Sunday 8 December 2019

Tomás Ó Sé: 'Jim Gavin's greatest legacy is what should scare the rest of the country - Dublin can win without him'

Jim Gavin stepped down as Dublin manager after seven years in charge. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Jim Gavin stepped down as Dublin manager after seven years in charge. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Tomás Ó Sé

I don’t know Jim Gavin. I marked him once but I don’t know him.

I’ve never met him at anything. Never bumped into him along the way. Clearly, he’s not a man for fanfare or gigs.

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That says a lot about him because the GAA universe is a small one. You’re invited to functions and events and it’s rare you’d go into a room and wouldn’t know someone.

I’ve have met plenty of that Dublin team from 1995 and those who played around the turn of the millennium but it struck me over the weekend that I’ve never bumped into Jim at anything.

I’ve watched him over the last seven years mould a team into winners in a way that only the likes of Cody and Micko have done. The Jim he presented to us was unknowable but hardy. For him I think there were two types of people in the world. Those who were interested in helping Dublin win an All-Ireland title and everyone else. If you weren’t in the former group, you just weren’t mapped.

Off the field, he’d give anyone his time but on it he had tunnel vision. Dublin were first and last. He expected the same from his players. That was epitomised by Bernard Brogan.

He might have thrown the head when he didn’t make the All-Ireland final squad. Instead, he kept working for Dublin and got back in the panel for the replay. That was Jim Gavin’s Dublin. The collective always came before the individual.

Over the last few days I’ve read all sorts of tributes to the man. All sorts of theories on what he did to help Dublin reach new heights. There’s talk of humility and talent and population and team culture and resources. Humility alone didn’t make them champions.

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They aren’t alone in possession of that trait. But there’s more to them than that.

For me, Gavin’s greatest achievement was that Dublin were always greater than the sum of their parts. They had an ideal of what they wanted to be and how they wanted to get there and everyone worked towards it.

That was borne out game after game and year after year. If they suffered a setback they’d regroup and find another way to win. If a high-profile player was coming to an end, he’d simply be set aside for the next man up. For seven years he convinced young men who were pouring the better part of their 20s into this project, to set everything aside in the pursuit of an ideal greater than just themselves.

That’s why they could keep reinventing themselves and still come out on top. Even the way they set up was a principle. By winning playing on the front foot, Dublin under Gavin did more than anyone to lead the game away from the defensive football that was killing the joy in the thing.

Even the way he stepped down was a tribute to the notion that everyone was contributing to something more than themselves. A brief statement without even a quote from the man himself. That was it. Gone like a puff of smoke. Nothing, even the manager’s departure, was bigger than the team.

I was down in Dungarvan on Sunday for the Munster club SFC final and met Rory O’Neill, who works on 'The Sunday Game'. He has dealt with Gavin a lot from a media perspective and made the point that Gavin would have chosen his moment to walk away carefully.

If he had retired after the five-in-a-row then everything would have been about Jim Gavin. If he had retired just before or after the All-Stars, then it’s all about him too and not the players. So with his duties fulfilled the time was right to call it a day. It was always about the right thing for Dublin.

Now it’s a fact that his Dublin team had a raft of players who could produce massive moments in every position.

Bernard Brogan, Diarmuid Connolly, Paul Flynn, James McCarthy, Ciarán Kilkenny, Stephen Cluxton, Cian O’Sullivan, Jonny Cooper, Philly McMahon, Jack McCaffrey, Brian Fenton, Paul Mannion, Con O’Callaghan. I could go on. There is no squad in the country that could compare to them over the last seven years. Clutch players, fellas who would do the right thing in the most pressurised circumstances. Mayo and Kerry might have four or five. Gavin’s Dublin probably had more than 10.

But I don’t for a minute buy the argument that you hear – that sheep could have driven those boys to win All-Ireland.

You sometimes hear the same thing about Micko and his great Kerry team. Páidí always said the strength of that group was Micko. And yes, he had special bunch of players but to be able to continuously drive them is a talent only a few have.

Cody would be another name that springs to mind. Jesus, when you hear retired Kilkenny lads talk about him now it’s like he’s the headmaster and they are in school. There’s a genuine reverence. To this day, Micko has that same hold over his Kerry team. Gavin has it too.

Those men work on a level different to the rest. They never worked off short-term inspiration – 'let’s go and beat these lads'. There’s no staying power in that. It had to be something deeper to build an empire in the way Gavin has.

And by God did he build something brilliant. They had a plan but were open to change. Jim was in charge but he could delegate too.

And now the new man faces the most unenviable task. Following Jim Gavin is difficult enough but I feel like Father Time could claim one or two more players before the new season is up and running.

All Dublin eyes will be hoping Cluxton will still be in tow by the time the league rolls around.

Still, Dublin have the right man for the job in Dessie Farrell. Having been over Na Fianna he knows what talent is out there while he’s also worked with the majority of the panel at underage level.

He’s close to those players and they will have no problem in going to the well for him once more. If for some reason Dessie can’t do it then Pat Gilroy is there. Dublin have to move heaven and earth to get either of those two on board. Anything else is a bad move.

That Dublin dressing-room still contains the best set of players in the country. And perhaps Gavin’s greatest legacy will be that while he was an important cog in the wheel, he has done enough work to ensure the wheel will still keep turning in his absence.

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