Monday 23 September 2019

A public admission and a noticeable tweak - how Jim Gavin's one championship defeat shaped the drive for five

 

Ryan McHugh fires home Donegal’s second goal past Stephen Cluxton in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final as Dublin defenders (from left) Mick Fitzsimons, Rory O’Carroll, Cian O’Sullivan and Philly McMahon look on. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Ryan McHugh fires home Donegal’s second goal past Stephen Cluxton in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final as Dublin defenders (from left) Mick Fitzsimons, Rory O’Carroll, Cian O’Sullivan and Philly McMahon look on. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

Conor McKeon

Three weeks after the only championship defeat of his reign as Dublin manager, Jim Gavin did something he hadn't done before and hasn't done since.

He put himself forward for media interviews at a promotional gig for one of Dublin's sponsors.

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Alan Brogan is distraught after the 2014 defeat. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Alan Brogan is distraught after the 2014 defeat. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

In his seven years as manager, Gavin's media appearances have been confined mostly to official post-match formalities and the ever-decreasing number of pre-match press conferences Dublin organise.

This was different.

Dublin's season was over. Their aspirations of back-to-back All-Irelands had gone up in an inferno three Sundays earlier in Croke Park.

But the purpose of the exercise was immediately obvious. Closure.

"On a personal level, I accept full responsibility for that performance," Gavin stressed, referring to Dublin's 3-14 to 0-17 loss to Donegal in the All-Ireland semi-final, the game that stands alone in the loss column of his managerial term.

"And," he went on, "I accept full responsibility for the philosophy and for the way Dublin play their football, for the attacking style we play and sometimes for the vulnerability that it brings and the unpredictability of it."

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There was no ambiguity.

It wasn't an act of public self-abasement or a declaration of contrition so much as an explanation for what had happened in that match.

Dublin, piping hot favourites and playing the most breathtaking attacking football of any team in the previous 20 years, had been taken apart by Donegal.

But Gavin, as the man who picked the team, devised and implemented their game-plan, was culpable.

Mistakes had been made on the pitch; a gaping hole appeared repeatedly down the central channel of Dublin's defence and frees were missed at crucial times.

But the cause of the defeat, Gavin stressed, was systemic.

A couple of Saturdays earlier, he had expressed those same sentiments to the Dublin squad at a team meeting.

This, in a rare nutshell, was an insight into Gavin's management philosophy.

Responsibility for all failures, technical, tactical or physical, can be traced back to a coach and, by extension, him as the manager. It is, he explains, an ideology adapted from his professional life.

Gavin is an assistant director in the Irish Aviation Authority, graduating through their safety and regulation division.

"The easy thing to do is to look at the front end of the flight deck and blame the crew," Gavin explained of the process of investigating aviation accidents.

"Most of the time it's an organisational issue.

"So if a player isn't executing his skill-set or the game-plan," he adds, slipping off his aviation hat and donning his football one, "ultimately the root cause of it isn't the player - it's me.

"The buck stops with me. I'm the manager of the organisation."

As a manager who has drawn from influences as diverse as Bernard Dunne, Mark Ingle, Gary Keegan and Abraham Maslow, it's not a surprise that Gavin thinks this way.

"You want to keep learning because you have to," he explains.

"I work as a regulator and there's a just culture in my industry that accepts humans make mistakes."

As per European law, any link in the aviation personnel chain, be they flight crew, engineers, air traffic controllers or cabin crew staff, must report a mistake made on the job.

"That's a high-performing industry," Gavin points out.

"Because the reason the commercial air traffic that I regulate is so safe is because we've learned from horrific incidents, horrific accidents and routine mistakes every day. Football is no different."

So it went with Dublin.

After his public mea culpa, Dublin emerged for the 2015 season with greater variation in their defensive play - the most noticeable tweak being Cian O'Sullivan's presence as a 'holding' number six/sweeper.

The results for Dublin were immediate.

In the 2014 National League, they conceded 8-94, an average concession of 16.8 points per match.

That dropped to 2-78 for the 2015 competition, just 12 points per game.

They conceded only four goals in the 2015 championship and held Kerry to 0-9 in the All-Ireland final.

This Saturday will mark five years since Dublin's last championship defeat.

Gavin didn't know it when he took sole responsibility for that loss, but it became the starting point for their unprecedented success since.

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