Saturday 7 December 2019

Pat Spillane: 'Jim Gavin has got his exit spot on, there were signs that his team were in post-peak mode'

Dublin manager Jim Gavin acknowledges the cheers of the supporters after watching his side win a fifth successive All-Ireland title. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach
Dublin manager Jim Gavin acknowledges the cheers of the supporters after watching his side win a fifth successive All-Ireland title. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach

Pat Spillane

Enoch POWELL, the controversial British politician, once said that all political careers end in failure.

The same is true of managers in sport.  Few know when it is the right time to quit.

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The history of Gaelic football is littered with examples of managers sticking around too long. We had two examples of it in my native Kerry.

Mick O'Dwyer stayed on too long after guiding the county to eight All-Ireland wins while Jack O'Connor probably outlived his welcome in his second term as team boss.

Jim Gavin has got it spot on. He is bowing out at the very top.

Whisper it quietly – despite achieving the fabled five-in-a-row there were signs – particularly in the drawn final against Kerry – that his team were in post-peak mode.

Nobody could question his right to walk away and enjoy some down-time.  He first became involved in team management with the Dublin U-21 team in 2003, guiding them to three All-Ireland wins during two separate spells as boss.

During his seven years as senior manager Dublin won six All-Ireland titles, seven Leinster crowns and five National League leagues. His record speaks for itself.

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Greatest

Was he the greatest GAA football manager of all time? Was he better than O'Dwyer or Kevin Heffernan? Who knows – they are subjective questions.  Micko and Heffo operated in a different era.

What is indisputable, however, is that Gavin's record will almost certainly never be equalled.

So, what made him tick?

His critics will point out he had the raw material and the finance needed at his finger-tips. This is unfair.

No other manager would have won six All-Ireland title in seven years.

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

His man-management skills were extraordinary. How else can you explain how his key players stayed hungry for success year after year?

He was able to get the most out of players who looked ordinary at club and Sigerson Cup level.

As befits a man who was an officer in the Irish Army for many years, his organisational and planning skills were second to none. His attention to detail was second to none.

Effectively he was the CEO of the Dublin team. But he surrounded himself with people of the highest calibre and was willing to delegate responsibility.

He wasn't interested in personal glory and though it infuriated them, he kept the media at arm's length.

It was significant there were few if any leaks from inside the camp during his seven years in charge.

Tactically he was very astute but open to change.  After Donegal beat Dublin in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final, he changed the way the team played, and this laid the foundations for their five-in-row.

His football philosophy encompassed all that is positive about Gaelic football. Dublin played football the way it was meant to be played.

He empowered his players allowing them to take responsibility once they crossed the white line.

Nurture

He had an innate ability to recognise raw talent and nurture it. He moulded Brian Fenton, Niall Scully and Brian Howard into the footballers they have become.

And remember he did all this for free.

Winning the first ever five-in-a-row will be his legacy. 

It will still be talked about when our successors come to pick out the big moments in 21st century Irish sport.

It is hard to blame him for walking away.  He has a young family and a high-powered job.

Such is the monster we have created managing a top-level inter-county is virtually a full-time job.

The timing of his announcement is baffling, however.  Perhaps it is down to work-related issues, otherwise it would have been more appropriate to step down in the wake of the All-Ireland final.

The big question now is whether Stephen Cluxton, who had indicated he would announce next month whether he was staying on for another season, will follow Gavin's example and walk away.

The departure of both Gavin and Cluxton at the same time would be an incalculable loss to the Dubs.

The key issue now is who will succeed Gavin. It is the ultimate poisoned chalice.  How do you follow the most successful manager of all time?

The simple answer is you cannot. His successor faces a near impossible task. It's like the challenge Mickey Ned O'Sullivan faced in Kerry when he succeeded Mick O'Dwyer or David Moyes did when he took over from Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.

Given that Gavin's replacement will come from within the county, I see only two possibilities: Pat Gilroy or Dessie Farrell.

Gilroy has probably never got the credit for laying the foundations for what followed. 

But given that he stepped down as hurling manager this time last year citing work commitments abroad, I doubt if he is available.

So, Farrell looks the obvious candidate and he has a decent track record with Dublin underage teams.

Honeymoon

There will be no honeymoon for the new boss. His first match is a home tie against Kerry at Croke Park in Round 1 of the National League. What a bonanza for the GAA though.

The dynamic of the new 2020 season has changed dramatically.

There was always the feeling abroad that Jim Gavin's Dublin team was close to invincible. That cloak has now vanished.

From day one the new manager will be under scrutiny and Dublin's closest rivals will now feel that they have a decent chance of finally getting the better of them in championship football.

It is going to be a fascinating season.

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