New Dubs boss Jim Gavin to turn to U-21s as senior squad primed for shake-up
Before there was Mark McHugh or Paul Galvin, or even Brian Dooher, there was Jim Gavin.
A stylish, left-footed attacker in the early part of his career, Pat O'Neill devised a role for him in 1995 that became a critical part of Dublin's success in reclaiming the All-Ireland senior football title after 12 years.
As head of the Dublin management team, O'Neill had watched rising young Meath defender Graham Geraghty cause havoc from right half-back in the 1993 Leinster semi-final and 1994 Leinster final.
Meath lost both games to Dublin but within a few days of the '94 final defeat, the prominence of Geraghty, who had scored 1-2 in that match, had prompted the offer of a trial at Arsenal, which he duly accepted.
Dublin took note and in 1995 they set up differently. Gavin was tasked with relinquishing his conventional attacking role to assume a much deeper position behind his midfield. It was designed to head off Geraghty at the pass and choke the area that he liked to penetrate so much.
It worked perfectly. Dublin won the Leinster title for a fourth successive year, beating Meath by 10 points in the final, and the deployment of Gavin in this way was hailed as a key component in pushing them over the line over the following two months.
It required discipline, much self-sacrifice and an acknowledgement that the benefits of what he was doing would be more communal than personal. It also required intelligence to read the game a little differently.
Thus, the choice of Gavin above everyone else for the role was an interesting one by O'Neill.
What he saw then in him as a player he must have seen too four years ago as the conversation over who the replacement for Paul Caffrey should be went down the final straight, with Gavin looking well placed to breast the tape until Pat Gilroy's late intervention.
Gavin had impressed many with his handling of the Dublin U-21s in 2002 and 2003 in tandem with Declan Darcy, who will act as one of his selectors over the next three years.
Tommy Lyons was manager but while away on duty with the seniors in those years, it was Gavin and Darcy who did much of the groundwork.
Gavin's work with players like Stephen Cluxton, Alan Brogan and Bryan Cullen on those teams elevated him to within his fingertips of getting the top job in Dublin when it was last up for grabs.
O'Neill's own testimony on that process, in which he was one of the kingmakers, was that Gavin "was a bit unlucky with it".
"I thought putting the two of them in would have been the right thing. But once the individual was nominated, how the next phase of the group was put together, we were not involved at all," he would recall three years later.
Maybe being overlooked in preference to Gilroy has served Gavin well after all. The diligence that won the trust of the management in 1995 to carry out a specific role has been reflected in how Gavin has moulded Dublin into the most powerful U-21 entity in Gaelic football over the last four years, as three Leinster and two All-Ireland titles will testify.
It's difficult to recall a more unanimous choice for a managerial position of such prominence. Apparently, it wasn't even a contest, with no one else spoken to on any formal basis.
Gavin will have many difficult decisions to make in the coming months and getting the balance right between the expected infusion of players from his successful U-21 squads and the current senior squad will be difficult.
Despite their success under Gilroy -- an All-Ireland title and three Leinster titles in his four years -- the existing squad looks primed for a clear-out. Gavin may not have to take a leaf out of Galway hurling manager Anthony Cunningham's book and be radical in his approach. But the scope for change is there, with a number of previously established players who have grown more peripheral and fallen down the pecking order over the last few years.
Even players like Eamonn Fennell and Denis Bastick, who formed such a core part of the Gilroy plan, could potentially find the cold winds of change blowing in their direction.
What to do about Diarmuid Connolly is another great conundrum. Gilroy came close to getting the best out of his St Vincent's colleague but at times his patience must surely have been stretched by the discipline, or lack of it, that Connolly sometimes showed.
He's a mercurial talent and Gilroy clearly had a way with him, but will Gavin put as much faith and patience into the same project for an unguaranteed yield?
Many of the players who have filtered in and out of Gilroy's senior squad over the last three years already have experience of Gavin at U-21 level. Rory O'Carroll, Cian O'Sullivan and Kevin Nolan were part of the 2009 team beaten by Cork in an All-Ireland semi-final. Dean Rock, Paddy Andrews, Nicky Devereux, Dean Kelly, Colm Murphy and Johnny Cooper also featured under Gilroy, having stepped up from those 2009 and 2010 U-21 teams.
From this year's All-Ireland-winning team, Ciaran Kilkenny, Kevin O'Brien and Jack McCaffrey all had quick graduations and it will be a surprise if Gavin does not infuse his new squad with more from that team.
Gary Sweeney might also have stepped up if it wasn't for injury but, after involvement on both of Gavin's All-Ireland-winning teams, he looks set for inclusion.
The Blue Wave strategic development plan that sets out future goals for Dublin pitched for an All-Ireland title for the county every three years.
Gilroy felt it was unrealistic but, with the success that he has had at U-21 level, Gavin is well placed to meet the bottom line set out in that ambitious document.