Sunday 15 December 2019

Colm Keys: 'Jim Gavin is an impossible act to follow for the next man in'

Dessie Farrell is the standout candidate to take over as champions start planning for life without the capital's most successful manager

Mr Cool: Jim Gavin and selector Mick Deegan just before the final whistle of the 2015 All-Ireland SFC final victory over Kerry. Photo: Sportsfile
Mr Cool: Jim Gavin and selector Mick Deegan just before the final whistle of the 2015 All-Ireland SFC final victory over Kerry. Photo: Sportsfile
Winning pedigree: Dessie Farrell has managed the majority of the Dublin team at minor and/or U-21 level
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

When the dust had settled a few days after their All-Ireland final replay success over Kerry last September, Ciarán Kilkenny took stock of the view from the Everest peak that five-in-a-row provided and saw some dark clouds hovering.

A simple text to his friend and colleague Brian Fenton conveyed that sentiment.

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"Next year will be tough."

Where do you go when you have climbed every mountain worth climbing? Do it all over again?

Fenton couldn't offer a meaningful defence that 2020 would be any easier than his fellow on-field general was suggesting.

Next year was always going to be tough. But now it's got considerably tougher.

Fenton, Kilkenny and many of those that will continue to share a dressing-room with them in future years will be more than a little miffed at any suggestion that they will lose their way without the guiding hand of the now-departed Jim Gavin and his team. They have their own personal goals and aims to fulfil.

Is there not sufficient trust in them that they can continue to keep the plane flying at a continuously high altitude?

Of course there is. But the upheaval and adjustment of a figure like Gavin uprooting and leaving after seven years of the highest standards being set has consequences and ripple effects regardless of who the follow-up act is.

Those consequences have intensified with the fact that it has happened so close to the commencement of a new season, when there had been so little, if any indication in recent weeks, that his mind was set on a departure.

Quite the opposite in fact. Senior Dublin officials were confident that he would honour at least the first year of a two-year extension that he agreed with the Dublin County Board last December and was reportedly having conversations that pointed to such continuation.

But doubts over Declan Darcy's commitment to another year persisted, while another selector, Paul Clarke, may not have continued either. With growing commitments to his construction business and an involvement with a Dublin girls development team, Darcy has strongly hinted at a change of direction over the last two years.

Gavin and Darcy have a long shared history of coaching together, dating back to their time with the U-21 All-Ireland winning team of 2003.

As a sounding board and trusted confidante, Gavin probably didn't have closer and any change in that dynamic was sure to have forced a change in thinking about the future.

The general agreement after the All-Ireland win was to set aside any talk of the future until at least the end of October, to allow the celebration of such a historic feat to take its natural course.

Bernard Brogan was first to take his leave, followed by Eoghan O'Gara but then a lull before Gavin himself checked out, 'handing the reins back to the Dublin county committee', as Saturday's terse statement put it, suggesting it was little more than returning a set of flight manuals back into head office after a long flight. Understated as ever.

What now for Stephen Cluxton, who said last month that he would take until January to determine his future?

In some respects, there may now be an onus on Cluxton to remain to mitigate against further upheaval and potential weakening of the nuts and bolts that have kept them intact for so long. But a new manager may want to establish a relationship with a new captain.

Cian O'Sullivan is another who could delve into deeper thought about his future too. Another pivotal figure of Gavin's reign, he too may see the weekend departure as a natural end.

The question turns now to who replaces Gavin and, more pertinently, who has the status to stand in a Dublin dressing-room laden with great players - some of whom have never lost a championship game - and be a presence with conviction and gravitas. Put it another way, who would feel least daunted by it?

The shortlist is small and really, there is only one outstanding candidate.

Dessie Farrell has already had a big impact on the careers of several players. From the team that started the All-Ireland final replay against Kerry, two-thirds have played for him at either minor or U-21 level, winning All-Ireland titles along the way.

Only Stephen Cluxton, Cian O'Sullivan, James McCarthy, Dean Rock and Jonny Cooper have not had direct experience of Farrell as a Dublin manager. In Cooper's case, there is of course deep familiarity through their shared Na Fianna connection, but the rest will easily identify with him on so many other fronts.

Pat Gilroy could emerge as a candidate again but having vacated the Dublin hurling job last year because of work commitments, it's unlikely that he will put himself forward again.


In any case, it feels like Farrell's time. The opportunity to work with so many players he has already helped to foster in the earlier part of their inter-county career will be very tempting, even if being 'next man in' after such an iconic and successful figure has been historically challenging across a wide variety of sports.

Gavin had already begun the process of replenishing his squad with players of 2017 U-21 origin - Darren Gavin, Sean Bugler, Paddy Small, Evan Comerford, Cillian O'Shea and Andrew McGowan pushed on to join Con O'Callaghan, Brian Howard, Eoin Murchan and Colm Basquel, who had already taken root.

By his nature, Farrell is ambitious, as his work in developing the Gaelic Players Association from scratch will illustrate. That required strong nerve and conviction in the first place, but also the capacity to build relationships and understanding which he was able to apply in his five years as U-21 manager, a period that yielded two All-Irelands and four Leinster titles.

Only last Wednesday night he recommitted to the Na Fianna senior team for another season, safe, it seemed, in the knowledge that there would be no Dublin vacancy for at least another year.

Gavin leaves with a pristine legacy. No other manager in history got as much from one team in such a short space of time. Between the All-Ireland, Leinster championship and National League, they competed for 21 titles and won 18. That is an extraordinary strike rate, irrespective of the talent and natural advantages a team from the capital enjoys.

Mick O'Dwyer still has to stand apart in football management terms. A first Leinster title with Kildare in 42 years, a first with Laois in 57 years - neither county has won another since he departed - and even those trio of 2009 qualifier wins with Wicklow over Ulster opposition on successive Saturdays polishes the eight All-Irelands he won with Kerry.

The next decade, especially the first half, points clearly to a new phase of Dublin/Kerry rivalry. The era of David Clifford/Con O'Callaghan is upon us.

Gavin's departure shifts the inter-county plates somewhat. Dublin's next championship defeat will be magnified. It may have been coming in 2020 anyway.

Taking over the greatest ever football team shouldn't seem as daunting as it feels right now.

Irish Independent

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