Cool Gavin keep­ing it all to­gether

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Keith Dug­gan:

You only have to watch Jim Gavin tak­ing a drink from his wa­ter bot­tle to un­der­stand that he’s a man who firmly be­lieves that there is a right way and a wrong way of do­ing things. Any­body who has taken even a pass­ing in­ter­est in the All-Ire­land cham­pi­onship couldn’t but have seen tele­vi­sion footage of the Dublin man­ager pe­ri­od­i­cally quench­ing his thirst while ob­serv­ing his team de­stroy and de­mor­alise what­ever county hap­pens to be up for destruc­tion and de­mor­al­i­sa­tion on a given Sun­day.

No­body does it bet­ter. It has be­come fash­ion­able now for all man­agers to be seen to keep their emo­tions in check. The days of the man­ager-as -boule­vardier – ever pa­trolling the side­line, rag­ing war with the skies, play­ing ev­ery ball and dy­ing with ev­ery missed chance – have passed.

Even if things fall apart, you have to present the ve­neer of cool. You can’t be do­ing the King Lear stuff, not if you’re look­ing for that three-year ex­ten­sion from the county board. That’s why the wa­ter bot­tle is of­ten the only give­away of the tor­rent of emo­tions be­neath the fa­cade of con­trol.

Even now, cham­pi­onship man­agers be­come so lost in the mo­ment and the emo­tion of the day that when it comes to the sim­ple act of tak­ing a drink, they pos­sess all the fi­nesse of a tod­dler, gulp­ing, spilling, then fling­ing the bot­tle away in a state of high anx­i­ety, only to be­come dis­tracted when they can’t find it 30 sec­onds later.

Some­times you see dozens of dis­carded wa­ter-bot­tles at a man­ager’s feet, as though they’d been trans­ported to some 1990s rave.

Study in still life

Gavin is dif­fer­ent. Since he took over in 2012, Jim Gavin watches All-Ire­land fi­nals in the fash­ion of a man in the bet­ter seats at La Scala. The rea­son we see the Dublin man­ager re-hy­drat­ing so of­ten is be­cause the tele­vi­sion di­rec­tor knows it’s prob­a­bly as an­i­mated as Gavin is likely to be all day. For most of the match, he is a study in still life.

When Dublin do some­thing beau­ti­ful, 50,000 peo­ple go berserk while the guy who ac­tu­ally coaches them mostly just sits there like an in­vig­i­la­tor in a Ju­nior Cer­tifi­cate exam. The de­meanour – the de­lib­er­a­tion, the com­po­sure, the never-un­der-any-cir­cum­stances-be-ruf­fled drives some peo­ple around the twist. They in­ter­pret it as smug­ness, as su­pe­ri­or­ity.

Is it that sim­ple, though? There’s a great photo of Gavin min­utes af­ter Dublin won the 1995 All-Ire­land. He’s on his knees and he’s over-the-moon; ex­u­ber­antly over­joyed. And it’s hard to rec­on­cile that the player and the man­ager of the Dublin se­nior foot­ball team are, in fact, one and the same cat. But they are.

When Gavin took the post five years ago, he made re­peated ref­er­ence to up­hold­ing the tra­di­tion and prin­ci­ples of the city game as es­poused by Kevin Hef­fer­nan and coaches of a sim­i­lar vein. He de­cided straight away that he wasn’t go­ing to be the story and his public pro­nounce­ments have, by and large, been com­i­cally nar­row in range. He makes no pre­tence of the fact that hangin’ with jour­nal­ists does not con­sti­tute the fun time in his life: Gavin in press con­fer­ence mode is a vivid tableau of the bril­liant Wode­house line about a man who “if not ac­tu­ally dis­grun­tled, then he was very far from grun­tled”.

He hasn’t needed to say any­thing much. In­stead, he has taken what was, un­ques­tion­ably, a deeply ta­lented and just plain deep squad of ball play­ers that were some 10 years in the mak­ing. He took also the nec­es­sary cold­ness and ar­ro­gance in­stilled by Pat Gil­roy’s 2011 All-Ire­land-win­ning side. And he has el­e­vated the stan­dard of in­ter­nal ex­pec­ta­tion so sharply that at their best, Dublin are dizzy­ing for ev­ery­one else to be­hold.

This sum­mer, they re­sponded to the set­back of los­ing their bid for a fifth league ti­tle in a row to Kerry by sim­ply crush­ing ev­ery­thing in their path. Or rather, they dis­man­tled op­po­si­tion teams with a kind of pre­ci­sion and pa­tience that has been at once beau­ti­ful and eerie to watch. The orig­i­nal team – the wild horses of five years ago – seem ju­ve­nile in com­par­i­son to what they have be­come.


Jim Gavin has en­gi­neered all this. It presents a con­tra­dic­tion: how can such an ap­par­ently re­mote fig­ure also be the ar­chi­tect of a foot­ball team that plays with such verve and ex­pres­sion and pas­sion?

When you think about it, Jim Gavin is in a very weird and lonely place. His lengthy play­ing ca­reer was char­ac­terised by Dublin teams that won a share of Le­in­ster ti­tles and then en­dured a four-year strug­gle to claim that sin­gle All-Ire­land. They would wait un­til 2011 for the next one. So this new dis­pen­sa­tion is as new to him as it is to us. It’s hard to know how he should or could be­have on the side­line with­out at­tract­ing an­noy­ance. If he dis­plays joy and emo­tion as his teams run riot through county af­ter county, how is that go­ing to come across? Stud­ied noth­ing­ness may be the best way to go.

Here’s the thing about Gavin: yes, he’s the guy who was given all the re­sources of back­ing and the play­ers that other man­agers would kill for. But deep down: would they? For with that came an ex­tra­or­di­nary pres­sure and obli­ga­tion to make the big ma­chine work. What he has done has been phe­nom­e­nal. It’s one thing hav­ing all these first-choice play­ers. It’s another keep­ing them sat­is­fied re­gard­less of play­ing time.

Water­tight as the Dublin camp has be­come, it’s fairly ob­vi­ous that he is true to his word in run­ning a non-pref­er­en­tial camp and that he main­tains a scrupu­lous dis­tance from the play­ers he coaches and man­ages.

One of the defin­ing traits of his time with Dublin is that no player, re­gard­less of rep­u­ta­tion or ac­com­plish­ment, can feel as­sured of his place.

All of that has led to what is, by any stan­dard, one of the more ex­tra­or­di­nary sights in mod­ern Ir­ish sport: the cur­rent Dublin bench. There they have sat, the mag­nif­i­cent seven un­horsed: Bro­gan, Ma­cauley, Flynn, Con­nolly, McMe­n­a­mon, O’Gara, Costello; ar­guably more recog­nised and cer­tainly more dec­o­rated than many of the start­ing 15.

Big gam­ble

It takes true au­dac­ity to leave play­ers of this cal­i­bre sit­ting for most of the sum­mer, liv­ing on their wits and won­der­ing if it’s all over. You have to as­sume it’s noth­ing per­sonal: that Gavin be­lieves there’s a right and wrong way to do things and that while he is sit­ting there in com­plete ab­sorp­tion, he’s do­ing no more or less than what he al­ways says: look­ing for a com­plete per­for­mance from the Dublin se­nior foot­ball team.

And it’s his first big gam­ble. There is a good chance that when it comes to the wire to­mor­rrow, he’s go­ing to turn to those re­serves – cer­tainly to Con­nolly and prob­a­bly to Bro­gan – and ask them to go win the day. That may be the mo­ment when hu­man com­plex­ity ob­scures the aes­thet­ics and clar­ity of Gavin’s vi­sion.

Will they be ready – men­tally and psy­cho­log­i­cally – when they are called upon? They are peo­ple af­ter all. And they are play­ers. And play­ers want to play. Sun­day will be the proof of whether Jim Gavin has truly con­vinced his glit­ter­ing cast of prin­ci­pals that it’s the opera that mat­ters and not their role in it.

It’s one thing hav­ing all these first-choice play­ers. It’s another keep­ing them sat­is­fied re­gard­less of play­ing time

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