I once heard a story about a wily old country school principal who liked to maintain a tight grip of the reins of the schoolyard every lunchtime — absolutely nobody wanted to get brought to his attention.
He’d march up and down the yard smoking his John Player Blue cigarettes in his sharp suit, while keeping a close eye on the couple of hundred kids running wild under his watch.
Over the years, the story goes how he developed this special knack for disciplining those who fell below the standards of acceptable yard behaviour. He’d stand directly in front of the rule breaker and would start to dance the cigarette in his right hand to draw one’s eye with the smoke as he moved it off to the side.
Invariably, as the young fella’s gaze focused on the smoke moving away in his right hand, his left hand came from nowhere to leave the rule breaker with a sore ear for his troubles. A classic old-school diversionary tactic every bit as subtle and painful as Jim Gavin is pulling right in front of our eyes with the Dubs.
In 1982, Kerry were in much the same position as Dublin are today. The Kerry players of the time couldn’t escape the inevitable questions about the overbearing shadow of the five-in-a-row looming on the horizon. Apparently, the t-shirts were printed and ready for distribution as soon as the Kingdom kingpins secured their fifth title in succession. Expectation can be a weighty burden.
Kerry of the mid ’70s and ’80s were the unstoppable force — aristocrats of how Gaelic football should be played. They dominated the game back then in the same way this current Dublin side do today.
Bear in mind, there wasn’t anywhere near the level of incessant coverage there is nowadays, no social media critiquing every aspect of every game back when those Kerry legends ruled the earth. It was far less pressure, but somehow, it seems like it was felt more back then that the Dubs do now.
The biggest difference between their journeys towards history has been that near absence of hype around how close these Dubs are to doing something that has never been done before.
Like a pet dog taking on the characteristics of their owner, Jim Gavin is a manager who has fostered a team environment very much in his own image — quiet, humble, and unassuming. They are a group of footballers with staggering efficiency in attack.
There’s real teamwork in that: to get that level of excellent decision making, every possession is all about getting the ball to the right person in the right position every time. That requires incredible buy-in from everybody.
Take Sean Bugler’s late possession in the 75th minute of their game against Tyrone on Sunday; the young Dublin attacker getting a very rare opportunity found himself cutting in along the end line with the result of the game as good as sealed.
Most players trying to impress would have fisted the ball over the bar from the acute angle and put another score next to his name in Monday’s newspapers. Instead, what does he do? The right thing. He drove at goals and played a brilliantly deft hand pass to the back post for Eoghan O’Gara to go highest and palm the ball to the back of the net.
In that brief moment in a dead rubber game that was already won, it was all there to see, the Jim Gavin way; decision-making, efficiency, unselfishness, team first.
Without the colour and context other managers provide us with in terms of interviews, coaching talks or insights into what makes them, and their team really tick, we’ve never been granted access behind Gavin’s curtain.
For all his public blandness in front of the cameras, there is obviously a private brilliance to his thinking and ability to translate it into such cohesive performances.
Just look at how he’s managed the external pressure on his team so far this season. What’s been the narrative surrounding Dublin all the way through the Super 8s?
What are people talking about since long before last Sunday in Omagh? The Diarmuid Connolly storyline has had more drama than the Friends episode where Ross and Rachel were ‘on a break’.
It’s all anybody can talk about. Why was he not on the panel? What happened that was so serious that they couldn’t sort out for the good of Dublin football? What the hell is an ESTA?
Low and behold, Connolly is back in the fold and in Omagh, without overly exerting himself, he didn’t look like a guy who had been out of inter-county action for a couple of years.
The point is, this second coming of Dermo is the all-consuming talking point of Dublin’s summer to this juncture. His midfield performance against Tyrone will be over-analysed to death. His fitness, positioning, and potential future impact will all be combed through like a fretful mother checking her child’s hair for nits.
Jim Gavin may play the role of innocent choir boy just singing his part along with everybody else, but he may well have played his shrewdest managerial stroke yet by injecting the St Vincents talisman into the mix and help lessen the focus and attention on his teams’ quest to complete a truly special and enduring piece of history.
Everybody outside of Dublin is looking for any glimmer of hope they can find, at least some chink in their armour — anything they can cling to that may give the remaining teams a fighting chance of shocking the champions and making things interesting.
Connolly’s return to the panel might put some noses out of joint they mused. Could the disgruntlement of those established players not getting much game time spread like a virus inside the camp?
Everything has been either about Connolly or how the rest of the players would react to him being reintegrated back into the squad.
One of the most interesting aspects before the championship began was to see how Dublin would cope with that constant weight of expectation that comes from carrying around the burden of chasing the five in a row.
We wondered if they would tighten as the finish line approached? Well here comes the line and people have scarcely mentioned that they are looking increasingly likely to cruise home.
Just like the wily old principal, Jim Gavin is there with his John Player Blue in one hand, while getting ready to smack everybody on the side of the head with the other. They continue to dominate on the field and are now shaping the storylines off it, all the rest of us are playing checkers while Jim and his men are mastering chess.