Jim Gavin is Dublin’s quiet man of action

History may be dictated by the victors, but they don’t always get the story straight.
Jim Gavin is Dublin’s quiet man of action

It’s 14 years since Armagh’s solitary All-Ireland title, one embellished by one of the most famous of half-time incidents when the plaque Joe Kernan received for losing to Kerry in the 1977 decider ended up in smithereens on the floor of the Ulster county’s dressing room.

One quote from the days that followed has Big Joe chortling about how he “hopped it off the walls”. Another has him quoted as explaining that it “somehow by accident” came a cropper off the showers. Whatever the exact truth, it has long been surpassed by the legend.

In a way, it is a story that does an injustice to Kernan himself.

Here was a man who helped innumerable Crossmaglen players to claim all manner of winners’ medals. Someone who had then taken his county to the Promised Land and yet one fit of, perhaps inspired, pique is what most remember about his contribution to that epic tale.

There is little chance of Jim Gavin being remembered for any one piece of drama.

Rewind three weeks to half-time of Dublin’s All-Ireland semi-final with Kerry.

The 10 preceding minutes had been disastrous for the Dubs and yet the changing-room scene painted later by Gavin was less captivating than the day those same walls dried.

This is how Gavin likes it.

If dogs resemble their owners, then there is no rule that says sports teams should mirror their managers. It’s just as well because if they did, then Dublin would play a brand of football that would make the nuances of algebra a more engaging pastime for the masses.

All of which begs the question: is Gavin underappreciated and undervalued?

Attend to Mayo tomorrow and he will have guided Dublin to a third All-Ireland title in five seasons.

And yet… There can’t be any doubt but that his insistence on engaging in corporate speak in public — “soft tissue injuries” and “esprit de corps” are particular favourites — serves to hide him in plain view even as he stands at the helm of the game’s most exuberant practitioners.

“If I had five or six All-Irelands, I’d be blowing my trumpet about it, I’d be saying I was great, fantastic,” said former Dublin player and manager Paddy Cullen this summer. “But Jim Gavin’s a cool dude, that’s the way he operates. He’s very highly thought of but he is a bit of an enigma, I’ll say that.”

Possibly prominent among the reasons for any ambivalence about Gavin is the fact that he inherited such a talented and high-achieving bunch of players.

After all, 10 of those likely to see action tomorrow won the first of their Celtic Crosses under Pat Gilroy in 2011.

Gordon D’Arcy touched on the edge such an experienced and successful core can offer to a team, regardless of whether it plays football or rugby, when he spoke earlier this week about the culture that Leinster’s senior players developed almost independently of a coaching staff.

“When we were winning and we were in finals for a seven or eight-year period, there was a core group of players who understood and lived and believed what our culture was and that was very easy because you’re setting the examples and it’s self-policing or self-sufficient. You enforce it and it’s not peer pressure, but it’s peer-controlled and the coach has to do very little.

“Every now and then, he might come in and rattle something and say, ‘Oh, this isn’t good enough’ and then we’d all get busy and it would be fine. Or we’d all go and have a few beers or something.”

Dublin’s culture appears, from outside the tent, remarkably similar. Gilroy’s success in transforming the Dubs from perennial nearly-men into national champions means Gavin’s achievements will always be buttressed by his predecessor.

Pretty much the same hole was once picked in the careers of men as diverse as Joe Schmidt and Pep Guardiola given the riches they inherited — at Leinster from Michael Cheika in the former’s case, and in Barcelona from Frank Rijkaard, and Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern Munich in the latter’s.

Both Kiwi and Catalan have since embossed their CVs with even loftier achievements that stand head and shoulders above most others and Gavin has already earned a pedestal for himself, regardless of how tomorrow pans out given the manner in which he has improved an already- capable collective.

“You are continuously learning because you are reflecting on the preparations, pre-game, in-game, post-game and on how you can do things better,” Gavin said last week. “You’re trying to assist the players. It’s to get them to be their best. If you remain static, teams will pass us by.”

That player-centred approach has been stressed at every turn. Like Schmidt, he hails from a teaching background. His is in aviation as a flight instructor and it is the ability to construct a framework around which his players must fit whilst allowing them the freedom to express themselves that sets the likes of Gavin, Schmidt, and Guardiola apart.

Gavin’s genius has been to reroute this Dublin team back towards the county’s default attacking philosophy after what was the admittedly necessary and successful swing towards a gather defensive structure and mental stability under Gilroy — and to make his side even more successful whilst doing it. Win or lose tomorrow, he will slip into the shadows as soon as he can.

There will be no tales of epic speeches or dramatic gestures seeping out from under the Hogan Stand, but don’t doubt for a second Gavin’s part in creating the light.

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