Wily Gavin busy en­sur­ing a blue-sky fu­ture for Dublin

Qui­etly-spo­ken pi­lot has been over­see­ing a con­stant tran­si­tion of Dublin’s tal­ented panel

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - GAELIC GAMES CHAMPIONSHIP 2017 - Malachy Clerkin

The list of gen­uine in­sights ra­tioned out by Jim Gavin for pub­lic con­sump­tion is no­to­ri­ously and de­lib­er­ately a short one. We are used it by now and have broadly made our peace with re­al­ity. While it may do us lit­tle credit that one of Gavin’s eas­i­est and most com­pre­hen­sive vic­to­ries was over the GAA press, we do hang in there for what­ever small nuggets come our way.

And so it was that when he ac­cepted the Philips Man­ager of the Year award in 2013, we noted down for fu­ture use some­thing he said in his on-stage in­ter­view af­ter­wards. “After a game, the most sat­is­fy­ing mo­ments are the few min­utes to­gether in the dress­ing-room. It was just the play­ers, the man­age­ment team and some county board of­fi­cers. It’s im­por­tant to let the play­ers bask in the mo­ment. They should en­joy that time be­cause it’s a special mo­ment.

“I said to the play­ers that we would prob­a­bly be never to­gether as a group in the same room again. Play­ers get in­jured, re­tire, lose form so that is the case. Even for the medal pre­sen­ta­tion, one of the play­ers was miss­ing be­cause he had an early start for work the next day.”

If that line about never be­ing to­gether as a group again felt stark at the time, it was mostly be­cause you could imag­ine the play­ers’ re­ac­tion to hear­ing it on the day. Yeah, thanks for that, Cap­tain Buz­zkill. And yet, it should prob­a­bly come as lit­tle surprise that Gavin’s proph­esy was correct.

We can’t say one way or another whether they’ve all ever shared a room but a look at Dublin’s play­ing line-ups over the past seven sum­mers makes his point in a far more im­pact­ful way.

Dublin have won four All-Ire­lands since 2011, tak­ing in five fi­nals when you in­clude last year’s re­play against Mayo. Not a sin­gle one of the start­ing XVs from those five fi­nals has ever been repli­cated in a sub­se­quent cham­pi­onship game. After their day of days, the same team never started another game to­gether.

We live in a world of in­ter­minable pea­cock­ing and drea­rily repet­i­tive ar­gu­ment. In the to-and-fro that in­vari­ably fol­lows another handy Dublin win, the gen­eral fore­bod­ing over a fu­ture in which the city team will eat the sport whole is usu­ally coun­tered by some­one say­ing that this is a golden gen­er­a­tion of play­ers, un­likely to be re­peated, maybe even in our life­time. Prob­lem is, the numbers don’t re­ally bear that out.

The first part is very ob­vi­ously true. Gavin has at his dis­posal a stun­ning crop of play­ers – skil­ful, ath­letic, pur­pose­ful and tac­ti­cally as­tute. The team that took the field against Mon­aghan in the quar­ter­fi­nal con­tained nine All Stars, for starters.

Se­ri­ous op­er­a­tors

Of the six who don’t have a statue, John Small and Mick Fitzsi­mons were the man of the match win­ners in last year’s drawn fi­nal and re­play, Con O’Cal­laghan is 1/8 for Young Foot­baller of the Year and Paul Man­nion, Paddy An­drews and Eric Lown­des are se­ri­ous op­er­a­tors in their own right. They were also able to bring on two for­mer Foot­baller of the Year win­ners plus a four-time All Star in Paul Flynn. And do it all without Diar­muid Con­nolly.

As golden as a gen­er­a­tion can be, then. But to ar­gue that Dublin can’t or won’t keep pro­duc­ing as they go seems pretty disin­gen­u­ous. You don’t even have to get into the fraught busi­ness of pre­dict­ing the fu­ture to see it. Sim­ple anal­y­sis of the present and re­cent past will point the way to where Dublin are go­ing.

Since the 2011 All-Ire­land fi­nal, Dublin have added the fol­low­ing play­ers, in or­der of cham­pi­onship de­but – Ciarán Kilkenny, Jonny Cooper, Darren Daly, Jack McCaf­frey, Paul Man­nion, Dean Rock, Cor­mac Costello, Shane Carthy, Brian Fen­ton, John Small, David Byrne, Eric Lown­des, Niall Scully, Con O’Cal­laghan and Brian Howard.

Oth­ers have come and gone but 14 of that group of 15 all togged out in the match­day panel three weeks ago and Costello will surely re­turn when fitness al­lows. At 27, Cooper and Rock are the old­est of that co­hort.

Gavin’s abil­ity to over­see con­sis­tent tran­si­tion will be re­mem­bered as the hall­mark of his pe­riod in charge. In the win­ter of 2012, he took over a team that had won its All-Ire­land the pre­vi­ous year and set about re­fit­ting it on the hoof. It has been a con­stant theme with each pass­ing year. New faces tug­ging at older play­ers’ coats, mak­ing them cranky, tak­ing their place.

The up­shot is that of the four teams left, Dublin fielded the youngest start­ing 15 in their most re­cent game. The av­er­age age of the side that trounced Mon­aghan was 26.26 And while Diar­muid Con­nolly’s re­turn will raise that fig­ure a touch, the Dubs will still trend in or around 18 months younger per player than Kerry and a full two years per player younger than Mayo. For what it’s worth, the av­er­age ages from each of the four semi-fi­nal­ists’ last game read like this – Dublin 26.26, Ty­rone 26.4, Kerry 27.86, Mayo 28.64. In the mo­ment, right here to­day, those numbers don’t mean any­thing earth-shat­ter­ing. Dublin will not win the 2017 All-Ire­land be­cause they have the youngest team, nor Mayo fail to win it be­cause they have the old­est. Where they are sig­nif­i­cant though is in pro­ject­ing for­ward. How­ever this year ends, Kerry and Mayo have tran­si­tion pe­ri­ods ahead of them. Not only have Mayo the old­est team left, they have the one with the most games un­der them. Whereas Dublin started just four play­ers against Mon­aghan who also started the 2011 All-Ire­land fi­nal, Mayo had nine starters against Kerry last week­end who played in that year’s All-Ire­land semi-fi­nal.

Of the un­der-21 team who claimed All-Ire­land hon­ours for Mayo in April 2016, only Stephen Coen and Conor Lof­tus made the match-day 26. Fer­gal Boland was on it all year but got squeezed out last Sunday. The gen­er­ally un­spo­ken des­per­a­tion around Mayo’s All-Ire­land quest this year is that the cliff’s edge is ap­proach­ing. It takes a fair leap of the imag­i­na­tion to see them still match­ing strides with Dublin in, say, 2020.

Bear fruit

As for Kerry, the ram­pant un­der­age suc­cess of the past few years will pre­sum­ably bear fruit even­tu­ally but there has been limited sign or sight of that crop so far. For bet­ter or worse, Ea­monn Fitz­mau­rice has been re­luc­tant dur­ing his reign to field younger play­ers – in five sea­sons, he has only given two cham­pi­onship de­buts to play­ers who were el­i­gi­ble to play un­der-21 that year. Maybe they will all come through in a burst and take the cham­pi­onship by storm. Un­der cur­rent man­age­ment, that would be a sig­nif­i­cant de­par­ture from the norm.

By con­trast, Gavin played four un­der-21s in his first cham­pi­onship game. He has never baulked at age. McCaf­frey played in his first All-Ire­land fi­nal at 19, Man­nion and Kilkenny at 20, Fen­ton, Small and Byrne at 22. O’Cal­laghan has looked to the manor born so far this sum­mer and it’s no cer­tainty that he will be the one mak­ing room for Con­nolly’s re­turn. If they come through to­mor­row against Ty­rone, his­tory would sug­gest that Gavin won’t think twice about giv­ing him a role in the fi­nal.

Crit­i­cally, the Dublin man­ager has never been del­i­cate about call­ing time at the other end ei­ther. For a while, it looked like the big im­pon­der­able over the com­ing half-decade or so would be how Dublin went about re­plac­ing their blue-chip play­ers. But Gavin has been qui­etly do­ing it in plain sight all the while.

Michael Dar­ragh Ma­cauley was in­dis­pens­able in the Dublin mid­field un­til Fen­ton came along. Bernard Bro­gan was un­touch­able in the full-for­ward line un­til Man­nion came back from his trav­els. Rory O’Car­roll was the only foot­baller in the coun­try to have been nom­i­nated for an All Star in each of the pre­vi­ous six sea­sons when he upped sticks and left at the end of 2015. Mick Fitzsi­mons has his place at the minute, Byrne is fight­ing him all the way for it.

Work done

On the Dublin bench the last day, there were more play­ers over 30 than un­der it. Bro­gan, Ma­cauley, Flynn, Eoghan O’Gara, Kevin McMana­mon, Darren Daly – these are play­ers who have the bulk of their work done at this stage. They won’t all go at once and they may not even go all that par­tic­u­larly soon. But Gavin won’t be scrab­bling around for their re­place­ments when it hap­pens.

Fill­ing the boots of Stephen Clux­ton will be a trick­ier pro­posal, as will find­ing new faces when Con­nolly and Cian O’Sullivan move on.

But any­one watch­ing the Dublin un­der-21s win their All-Ire­land ear­lier this year saw first-hand the coach­ing that has gone into Evan Comer­ford be­tween the sticks and with the likes of O’Cal­laghan, Conor McHugh and Colm Basquel al­ready up and run­ning, Dublin aren’t go­ing to be short of for­wards any­time soon.

They won’t all be Diar­muid Con­nolly and yes, that might turn out to be the dif­fer­ence in time. But – and this goes for O’Sullivan too – Gavin’s plan will shapeshift ac­cord­ing to his needs. O’Sullivan is the key to the Dublin de­fence right now but even as re­cently as 2014, he was flit­ting be­tween de­fence and mid­field as a jack of three or four trades.

You can be cer­tain Gavin has an idea of where he wants to go and who he wants to use al­ready when his main men move on. Ev­ery­thing he has done so far tells you that must be the case. In that re­spect, it’s not so much the golden gen­er­a­tion that ought to have the rest of the coun­try fear­ing for the near fu­ture. Or even the ones to come.

It’s the qui­etly-spo­ken pi­lot over­see­ing it all.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: OISÍN KENIRY/INPHO

Dublin’s John Small, Con O’Cal­laghan and Mark Schutte in good form after the Le­in­ster fi­nal vic­tory over Kil­dare at Croke Park.

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