When the Dublin footballers continuously speak about the ‘culture’ that Pat Gilroy changed and established and that Jim Gavin then perfected, they rarely go into detail while knowing the secret of winning and Gavin was in the detail.
For all the strides made under Pillar Caffrey, there was in retrospect still an undercurrent of entitlement. One newcomer in those years drove into his first night of training only to be admonished by a senior player for parking in ‘his’ spot. The same extended to the dressing room. An innocuous placing of a gear bag could often lead to further censure. That doesn’t belong there, kid. That’s my spot.
Even in the most harmonious as well as fraught dressing rooms such interactions are commonplace, people being territorial creatures as well as of habit. In Dónal Óg Cusack’s brilliant autobiography,released 10 years ago now, he recounted an embarrassing situation upon Cork’s first game after another painful and divisive strike on Leeside.
In the absence of the likes of Cusack and Tom Kenny, a young player had assumed Kenny’s seat. And so, upon re-entering a dressing room, Cusack found Kenny sit in his spot as next to him was the rookie sitting in Kenny’s.
Kenny was the one person enjoying the discomfort until Cusack declared that the two of them could sort out who could sit in Kenny’s old seat but Cusack was reassuming his customary one.
In Dublin there would be no such awkward or possessive encounters on Gavin’s beat. Taking a leaf out of Pete Carroll’s book, every year every player would have to sit in a different spot in the dressing room.
“By changing their seats, at least symbolically, they found themselves with a new perspective,” Carroll, the Super Bowl-winning coach with the Seattle Seahawks, would explain in his book, Win Forever, about a practice he first introduced while coaching UCLA.
"So at the beginning of each season, we’d change seats, to look at our world with new eyes. If we are truly competing, we can never afford to look at things from an old perspective.”
Gavin had a similar viewpoint — to continuously look at things from a different viewpoint. Because, as he’d subtly but surely point to the Dublin players upon his first time meeting them as senior manager seven years ago, he wasn’t interested in winning the odd Sam Maguire. Dublin on his beat would be about owning it.
And so to achieve that, to get to a point that his own book could also be called Win Forever, there could be no complacency or entitlement. Last year a clip emerged of him paying tribute to the now late Anton O’Toole in the company of his Dublin team, a slogan was visible in the background: ‘If you feel safe, you are unsafe’. No spot, seat, or jersey belonged to anyone.
Now even Gavin has vacated the hotseat at the top of the room but like the jerseys he’d continuously talk to his players about, he has left it in a better place.
He will go down as the man who masterminded the five in a row but it was curious in recent days to see one paper identify the 10 most significant moments of his tenure and fail to include even one that occurred in 2013.
For that was the year that represented the most significant leap of his managerial reign, that’s why in 2014 it was so seismic when Dublin, as champions, were beaten by the previous champions,because of the aura they’d already cultivated and the mesmeric football they’d continuously served up in his first 18 months.
At the start of the 2013 season, no one else could foresee Dublin winning six of the following seven All-Irelands; you wouldn’t even have had them ahead of Donegal, Mayo, or Cork at the front of the grid. By the end of that 2013 season, though, there was a consensus that, yeah, you could see them winning two out of three All-Irelands for the rest of the decade. That he’d surpass even that trajectory is a testament to how he’d continuously upgrade his team.
Although he was decisively more new school than Brian Cody — Jackie Tyrrell and Eoin Larkin would baulk upon learning just how much time Gavin would set aside for his players to practise meditation and yoga and how ingrained it was in his setup — Gavin religiously followed his Kilkenny counterpart’s zeal to win every league game.
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That often meant offering no mercy and little insight to opposing teams and managers. In his fantastic new book The Pressure Game, Kevin McStay writes about a 2016 dead-rubber league game that was belatedly switched to Carrick-on-Shannon.
He knew Gavin from managing him on a Defence Forces team that toured Australia and with both teams already through to the league semi-finals,assumed they’d shoot the breeze with one another upon arriving at the ground like he would with any official, groundsman or manager from another county.
“But no,” writes McStay.
While McStay wasn’t quite sure if Gavin had heard or snubbed him, the thought of which irked him somewhat, his biggest impression was of how Gavin and his management team were already locked into their “bubble, their process”.
Another manager always found Gavin very courteous yet guarded in their dealings. After a Saturday night lights game which Dublin might have dominated, the visiting manager might have remarked how sharp Jim had his boys moving.
Another manager might have concurred and remarked on a certain players’ form or a current block of training to exude some form of collegiality. But not Gavin.Instead he’d quickly deflect: And are ye staying down tonight or are you heading back the road?
Now that he’s no longer involved in the Pressure Game he might relax and loosen up in the company of a McStay, though the venue of such an encounter will hardly be the RTÉ studio panel. His departure was stunning, because for all the clues he seemed to leave the night of winning the five in a row, he continuously loved to tweak the team on the go.
In 2013 he catapulted Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion straight into the starting lineup alongside Ciarán Kilkenny while they were all still 20 or younger. In 2017 perennial All-Stars Bernard Brogan and Paul Flynn started the league final yet by the championship were off the starting 15 to accommodate Niall Scully and Con O’Callaghan. A considerable part of him would have been relishing giving a Collie Basquel his head in the upcoming league.
But circumstances have changed for him. At work, and among some of his key backroom members. It’s made all the easier to step aside knowing that there is an obvious replacement. For the last eight years Sam Maguire has been won by a manager who coached at U21 level, the key nucleus of his team constituted of players from his 21 sides.
Dessie Farrell, like Gavin before him, has won multiple All-Irelands at that grade, and with the acumen he showed at that level and with his bond and knowledge of the players from that level is ideally placed to continue the Gavin legacy. What a legacy to bequeath.