“Sports is about people who lose and lose and lose. They lose their games; then they lose their jobs. It can be very intriguing”
- Gay Talese.
Last Friday, Unai Emery grabbed a croissant, kissed his wife and headed out the door to training and his job; which at that time was manager of Arsenal Football Club. The drive to work can’t have been too comfortable. His team had lost the night before to Eintracht Frankfurt – at home – in a Europa League tie that unfolded in a near deserted stadium, a result that added cutting insult to a succession of injuries to a club that naturally expects much, much more.
If the radio in the car was on, I’m sure he muted it for the sports bulletins. Emery must’ve done what we all do in these desperate situations – cling to the one morsel of hope that contradicts the overwhelmingly damning evidence to the contrary; in his case, the public backing of the Arsenal board which had come one week earlier. To Emery, this declaration of confidence may have alleviated his insecurities. To the rest of us, we already knew; “they don’t love you any more mate. It’s over”. True to form, last Friday was the shortest working day of Unai Emery’s career.
It was the telling of stories like Emery’s at Arsenal, and that of Pochettino at Spurs, Jay Gruden at the Washington Redskins, that made Gay Talese the sportswriter he became. To him, there was nothing more compelling - or human - in sports than failure. It was the glue that bound us as people. In sport and in life; few get to win, but absolutely everybody gets to lose.
Well, almost everybody. As Emery made the journey home to his wife – just another sacked manager – across the Irish sea Jim Gavin was already at his day job, breathing the rarest of air for a top-level sports coach, certain of his fate. While he was still officially the manager of the all-conquering Dublin footballers, he knew it was not for much longer. Gavin has done what very few with his success ever do, dropped the mic and walked off the stage just as we all were admiring the backing singers and his litany of hits. If Esquire magazine had indeed dispatched Talese to write one of his famed deep dive profiles on Gavin, he may, for the first time of his storied life, returned empty-handed.
For Gavin, there seemed to be no torture. That is not to say that he is not compelling. You couldn’t achieve what he has and not be. What will be telling is his next step. Does he withdraw from public life, J.D. Salinger style, never to practice his hard-to-define sorcery again? Or, does he do the circuit; the token Late Late Show appearance, culminating in a teary rendition of the Auld Triangle with Damien Dempsey? Co-write the book with his ma, perhaps? Parachute into the Jungle as a surprise contestant on “I’m a Celebrity...”?
The latter is most unlikely. What was it with Gavin, though, that even makes it so hard to compare him with anybody else? All the great coaches of recent times – Ferguson, Cody, Belichick, - achieved what they did over such great spans of time that we could judge them from their losses as well as their many wins. Because of their longevity, they simply had to lose. Just like Tiger and Federer and Katie Taylor and Messi and Ronaldo. It was their losses that made us think we understood them better. Even Zidane, with his hat-trick of Champions League trophies, has always looked just as surprised as anyone how it happened.
But Jim Gavin? Six All-Irelands in seven seasons. One championship loss, and that came in his second summer. No vendettas against the press. No unrest from within the camp. No squabbles with a county board. He avoided all unnecessary attention with the same quiet control he did the melee that cold winter's night in Tralee. The closest we came to the mask slipping were a few Diarmuid Connolly related wobbles – his (for Jim) impassioned defence of a player under fire after the altercation with the linesman. Some strange exclusions of the St. Vincent’s man. Some even stranger inclusions. But that was it. Even the story of Jayo's departure from the set-up earlier this season proved to be mere conjecture – proof, perhaps, of the rest of us looking for something that just wasn’t there.
When word of his exit dropped on Saturday, it was greeted almost overwhelmingly with fitting testimonies to his achievements, as well as an acknowledgement that he left the job way he lived it. The press admitted that, though he rarely gave them what they wanted, he did so with nothing but courtesy and respect. Players spoke of the more human side of him, recounting anecdotes of encounters away from football, all of which confirmed the widely held opinion Gavin was a decent, generous human being.
There remain valid arguments that what he achieved deserved an asterisk because the Dublin he coached had the odds for success heavily stacked in their favour due to advantageous financial conditions, perennial home advantage and lopsided player welfare. Those facts are now indisputable. But so is the majesty of Gavin’s legacy. You can have all the money in the world and still get it very wrong. Ego, injury, esprit de corps, boredom - all these elements can eat even the most successful groups from within. Gavin, to the detriment of every other team, ensured they never did. There is a chance we will never fully understand how.
Which would be a shame. Maybe, a year from now, when we have a fairer idea of how “easy” it is for Dublin to win an All-Ireland, he will tell us how he did it. Maybe in a deep dive with Talese, maybe in a book (with an index). Either way, he has achieved the near-impossible feat of walking away at the summit. Self-determination in sport is a rare thing.
Just ask Unai Emery.
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