Wednesday 11 December 2019

Colm Keys: 'In the pantheon of great GAA managers Jim Gavin will rank very close to the top'

Gavin's legacy was to provide an antidote to the defensive paralysis that had begun to set into the game

Jim Gavin mural. Pic: Conor Feehan
Jim Gavin mural. Pic: Conor Feehan
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

There are many snapshot moments over the last seven years to perfectly capture the temperament of Jim Gavin but nothing reflects the calm composure and the sense of detachment he always carried as Dublin manager more than his departure from Austin Stack Park at the end of a fractious Saturday evening league match against Kerry last February.

As scuffles broke out and players squared up to each other moments after the final whistle, laying down markers and lines in the sand for future reference, Gavin remained oblivious to it as he walked by it from their dug-out on the far side of the field.

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The natural temptation for most managers in similar situations would be to step in, even in a peacekeeping role, to seek to bring order to the chaos. Adrenalin pumps fiercely through the men on the sideline too.

But as he sidestepped it that night Gavin didn't even lift his head to observe what was unfolding.

It's not that he would have felt above it, it's just that it wasn't his place to be in the thick of it, in any role. There was no need for it and there was no need for him to be immersed in it showing any solidarity with his players. There were other times and other ways to do that.

It was classic Gavin, the same Gavin who never gave any sense of a quickening heartbeat on some of those momentous days on the Croke Park sideline.

Historic achievements and great feats were met with a smile, a quick unhooking from whatever piece of communications equipment he was operating, and a walk down the sideline to his counterpart where the courtesy of a handshake was extended.

Even Dublin's lunchtime statement confirming his departure had a Gavinesque feel to it, that he was merely "handing back the reins of the Dublin senior football team to the county committee."

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You can imagine they were precisely the words he used conveyed his decision to the Board officers.

Like he was handing back in a set of flight manuals.

In his seven years in charge, Dublin have crashed through every relevant barrier in the game, setting records that are unlikely to be touched again.

The five-in-a-row stands out obviously but the 36-match unbeaten run, from early March 2015 to early April 2017, a run of just over 25 months, is another giant monument to his and his team's achievements.

In all kinds of weather, they faced all kinds of challenges. But each time they rose to it with that 'any time, any where' attitude.

The trick for Gavin was not to allow his team to stand still. And that involved some tough decisions, especially in the midst of the five-in-a-row.

Loyalty to a player wasn't defined by automatic selection. Bernard Brogan, who brought his career to a close late last month, never started a championship game after the drawn All-Ireland final against Mayo in 2016.

For the 2017 All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone, Brogan and Michael Darragh MacAuley, two former "footballer of the year" winners, were left sitting on the bench.

When prodigious talents like Con O'Callaghan and Brian Howard emerged there was no temptation to ease them in, no chain of authority that had to be respected. They were ready, that was it.

Without that injection, without the conviction to press ahead with their inclusion and the inclusion of others like Niall Scully and Eoin Murchan, Dublin may not have achieved what they did in more recent years.

Under Gavin they played a devastating brand of football, an antidote to the defensive paralysis that had begun to set into the thinking at the beginning of the decade.

Gavin and Dublin forced others to think differently. Their approach caught them out in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final against Donegal but they adjusted sufficiently without ever losing that attacking veneer that set them apart in those early years.

It wasn't always picture-perfect. Gavin's philosophy may have sounded wholesome and for the most part it was but his teams didn't always live up to that soundtrack, their closure of the 2013 and 2017 All-Ireland finals and the 2016 All-Ireland semi-finals, in particular, showed they could be just as cynical, and more so, as any other team when they had to be. In short, they knew how to win a game, whatever means were required.

In the pantheon of great GAA managers he will rank very close to the top. No other manager, not even Brian Cody in Kilkenny, amassed titles at the same rate.

Dublin under Gavin contested seven leagues and Leinster and All-Ireland Championships, 21 competitions in all, and failed to win just three, the 2014 All-Ireland title and the 2017 and 2019 leagues.

By any measurement, even allowing for the talent at his disposal and the natural advantages that a team representing the capital city and by far the biggest centre of population, that is some record of achievement and consistency.

Having the best players at your disposal doesn't automatically guarantee results. There are balances to be struck and equilibrium to be reached in a dressing-room where egos and volatility can be prevalent. Managing that, keeping order, can be demanding and in that sense, Gavin always seemed to be a step ahead.

By virtue of what he did in his years after Kerry, Mick O'Dwyer is still entitled to rank highest among GAA managers. Winning a first Leinster title for 42 years with Kildare and then following it up with a first Leinster title with Laois for 57 years underlined O'Dywer's great adaptability away from his natural environment. What he did on three successive Saturdays in qualifier games with Wicklow, taking out Ulster opposition in Aughrim (Fermanagh, Cavan, Down) each time, was, in relative terms, up there with anything he achieved.

Cody built and rebuilt Kilkenny teams across two decades now, using principles not far removed from Gavin. Sean Boylan too built and rebuilt three different Meath teams to win four All-Ireland titles in a 13-year stretch.

But for consistency and excellence, topped by that five-in-a-row achievement, Gavin's record will a team will be unrivalled. No one extracted more in such a short space of time.

The surprise isn't that he has stepped down - there really were no other worlds to conquer. It's that he left it so long to arrive at the decision, 11 weeks on from their All-Ireland replay win over Kerry, that provokes curiosity.

A pillar of his tenure was his respect to Dublin football's heritage and constant reference to its past, particularly the era of Kevin Heffernan. It was fitting then that the late Anton O'Toole, battling illness at the time, should have been a guest of the team in the week before the 2018 All-Ireland final.

In deference, Gavin would often say that his team were merely "standing on the shoulders of giants."

In seven glorious years he and his team have widened that arc so that future generations will have even more shoulders to perch themselves upon.

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