Is Jim Gavin the greatest Gaelic football manager of all time?
The basis of all historical judgment must be context. And Jim Gavin would surely be the very first to acknowledge the good fortune of his timing.
Firstly, when he became manager of the Dublin senior football team, he did so after Pat Gilroy had transformed its habits and had broken the spell of repeated All-Ireland failures. The foundations of the house were well-laid.
Secondly, the manner in which the operations of the Dublin county board had been overhauled since the turn of the millennium was also vital. By the time of Gavin’s arrival, Dublin was organisationally primed for success, having finally begun to harness the human and financial resources of the city in a more productive manner.
This meant that — year after year — a flow of players was coming on stream, adding to the core of groundbreakers who had won success in 2011.
And it meant, also, that the Dublin county board was able to attract into its operations, key professionals who had learned much from the world of professional rugby. Bryan Cullen arrived back from Leinster Rugby with deep strength and conditioning knowledge, while — as Joe Schmidt notes in his autobiography — James Allen moved across from the Irish rugby team.
One of the great challenges of management is the selection of personnel — Gavin did it brilliantly. He surrounded himself with men of great quality, both on and off the field.
Setting out the context of Dublin’s success under Jim Gavin is in no way to diminish his achievements. To understand that point, all one need do is consider the prospects for the Dublin footballers when he took over its management in late 2012.
At that point, Dublin were a seasoned, respected team.
But they had only won one All-Ireland — the narrowest of victories over Kerry in 2011 that could easily have ended in defeat. How that loss must still rankle with Kerry people. And Kerry were perennial All-Ireland contenders when Gavin took over.
On top of that, Dublin had deservedly lost to a rising Mayo team in the 2012 All- Ireland semi-final.
To the north, Donegal were All-Ireland champions and had an age-profile that suggested they would remain key contenders for the immediate future, as well as being led by a manager who was widely acknowledged to have reshaped the playing of Gaelic football through his tactical acumen and psychological approach.
Down south, Cork — themselves filled with All-Ireland medal winners — had legitimate aspirations to add a second All-Ireland to the title that they had won in 2010.
Basically, while Dublin would clearly be strong contenders to win the All-Ireland in 2013, the notion that they would win six of the next seven and become the first team in the history of the Gaelic Athletic Association to win five All-Ireland senior titles in a row would have been considered absurd.
That Dublin scraped success in the 2013 All-Ireland final, before being tactically and technically skewered by Donegal in 2014, fitted what appeared to be obvious – there was no team in Gaelic football that could be considered so outstanding that it would dominate summer after summer.
It was then, however, that the greatness of Jim Gavin was forged. Through the autumn and winter of 2014, and into the spring of 2015, he oversaw a remaking of the Dublin senior football team that was radical and so brilliant that all challenges to it have perished.
More than that, despite the heroics of a brilliant, courageous Mayo team and — latterly — the emerging qualities of a Kerry team obsessively determined that Dublin should not make five-in-a-row, Dublin have been a class apart over the past five years.
It is to state the obvious that the five-in-row was won by exceptional players — their achievements allow only for that interpretation. The way they play the game, their spirit, their willingness to fight, and the presence of a handful of players who stand comparison with the greats of any era mark them out as special.
But this is not a team — or rather it is not one team. Instead, it is a succession of teams from which truly outstanding footballers have been transitioned into retirement.
And all the while the team was being remade, it appeared to become more dominant, their success apparently inevitable.
Of course, there was nothing inevitable in it. Rather, it was the product of a brilliant manager who oversaw a forensic approach to maximising the potential that he saw to be at his disposal.
What he created through his coaches was a way of playing Gaelic football that currently stands undefeated.
Why is this?
Much is rightly made of the conditioning of the Dublin players, but this is just a part of the story. Besides this conditioning, there are two other essential qualities that must be noted.
The first is their skill level. Dublin have been the most skilful team in Gaelic football for the past five years. Collectively, their players are better kickers, better catchers and better tacklers than all others. That is a tribute to the way they train and, most of all, to what they prioritise. It has allowed Dublin to play with great style and accuracy. Their skills almost never let them down in the pressure points of a game.
The second quality that must be acknowledged is the mentality. This mentality is apparent in everything that they do. They are mentally strong enough to keep trying to play the way they wish to play, regardless of what the opposition do.
And they are mentally astute enough to understand how to pick apart the flaws in their opponents. This was manifest mostly in the scores they put on teams; in this they were relentless and ruthless.
And occasionally it was manifest in a negative manner: Look at what happened in the closing minutes of the 2017 All-Ireland final if you doubt that, when Mayo players were wrestled to the ground and pinned there. Dublin were eminently capable of being ruthless when they considered that the moment demanded it.
But it is in the application of older, fundamental truths that Dublin have been most impressive: Every Dublin player works for the good of the team in the first instance, is brave in possession, and plays until the very end.
This can only happen when there is a profound, unshakeable respect within a camp and that is something that comes from the top. And when you talk to Dublin players, the respect that they have for Jim Gavin is deep and is directly related to the way that he has respected them. This was a respect that was rooted in how he related to them as individuals with lives outside the white lines.
Football was central to their relationship, but did not define it.
And everyone understood who was in charge. No ‘Behind the Dressingroom Door’ big reveals have been published about his time in charge; there are no videos of players acting the maggot.
That is some achievement in the context of the media market in Dublin.
History mattered in all of this over the past seven years. Jim Gavin is acutely aware of the history of Dublin GAA.
He knew that Dublin had not retained the All-Ireland senior football title since the wins of 1976 and 1977. He knew the history of that team intimately. It was a touchstone for him — and it was with an obvious sincerity that he paid homage to the role of Kevin Heffernan and those who played on that Dublin team of the 1970s.
For example, he brought the Dublin team on a tour of the Little Museum of Dublin when that museum had on a special exhibition dedicated to that mould-breaking era.
And although that team had never won three-in-a-row, Gavin knew that Dublin’s footballers had won three-in-a-row of All-Ireland senior football titles on three occasions in the past — 1921-3, 1906-08 and 1897-9 — but had never managed four-in-a-row.
So it was that his Dublin team first managed to make it to three-in-a-row — and then managed to become the most successful Dublin team of all-time by winning four-in-a-row.
And then the most successful team of all time by winning five-in-a-row.
If history sets milestones, it also allows for lessons to be learned. One of the great lessons of history is that all Empires come to an end. There are no exceptions to this rule. The Romans, the Ottomans and the English imagined that they had shaped history in such away as it became impossible to imagine that their empires would fall away to memory.
They were all wrong; all their worlds, ultimately, fell into decline and their greatness was destroyed.
The same will happen to Dublin — the defence needs new blood and there are key players on the team who will soon reach an end — the most obvious one is Stephen Cluxton, but others such as the outstanding James McCarthy have clocked up serious mileage.
This run of success will end and Brian Fenton will finally lose a championship match in Dublin colours.
The immediate question is whether — by leaving his position — Jim Gavin has precipitated the end of the Blue Empire that he was so essential in creating, or whether he believed that in order for that Empire to renew itself, a new leader was needed.
The answer to that question lives in the future.
What can be said about the past is that no GAA manager has overseen the kind of success that Jim Gavin has overseen. Others have won more titles than him — but none have matched the zenith of his achievements.
He is to be congratulated and wished every continued success.
- Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at University College Dublin.
GAA coaching from those who know best: A brainstorming session with football's sharpest minds