Saturday 20 January 2018

Gentleman Jim mitigates a side ablaze with personality

Dublin manager Jim Gavin on Kerry: 'They’re a team full of stars, not only on the starting 15, but also on the bench as well. And there’s an expectation that they are going to win it back to back. So it’s all uphill for us'
Dublin manager Jim Gavin on Kerry: 'They’re a team full of stars, not only on the starting 15, but also on the bench as well. And there’s an expectation that they are going to win it back to back. So it’s all uphill for us'
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Jim Gavin comes to that quaint, four-row auditorium under the Hogan Stand like a man being pulled away from an important phone-call.

This will never be his natural stage, gabbiness just isn't ingrained in him. He remains studiously courteous, of course, but Jim's way in this room is to communicate as if the seat beneath him is a metal contraption with wires.

His team is a bit of a puzzle just now, yet he just dimples softly as if to say it ain't his job to settle the confusion in our heads.

And, for every answer delivered with the crispness of formal stationary, the Dublin press officer bizarrely takes one more step towards the dais, tugged there by an invisible chain. Oddly, this person is fully togged out as if he might even have been an option to Gavin from the bench. He swings a water bottle while Jim talks, his body language endlessly calling time.

Dublin are in the All-Ireland final and, perhaps, there's an engine running somewhere.

And that's the really curious thing. The city team is ablaze with personality, some of it swaggering, some of it fragile, all of it interesting, yet this exercise feels stilted as a tribunal sitting. We might as well be sifting through legalese here.


For the guts of an hour, Dublin could not land a decent punch on Mayo. Then, in the space of 11 minutes, they obliterated them. And it felt faintly cruel to witness the great hordes of western pilgrims pour down the stadium aisles having seen another Mayo ship go under as if made of tissue-paper masts.

But history's pitiless ways aren't Dublin's concern now.

When they needed to find the best of themselves, they did. And this despite their challenge to the dim bulbs of the GAA's disciplinary system taking them deep into the small hours of Saturday morning. The push to clear Diarmuid Connolly was a three-layered, almost daily marathon that only concluded, according to Gavin, after a seven-hour DRA conclave on Friday night, "a good part" of which the player himself had to attend.

Had it been a distraction?

"No" Jim smiled with that calm, military bearing of his. "I'd say of all the county teams the Dublin players are used to a lot of external stuff going on. So they are quite accustomed to those external distractions and they are quite good at getting into a performance bubble and blocking it out. We actually enjoyed this week, we had good fun getting ready for this game and I think the way they played they showed that."

Efforts are made to lure him into the broader debate of a system that is, patently, not fit for purpose, but that's a bit like trying to draw bawdiness from the Pope. Jim's too worldly wise for the little traps we set. In any event, did we honestly expect him to try defrocking a process that, ultimately, freed his player?

Jim says simply that Dublin "engaged with" that process and that the people they encountered were "very facilitating". We are fencing with the wind here.

Connolly had a quiet game as it happened, whilst others like Paul Flynn and Dean Rock continued to look as if working off threadbare confidence. The beauty for Dublin, though, is the depth of their squad, the weaponry they hold in reserve.

When you can spring Alan Brogan and Kevin McManamon and Michael Darragh Macauley off the bench, it's fair to say that you're playing with more than a single deck.

All three were introduced in an eight-minute pocket during the second-half that prefaced the end for Mayo. Their arrival essentially changed the tempo and angles of Dublin's attack. Because they ran at the Connacht champions. Whereas Mayo's idea of variation was the sporadic use of an admittedly game Aidan O'Shea as a lighthouse at full-forward, Dublin could all but change their team.

With Paddy Andrews and Bernard Brogan and Ciaran Kilkenny already thriving, the Westerners' prospects suddenly took on a dull, grey hue. They conceded 2-2 without reply in a ruinous four minutes. And so a team that led by four points with 17 minutes remaining just ran hopelessly aground.

They spurned an opportunity to flatten Dublin when it seemed as if the men in blue were not in a position to protect themselves. Immediately after Cillian O'Connor's wonderful 42nd-minute goal, Lee Keegan went skating through towards the Hill end, Dublin at his mercy.

But, instead of delivering the kill-shot, he just spooned the ball into Stephen Cluxton's hands on a silver salver.

Dublin's football in that last quarter was, undoubtedly, exhilarating, but their form is uneven. The game, essentially, cartwheeled when they goaled twice in a minute, Mayo's response seeming so full of dismay and melancholy, it's a moot point how real that late, coruscating flourish might ultimately prove.

No matter, three goals flew into the Canal end net, setting the Hill ablaze with fresh belief that the city boys can go all the way now.

Even Philly McMahon, Gavin's U-21 captain in '08 and a hard-nosed corner-back not noted for decorous football, got in on the act with a personal return of 1-2. It was surreal to behold and, towards the end, Dublin selector Mick Deegan could be seen on the field directing McMahon back into a defensive slot, like a bishop rebuking a curate for losing the run of himself.


Yet, the pick of Dublin's scores was McManamon's 66th-minute thunderbolt - as Gavin put it "we always encourage our guys to go for it, that is the mantra" - a score immediately followed by Dublin's manager calling Connolly ashore to blue thunder.

So it's that old colour-scheme of the seventies for Sunday week's final now. Gavin told us that he hadn't seen much of Kerry, but appeared - nonetheless - to have encountered gossip that they might be decent.

"We played them back in the spring on a miserable day in Killarney" he said. "They looked very serious that day. They played with great intent. We've a bit of catching up to do.

"I know their management team were here for the Leinster final, the League final and the last two games, so they've got a good look at us.

"They're a team full of stars, not only on the starting 15, but also on the bench as well. And there's an expectation that they are going to win it back to back. So it's all uphill for us.

"The level of exposure to the opposition ... we've played our full hand. Kerry would certainly be in the long grass!"

As ever, we could not be sure if he was smirking as he said it.

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