Tuesday 25 June 2019

Colm Keys: 'The trick for Gavin has been to continuously regenerate - standing still would invite complacency'

As he faces into his seventh summer as manager, Jim Gavin and Dublin have the hand of history on their shoulders. Now 28 games unbeaten after suffering the only championship defeat of his career against Donegal in 2014, we look at some of the critical components that have put them on the cusp of an unprecedented All-Ireland five-in-a-row

Managing expectations: Jim Gavin has continuously regenerated his team in the knowledge that standing still would invite complacency. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Managing expectations: Jim Gavin has continuously regenerated his team in the knowledge that standing still would invite complacency. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Mick Bohan clicked into his emails one morning during his time as skills coach to the Dublin football team early in Jim Gavin's reign and was drawn to the time it was sent at - 2.38am!

He responded but was back reading a return email within half-an-hour and it struck him just how relentless the man at the other end of the conversation was.

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"I found myself asking, 'when does he sleep? Where does the sleep process fit in?'"

Bohan, now managing the Dublin ladies who are bidding for their own three-in-a-row, is certain that his ever-reticent counterpart has played the biggest part in cementing Dublin's success through the decade.

"In 16 years that I'm involved in Dublin football, between development squads, minor, U-21, seniors, nobody I have come across has the drive or the systematic approach that he brings," he said last December.

"It's just incredible. And he never wavers."

Originally overlooked for the position in 2008 as the committee in place - including previous managers Kevin Heffernan and Pat O'Neill - opted for Pat Gilroy instead, Gavin was the only candidate under consideration when Gilroy left in 2012.

With that renowned meticulous approach he has built an empire. In any one decade no county has been as dominant.

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A record ninth provincial title is within easy reach over the next few weeks but the bigger prize is an unprecedented five-in-a-row of All-Ireland titles later in the summer.

He has built a team and a movement equipped, it seems, to deal with any challenge.

Dublin football's privileges, financial and customary, cause obvious resentment and division among the wider GAA community but as an entity they have, thus far, been virtually untouchable.

There won't be a more telling visual statement this year than his complete obliviousness to the row which developed after their Kerry league game in Tralee as he walked around it. As all around him were losing their heads...

Management

Earlier in the month, at the launch of the Leinster GAA Championships in Casement Aerodrome, which was his home for six years as part of his role as chief flying instructor for the Defence Forces, he gave an outline of a management style that he has spoken of at conferences in the past.

It stemmed from that instructor experience, the 'growth mindset', as he referenced it, required to constantly review to get better.

"There is lots of reviewing. It's a process-driven industry. That has informed me to be very process-driven in terms of the performance of sport."

In the aviation sector, he explained, there is a culture that humans make mistakes and that 90pc of accidents happen due to human error.

"It's our job in the industry to try and find the root cause of it. Why they happened, what contributes to it? And learn the lessons and embrace that vulnerability and make ourselves stronger."

Such an approach is consistently applied to Dublin now.

"When a player makes a pass and it goes astray, the first thing I ask is 'was it a good decision?' If it was, then I'll ask, 'was the execution good?' And if it wasn't, I'm not going to the player, I'm going to the skills coach, and I'll ask them 'why is he kicking the ball that way?'

"On the other hand, if the problem was the decision the player made, then I'm asking why he didn't understand the game plan.

"I'm asking what the root cause is so that we can address it, not blame the individual," he told a conference for the Chartered Institute for Logistics and Transport in 2017.

Accountability and review from all the component parts - players and management - is a critical part of the process. When one player arrived back for a new season some years ago and tested for a higher than expected body fat, he was invited to own up to some of the dietary choices he was making.

Every detail is important to Gavin, right down to meetings he has had with referees chiefs, open to any manager, to get a better understanding of rule interpretations.

The core of Gavin's management team has remained in place over the seven years he has been in charge.

Bohan moved on early, so too did another selector, Michael Kennedy, a part of the original team. Mick Deegan also parted company with Gavin some time after the 2016 championship.

But Declan Darcy and former bank manager Shane O'Hanlon, the operations manager who pulls all the logistical strands together, are still there and have since been joined by Jason Sherlock and, more recently, Paul Clarke.

Former player Bryan Cullen has brought a greater emphasis on recovery since his arrival as the county's high-performance manager and has recently been joined by another IRFU recruit, Shane Malone.

Gavin's media consultant since the start is his long-time friend and Defence Forces colleague Seamus McCormack whose brief extends beyond his title to matters of public affairs and troubleshooting if the need arises. Noticeably, Dublin players' media exposure since the turn of the year has been considerably reduced compared to other years.

Players

The list attached reveals the amount of time each individual player has spent in play contributing to Dublin's four-in-a-row effort. It is not an order of merit, nor could it ever weigh the contributions of each individual player.

But what is clear is how wholesome the contributions of Brian Fenton and Ciarán Kilkenny have become over the last four years.

Together with captain Stephen Cluxton, they have become as close to indispensable as any Dublin player could be, given the resources they have, the new leadership axis that has developed during these unbeaten years. Even with games long done and dusted they remain on the field, chief executors of the game-plan.

Neither player missed a minute of action in 2016 while Fenton spent just six minutes of normal time off the field in 2017, seven less than Kilkenny across the same sequence of games when he retired early against Monaghan.

In recent years Jonny Cooper has become another critical piece, rising up the leadership ladder as other luminaries from the earlier part of the decade slip down. With Cluxton, they set the tone for everything.

The trick for Gavin has been to continuously regenerate in the knowledge that standing still would invite complacency.

"You can look at any industry, where people get complacent success invariably crumbles," he once said.

The average age of the starting All-Ireland final team was just over 27 in 2015 and went up to just under 28.6 for the drawn All-Ireland final a year later.

But in each final since it has come down. By 2017 it had dropped to 26.9 and 26.2 last year. It might not be wholly representative, given Dublin's bench impact, but it still paints quite a picture.

That graph should, ordinarily, rise through a sequence like it but remarkably it has gone the other way with the emergence and trust placed in players like Con O'Callaghan, Brian Howard, Niall Scully and Eoin Murchan.

For the 2017 All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone, Bernard Brogan, Michael Darragh Macauley and Paul Flynn didn't feature. Diarmuid Connolly got two minutes.

Sentiment in team selection has been the biggest casualty.

Perspective

On Tuesday last the Irish Independent had a photograph on the back page of some of the current Dublin football squad carrying Anton O'Toole's coffin to Mount Argus for his funeral mass the previous day.

Niall Scully and Eoghan O'Gara from the star of the 1970' home club, Templeogue Synge Street, were among the pallbearers but so too were Kilkenny, John Small and two others not in view.

The 'Blue Panther's' Dublin team-mates had also helped to carry him on that final journey, past and present in a strong show of respect to one of the city's most popular footballing sons.

For contemporaries to honour a colleague in such a way is commonplace. For players of a different era to do so, much less so.

It's not that modern players aren't respectful of the past. But as the eras slip by it's understandable that the connections can weaken.

O'Toole was more than 40 years older than some of those who had shouldered him into the church but in that snapshot those four decades didn't feel like such a chasm.

It said much about Dublin football but maybe more about its current manager and the culture he has created.

Dublin can be a big, impersonal place but the Gaelic football community, for all the resources and largesse at play, can be quite a small. Jim Gavin has shrunk it that little bit more, bringing a certain intimacy to it where respect for the past has been paramount.

From early in his stewardship Gavin has regularly invoked the 'standing on their shoulders' line when referencing those who had gone before them, particularly O'Toole's team, shaped and polished by Heffernan.

In terms of records and achievements this Dublin team have left all their predecessors far in their slipstream but to Gavin that team of the 1970s still stand apart for what they did for the sport in the city. And it's important for him to regularly remind the current generation of that.

Prior to last year's All-Ireland final, O'Toole was a welcome guest to the inner sanctum one night after training where the manager introduced him to the players and backroom team.

It was further evidence of Gavin's careful fostering of links with their football past. Many counties have sought to cultivate that very same respect for lineage and traded off it but in an urban setting that challenge can be potentially greater.

Tactics

"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."

These were Jim Gavin's words at a sponsorship event a few weeks after the seismic 2014 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Donegal. He spoke about having the wrong balance and how he would go away and learn from it.

In the years that followed Dublin have become more conscious of defensive structure and shape while also exuding patience and injecting pace at the right time to break down mass defence.

Cian O'Sullivan and Kilkenny have become two of the chief architects in the rearrangement while Dean Rock's assumption of free-taking duties has also been a pivotal change in the wake of 2014.

Mentality

This Dublin team's ability to see out a game has manifested when it matters most, in the white heat of an All-Ireland final. They have won games in every possible manner in league and championship, more often than not leading from start to finish but also coming from far off the pace to overhaul a team.

Turning a five-point deficit into a two-point winning margin in the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry, without scoring a goal, was the obvious high point.

When it was announced that there would be seven additional minutes of added time at the end of the 2017 All-Ireland final, just about everyone sensed it would be a bridge too far for Mayo to hold out for that long.

That's the hold they've had over teams in these situations. They've applied cynical methods too to close out a game, that 2017 final being the obvious example.

But Cormac Costello hauling down Brian Ó Beaglaoich in that 2016 game and Kevin McManamon's similar challenge on Lee Keegan in the 2013 final illustrate just what measures they are prepared to take to protect a lead.

Irish Independent

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