Jim Gavin and his regeneration game
Past triumphs of no concern as Dublin supremo plans for latest final test against Tyrone
From the hidden rooms of Dublin football comes Jim Gavin. There are no secrets, mystery is skewered perspective, all we see is the relentless energy of a special collection of men, many of whom cannot get into the team anymore. Yet they remain. After the semi-final dismissal of Galway, Gavin spoke about another “cohort of players in the shadows” awaiting their opportunity. The four-in-a-row quest, six All-Irelands this decade, has been notable for the constant regeneration of Gavin’s Dublin.
Stephen Cluxton, Cian O’Sullivan and James McCarthy started the thrilling 2011 victory over Kerry and every final since. Mick Fitzsimons, Michael Darragh Macauley, Bernard Brogan and the previously undroppable Paul Flynn also started but how many of them will walk in Sunday’s parade? Maybe Macauley.
In the glorious intervening years, Philly McMahon starred up from sub to man mauler while Kevin McManamon has carved out the finest possible inter-county career from an impact role.
When the masses make a now singular visit to witness their beloved Dublin, they must acquaint themselves with Eoin Murchan and the wonderfully proficient Brian Howard. They are names that hardly roll off the tongue like Rory O’Carroll and Diarmuid Connolly.
But give it time.
Naturally gifted footballer
Told-you-so stories like the greatest full-back in generations heading to New Zealand are redundant because the hole was filled by Johnny Cooper and mounded by McMahon. Ireland’s most naturally gifted footballer, Connolly, is only available on grainy footage spinning and poking goals in Boston. So what? Watch Howard in Omagh.
There’s a strong possibility that the best scoring forward the city has ever known, Brogan, will not be rewarded with a jersey despite his miraculous recovery from a cruciate tear. Instead, catch Cormac Costello pilfering show-closing points.
There is only room for what happens in the now, and what comes from the shadows, as Gavin and Dublin hunt down the only remaining ghosts. Kerry under Mick O’Dwyer.
Gavin says nothing of this, nor do any of them, not a drop pours from the Dublin ship despite the collection of strong voices who could make money by being well known and seen and playing the media game. Yet nothing leaks.
It turns a morsel from inside Gavin’s initial Dublin panel in the winter of 2012/13 into a feast. Serves them right for putting a Tyrone man in blue.
“I remember him speaking the first day at the first meeting,” Paddy Quinn told The
Herald. “He told us that his aim was to win three All-Irelands in the next three years. He had the goal set out and he had it planned out to a tee how that was going to happen.”
Gavin missed the target and his core philosophy of pure football had to radically change after Jim McGuinness brought uncompromising Donegal men to bear on Dublin in that harrowing 2014 All-Ireland semi-final.
Stumbles past Mayo still finished with Sam Maguire in Cluxton’s grip but only the captain is irreplaceable in the current team.
That is surely Gavin’s greatest achievement as the manager. After a busy day over in London for the Irish Aviation Authority and with training to follow, we suggest as much.
“I suppose the most satisfying part of the role is to see the players be the best they can be,” begins a long answer.
“Obviously we have a lot of players at our disposal, some fantastic players that aren’t even on the county squad, but our job as a management team is to blend them to represent Dublin football. That’s how we see it. If we can do that we have kind of done our job. Getting trophies along the way is fantastic but kind of a bonus...And committing so much time to it.
Because it is all volunteers, nobody is under any contracts and the mileage rate isn’t that good either. To do it for the love of the game, that’s probably the most satisfying thing.
“In terms of transition,” he finally adds, “players coming up is just the natural cycle of any team.”
Dublin are not any team. This is not cyclical. The All-Time managers rebuild while winning – Alex Ferguson, Brian Cody and to a lesser extent O’Dwyer – but it would have been easier to trust Paul Flynn over Niall Scully or throw the substantial means of Dublin GAA at keeping O’Carroll or Connolly at home. It would be easier to let a great team grow old together on Croke Park grass, right?
“Not really. Paul Flynn and Michael Darragh are incredible individuals and to see the commitment that they give to the game and the determination they have to play their part, no matter what it is, that inspires us to be our best, and to have our game right. It can be demanding on your time and energy but they drive the agenda. You do it for them.”
Gavin’s time constraints are beyond comprehension. His job requires unnatural levels of focus but what has outside observers so perplexed is how Dublin’s 10 remaining players who featured in 2011 remain unsated?
“We never reference the past,” he responds. “We have tried to learn from it and there is rich learning within the group. But we have never traded off the past. Never. It is really always been the next game.
“That has probably been our greatest strength, that focus, the attitude they have. Speaking about Paul Flynn, Michael Darragh and Cian, their attitude is phenomenal. That drives our energy into the game.”
The wall looks impregnable. That’s what is so special about Dublin, about the unspecified work of Bernard Dunne and Gary Keegan, about Jason Sherlock linking into the minors, about an unused Brogan or glimpses of Flynn.
The true hunger they are showing us is generated behind locked doors. External noise is just that.
“Yeah, it’s all internal motivation. You are not looking for motivation off any other team because you can’t control how another team prepare themselves or what motivation other teams use. It’s short-lived.
“It might get you up to the first ball or first play but after that it will burn itself out. We have always tried to be our best and just give it our all.
“The great strength of the group was that they understand that. Yes, they all want game time but they realise that unlike individual sports it is about the team and the collective and whether that’s seven minutes or the full 70 they are willing to commit in the game. They push each other hard to get game time.”
Or they can leave, invest in actual careers or lease a mustang and sample some East Coast living in the USA. The departure of star players merely uncloaked those coiled tightly in the shadows.
How Gavin manages it all – with the help of 1990s comrades Declan D’Arcy, Sherlock and Paul Clarke – becomes clearer when he speaks.
“I’m an assistant director with the Irish Aviation Authority on the safety regulations side so it’s a very responsible job, so I can’t let my mind wander. I have a great team of people there so it’s a great company and the demands have my full attention when I’m on that job.
“Maybe its an aviation thing, when you’re flying you’re concentration has to be on the flight deck, it can’t wander to the ground, you have to be in the air with the aircraft. Maybe that’s just something that I picked up in aviation or the military that whatever task is on hand you zone in on that.
“To be able to do both and obviously the family as well you have to be able to compartmentalise otherwise, it’s a busy job that I have, you’d probably get snowed under from all the work.”
Imagine football consumed his entire thinking?
“You have to be very disciplined with your time management, absolutely yeah. You could be at it all day but we have a great team.
Shane O’Hanlon, who is a selector, does a lot of the operational work for the team and Jason, Declan and Paul – we share the workload in terms of coaching and that’s important that everyone has their say in what we do. We all take an equal part in it.” With Napoleon overseeing each battle. “We are all involved absolutely.”
‘‘ We have a lot of players at our disposal . . . but our job as a management team is to blend them to represent Dublin football
Dublin manager Jim Gavin shakes hands with Tyrone manager Mickey Harte after July’s All-Ireland quarter-final phase 2 match at Healy Park, Omagh.