Joe Brolly: Jim Gavin doesn't hold the Sam Maguire because it's not his success, it's the players'
I was at a function for hospice on Thursday night in Dublin. Brian O'Driscoll said: "It's a free one for Mayo on Sunday. No one expects them to win. It's their best ever chance." Which would be true, if Dublin were not managed by Jim Gavin.
Complacency is the distracting feeling, deep down inside, that you are better than the other lot. Once this takes hold, it is corrosive. It reduces your concentration. It causes you to worry when things go against you on the field. It takes away your composure. The favourite is defeated because he does not respect the opposition. Fundamentally, complacency comes from vanity, from a lack of humility. Since humility is the bedrock of this Dublin squad, there is no risk of complacency. So, to beat them, Mayo will have to play the game of their lives, and play it for 80 minutes.
You'll notice that Jim Gavin never gets a photo taken with the Sam Maguire. He doesn't touch it or get close to it. He stays in the background when they win it. I asked once why he did this. He said: "It's not my cup. It's the players'. It's their success. Not mine." This humility is the cornerstone of the squad's success. They are not distracted by vanity, or personalities. Nor is their manager. So, he selects the team with a clear, open mind.
Diarmuid Connolly, probably the best footballer in the game, was kept on the bench for 70 minutes against Tyrone. It is not clear why he was brought on in the last few minutes; it certainly couldn't have been to run the clock down. Con O'Callaghan played in the jersey Connolly has worn throughout the decade. With another team, you might say the jersey Connolly has made his own. Not with this group. With vanity and personality removed from the equation, everything becomes logical. The players come to look at things in the same way. So, when Bernard Brogan and Connolly, Paul Flynn and Michael Darragh Macauley are left on the bench, they do not complain. They do not feel they are better than anyone else, because the philosophy is that no one is better than anyone else. They do not complain. They merely work harder on the training field.
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I was with the Dublin group after a game once, having a few pints in the city centre. People were coming up and chatting to them. A man asked Paul Mannion how many All-Irelands he had and he said, "Only two." The words were hardly out of his mouth when the older members of the panel rounded on him with delight, slagging him about being big-headed and who did he think he was. Paul, who had clearly answered the question innocently, went bright red and protested they were twisting what he meant, which of course they were. They toyed with him for a bit, then let him off the hook. It was teasing, but the point was made.
All of this comes from Gavin's philosophy. I have been thinking of this refusal to touch or be photographed with the Sam Maguire in after-match celebrations. Compare and contrast with, say, Mickey Harte. When Tyrone won their All-Irelands in the noughties, the cup sat with Mickey at the front of the bus. When they emerged from the bus, Mickey carried the cup aloft. He felt, in large measure, that it was his and the players assisted him in winning it. It explains a lot about Mickey's philosophy and how he runs his teams. I use the word 'his' deliberately. With Gavin, he takes the opposite approach. It is the players' cup, and he is merely there to facilitate them to achieve their best. Each player is viewed entirely on his merits. The blue jersey is borrowed temporarily. The point is to push yourself to the limits of excellence.
By this stage, the group is self-sufficient on the field, able to deal calmly with anything that is thrown at them. Whether a player is started or brought on, his performance is at the highest level. Whatever goes wrong on the field, they quickly solve it, mostly by themselves. They understand the team is theirs, and what happens on the field is their responsibility and theirs alone. Watch how ferociously their defenders mark, unworried about playing man to man. No one is looking to the sideline for help if their man scores a point. They just go harder.
There is a story told about Brian Cody. He had brought a promising under 21 hurler into the senior panel. When he arrived for his first training session, he was wearing white boots. Cody sent him home. He wasn't invited back.
It is striking that no one on the Dublin squad has dyed hair or a Premier League hair-style or any of these "look at me" symbols. These are distractions from the collective approach. Inscriptions on the left boot saying "deadly weapon" or "exocet missile" or tattoos on the forearm of Sam Maguire, listing their four recent All-Irelands, will not be found.
This stems from Gavin. The philosophy, which is on any view a perfect one, on or off the field, has been put into practice. What is clear is that with clear minds and a genuine sense of no one being better than anyone else, the team is not only thriving, but the players are thriving on it. They enjoy what they are doing hugely. Humility and togetherness is reaping real rewards. Not just trophies, but invaluable life lessons. In Gavin's case, his philanthropy and compassion is under the radar. I know about much of it, through the campaign to promote organ donation and improve the system. I see what he does and hear the stories from others. He does it all without fanfare. In his language, he is merely facilitating people who are seriously ill to get better.
The net effect of all of this is a magnificent, courageous, happy squad. They may not be the greatest team of all time, but they are unquestionably the greatest squad. It is Gavin who has created the biggest problem that any opponent has when they face Dublin. Colm Cooper articulated it best, earlier this year in an off-camera conversation with me.
"What is it that sets them apart?" I asked.
"It's that they completely ignore you on the field, Joe. No matter what you do, they just keep going, whether they are 10 behind or 10 up."
Come this evening, when Dublin win, don't expect to see any pictures of Gavin holding the cup aloft, or stepping from the Dublin bus to wave it in front of an adoring crowd. Jim is winning matches, but he'll never sing about it.
Sunday Indo Sport