If you stepped aboard a flight today, and you heard Jim Gavin introduce himself as the captain from the cockpit, you would feel immediately reassured. You’d feel safe, not even knowing he’s an actual pilot. It’s a vibe, a gut feeling. You’d think, “It’s Jim Gavin. He has prepared. He has done his pre-checks. He has briefed his crew. He spoke to the passengers and gave absolutely nothing away.”
You could then sit back and spend the next half-hour looking for where the stupid headphone connection is, just like everybody else. The same could not be said of all inter-county managers: Davy Fitz? Expect turbulence, and an incursion or two into economy class mid-flight, before an unforgettable landing. Kieran McGeeney?
A serious flight — expect children to be scolded for making noise. A drink ban on board. Maybe the promise of a quinoa smoothie at the end. Gavin though... he is blue skies and plain sailing.
Movies about pilots are 10-a-penny. From the fictional (Maverick in Top Gun) to the factual (Howard Hughes in The Aviator), piloting a plane has long been revered as an exotic, mysterious thing. Not to Jim Gavin you’d imagine, for him it must a be cold and functional exercise. No movies necessary. Just the odd statement: “Sure look it, it was great to get up there to the sky, you know, we checked everything beforehand — the engines, the wings, the landing gear, the weather. We just pointed her down the runway and said ‘why not give it a go’ and here we are”.
Jim Gavin is not DiCaprio’s chancer pilot Frank Abagnale in Catch Me if You Can, nor is he Denzel’s William Whip Whitaker in Flight, no, if Jim Gavin is anybody, he is Captain Sully Sullenberger, but before the bird-strike above the Hudson.
Every pilot has his pre-flight routine. These are the checks and balances that, regardless of your skill level or aptitude, you absolutely have to make. As the Dubs make their maiden voyage of this summer’s championship against Louth in Portlaoise this evening, the unavoidable temptation for the passenger is to assume, given the opposition and the time of year, that they can sit back, close their eyes, and before the closing credits of Molly’s Game they will be back safely on the runway. Dublin-Louth is the 7am early bird from Dublin to Gatwick. Gavin, naturally, will treat it like he’s flying on one wing, upside down, blindfolded. It is this attention to detail that has made him so great.
Nobody outside the Dublin circle can know whether their attempt for a five-in-a-row is a blessing or a burden. The promise of immortality may be the rock this group perishes upon — or the spur to further greatness. What it may hinge on is how Gavin and his team react to the dreaded bird-strike, should it come. And it has to. Laws of probability would dictate there will be turbulence this season — no team can remain great forever. Indeed, it is often their reaction to adversity that solidifies their status. One team that has dominated for nearly as long as the Dubs, are the reigning NBA champs the Golden State Warriors.
Another NBA championship next month will put them on the Mount Rushmore of American sports teams. This season, the Warriors had reached such a level of normalised greatness, that when the bird-strike struck mid-season after unexpected losses, petulant in-fighting and unprecedented injuries, the basketball world pronounced their gallop on greatness prematurely done. What they had forgotten about was the quiet captain in the cockpit, Steve Kerr, the NBA’s very own Jim Gavin.
Kerr, like Gavin, played and won long before he coached. He was never the poster-boy, but his time on the hardwood was the time of Jordan and Shaq, so there was little limelight to go around. This suited Kerr just fine. As a player, he won five championship rings, and he is now collecting titles as coach that may leave him the most decorated player/coach in the history of the game.
Like Gavin, Kerr believes it’s all about his players, and has consistently found new ways to enable and empower them to think their way out of slumps and on-court issues. If the Warriors do pull it off, it will be all the greater for having dipped.
Gavin, the pilot, will have had his charges in the simulator since a poor league run that started feint whispers that maybe, just maybe this era was ending. Maybe Cluxton, his long-time co-pilot has flown one too many missions. Maybe his twin engines, Fenton and McCaffrey need to be grounded for a season or so, just to keep the air miles down.
Maybe his landing gear, his trusted bench of Michael Darragh and Paddy Andrews, have been deployed once too often. And then there’s Dermo. There is no flying pun suitable for the still-exiled Connolly, only to say you won’t need him in Portlaoise this evening. But you might need him when the birds strike mid-August. You trust Gavin the pilot has thought this through.
If not, it could be his bumpiest flight yet.