The venue for my chance encounter with the Dublin manager was the Sheraton Hotel in Boston. It was the first morning of the All Stars Tour. Black Friday.
Jetlagged, I was wide awake at 6am. Unable to get back to sleep, I paid a trip to the Starbucks cafe located in the hotel lobby.
When seated with a cup of coffee, I spotted Gavin walking across the foyer. I waved and said ‘hello’.
As he’s extremely wary of the media, I assumed the former Irish Air Corps officer was going to stroll right past me.
Having written a very critical article about Gavin after a League game in Omagh, I wasn’t even sure if he would acknowledge my greeting. To my surprise, he walked over to my table and started to chat.
I was amazed. This was a rare and welcome opportunity — a one to one conversation with a high profile manager who usually keeps his distance from journalists.
Those who have listened to Gavin on television or read his interviews will appreciate he’s not an overly charismatic individual. He is controlled and undemonstrative.
Still, when confronted with microphones and television cameras, I remain convinced he makes a concerted effort to be as dull as he possibly can be.
There is no way the man who gives those interviews to The Sunday Game is the same person who sends Dublin out to war in Croke Park.
That would be impossible.
If the Dublin players were subjected to the monotone drone which Gavin reserves for press briefings, they would fall asleep in the changing room.
Nowadays, a growing number of footballers and managers only reveal their true personality whenever the tape recorder is switched off. I suspected Jim Gavin fitted into that category.
Removed from a typical interview setting, I was keen to see what he was really like.
Readers who are now expecting me to reveal Jim Gavin is actually a joke-a-minute, yarn-spinning character are going to be disappointed.
In conversation, he is sober, informed and intelligent — all the qualities he exhibits in his media interviews.
However, during my chat with Jim there was one aspect of his personality which was a revelation.
He has an incredible passion for sport. He is absolutely fanatical about the GAA. More specifically, the Round Towers clubman is fanatical about Dublin GAA.
And Gavin’s interests extend far beyond Gaelic Games. He also has a keen interest in basketball and American football. For his trip to the States, he acquired tickets for a Celtics game due to take place the following week. Gavin’s fascination with the NBA and NFL was intriguing. Given the huge emphasis which those sports place on tactics, it was difficult to reconcile how a man of Gavin’s intelligence and military background could have adopted such risky tactics for last year’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Donegal.
Surely anyone with a modicum of knowledge about defending wouldn’t have employed such a reckless strategy against Donegal? Of course, a job in the Irish Air Corps doesn’t necessarily make Jim Gavin an expert in football strategy. The GAA is full of men who, while very successful in various walks of life, are absolute nincompoops when put in charge of a football team.
But listening to Gavin talking about the tactics employed in American football, it was obvious he was no greenhorn. As he discussed how ‘drag routes’ are used by wide receivers it was clear he was fascinated by how the movement of players can be used to create and deny space.
Evidently, Gavin understands tactics. But in his steadfast refusal to play a safety first game against Donegal, it can only be assumed the Dublin manager allowed his emotions cloud his judgement.
On taking the reins of his county’s senior football team, Gavin said that he felt an obligation to uphold the traditions of Dublin football.
Not only did he want to win, but he wanted to win by playing a brand of positive, attacking football.
As a sceptical journalist and an even more sceptical northerner, I automatically assumed Gavin was just indulging in ‘paper talk’. I never thought for a moment that he was actually being serious.
But after listening to Gavin talk expansively about other sports, the only conclusion I could draw was he had allowed his romantic principles for attacking football to overrule the pragmatic part of his brain.
Not surprisingly, a six-point defeat in front of 80,000 fans in Croke Park has knocked some of the romance out of Jim Gavin.
During the League, it was abundantly obvious he no longer cared how his team won the All-Ireland title — he just wanted to win it. In Clones, the once attack-minded Dubs defended with 13 men. Similar tactics were employed against Tyrone and Derry. Rather comically, some cheerleaders in the media still refused to believe Dublin had joined the Jim McGuinness school of football. To those observers who were capable of watching what was actually happening on the field, it was extremely obvious Dublin had abandoned any pretensions of trying to win beautiful. Winning ugly would do just fine.
Dublin’s two performances against Mayo have further underlined the notion Gavin is no longer preoccupied with how Dublin win the Sam Maguire Cup. While it’s true the Dubs produced some stunning football, they also played with the fervour and mania of a junior club team from the mountains.
When the talent of this Dublin squad is shaped by sound strategy and passionate performances, it’s difficult to see how they can be beaten.
Ever since last year’s defeat to Donegal, there has been a nationwide refusal to acknowledge Dublin’s blatant superiority.
Pundits are terrified of looking stupid again so they have constructed woolly arguments outlining any flaw in Dublin’s play.
Yet, while the Dubs aren’t perfect, they’re still stronger than any of their opponents.
Thus far, the brilliance of Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s management has disguised the limitations of his hand.
Kerry are the opposite of Dublin. Their strengths have been overplayed while their weaknesses have been conveniently ignored. The All-Ireland final will expose the real stock of both teams. Now that Jim Gavin no longer cares about aesthetics, a Dublin win seems guaranteed.
And by adopting such an approach Jim Gavin should take some comfort from the fact he will be upholding one of the longest and most cherished traditions of Dublin football.