of our debutants really stepped up and showed character."

Next Sunday he leads this young Dublin side into their greatest battle yet, but, even if they win, his tightly-controlled emotions are unlikely to be unleashed in public.

"For me the most important thing, or maybe the most enjoyable, is those few moments you can reflect with the team in the confines of the dressing-room afterwards," Gavin admits.

"For me that is the satisfaction; when the job is done, it's done and you only have a couple of minutes with them to experience that."

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