Tommy Lyons: ‘These are cycles and it’s just a wonderful cycle at the minute’

Tommy Lyons’ time as Dublin manager couldn’t be more removed from Jim Gavin’s tenure. But the Mayo native is in a good place to comment on the brilliance of a man he introduced to inter-county management.

Tommy Lyons: ‘These are cycles and it’s just a wonderful cycle at the minute’

“Embrace the hype” was the order from Tommy Lyons to his players in 2002.

Indulge in the expectation you have created. Luxuriate in the excitement. If Dessie Farrell felt Lyons was “someone who inhabits a parallel universe”, Jim Gavin, a member of the panel at the time, must have been tearing his hair out.

If Gavin felt that Lyons’ successor Paul Caffrey was too shy in making substitutes, he was surely queasy at how accessible Dublin players had become to all and sundry.

Different times, of course, when provincial medals weren’t coasters. Before that hedonistic summer of ’02, seven years had passed since the Delaney Cup had last remained in the capital after it was presented. The county was crying out for heroes and Lyons gladly handed them the microphone. That season, he knew the worth of the hype’s momentum but overpriced it the following year.

Yet it was Lyons that gave Gavin his head in inter-county management, recruiting him along with Gavin’s current selector Declan Darcy as his deputies with the U21 team, which claimed the 2003 All-Ireland title.

“I can’t claim too much credit,” Lyons says now of appointing Gavin. “Jim Gavin was always a quality man and a leader of men. His training and his job helped to ensure he was very good at meeting and dealing with people. One of his greatest strengths is that he doesn’t get up or down. “He stays the same and he’s always been like that. He is as steady as they come.

“I asked them to get involved for different reasons: Declan for the passion he brought to the table and Jim because of his organisational skills and the structures. These U21s were all impressionable men and we were trying to grow Dublin from an U21 base and develop three or four players into the senior panel, which was aggressive in that way. Jim was just a good, calming influence and a role model and Declan ate, slept and drank football. I just thought they were a very good combo.” Gavin impressed Lyons so much that he wanted him to join his senior ticket in what turned out to be his final season as Dublin manager.

“I wanted Jim to come in as a selector in 2004 but he was flying Bertie Ahern all around the world at that stage! I often say it was a pity him and Declan Darcy weren’t younger when I took over. They certainly had the leadership qualities that were required. You’re always trying different thing and when we came in for 2002 we felt it needed young blood. You often wonder should you have used a couple of the older guys for a bit more and we might have got over the line in 2002. They were good times at the time and I would have always felt Jim was respectful of things we did, good or bad, and he was always a level head.”

What Lyons hints at there is the pair weren’t of the same mould. He doesn’t hide away from that fact. “Doctors differ, patients die. I had a different style to Jim. I did it one way and he did it another. Jim has had extraordinary success and I keep telling people to enjoy it because the facts are it will stop. These are cycles and it’s just a wonderful cycle at the minute.”

Better footballers

Louisburgh-born as he is, Lyons can safely say he is a Dublin supporter at this stage, having lived so long in the capital. A three-week cycling holiday with his wife in Vietnam precludes him from attending Croke Park today but he loves watching his adopted county for a couple of reasons; one of them being how they continue to improve.

“Every time you go into Croke Park you marvel at what these teams are doing. What I’ve enjoyed most about this Dublin team is seeing them develop. From when Jonny Cooper first started, from where Philly McMahon came from, James McCarthy... they’re much better footballers now than they were four years ago and that’s a great testament to themselves but management too.

“Dean Rock is a far better footballer now than he was three years ago. That’s what I love about Dublin. Brian Fenton never played county minor and look at him now. He’s only getting better and isn’t sitting on his laurels. Young (Mick) Fitzsimons last year when he got picked to start the replay having sat for two years on the bench... he just grabbed the jersey and proved Jim right. It’s not the swashbuckling football that attracts me most but the year-by-year improvement of them. And they will be beaten and it could be Sunday but it doesn’t matter.”

But then the manner of Dublin’s football does appeal to him, he admits. He accepts there’s an aura surrounding this team primarily because they are aiming to stretch their unbeaten run to 37 games and unbeaten final record to 16 games tday but the way they go about doing it.

“You can’t be this long winning football matches without some aura of being really good. Ten years’ time will be the time to judge how good this Dublin team are and all that auld nonsense. Like a lot of supporters, I love going to watch them play in Croke Park because they do try to play the game I won’t say the right way but I would say they try to play the game the way I like it to be played. There is no right or wrong way to play Gaelic football but there are nicer styles than other styles and I wouldn’t be critical of any style. But I would suggest more All-Irelands have been won trying to do it this way than any other way.”

Lyons claims to no longer take the same interest in the press as he used to so comments like Paul Curran’s about Kerry don’t resonate with him. If there is a media war between Dublin and Kerry then he is not aware of it. But he recognises Kerry aren’t playing to their strengths.

“I didn’t see that (Curran’s Evening Herald column in which he said Kerry should be “ashamed” of their tactics) but if you’re asking me if Kerry are better trying to play the way Tyrone set up then I think Kerry are much better off playing the way they have traditionally played. I think Kerry would have probably won more if they had done that in the last couple of seasons. I’m not critical of Éamonn Fitzmaurice; he’s doing what he does and wants to do the best but I think Kerry have such strong, innate football in them, they come out of the cradle as natural footballers.”

He cites Colm Cooper as his example incarnate. “This week we’ve probably seen the retirement of the greatest man I ever saw playing football. I stood on the touchline seeing him slicing and dicing us in 2004 and what I loved him about him was that he was real Kerry. It just oozed out of him and that’s the type of Gaelic footballer I love to watch. It doesn’t mean that Seán Cavanagh isn’t a great footballer or other guys aren’t but I loved Cooper’s ability to be nimble and I think Dublin have a lot of really good footballers at the moment and that’s why they’re winning football matches.”

His native county? Mayo’s best aren’t performing enough to scratch their Dublin/All-Ireland itch, he argues.

“I would have thought the biggest issue for Mayo right now is that their top four players don’t seem to be as good as the top four Dublin or Kerry have. It is down to the quality of player you have and Mayo have proven without any shadow of a doubt that they’re very committed and focused. But I remember Bomber Liston saying to me some time ago that there’s a huge difference between playing in an All-Ireland final and winning one. It’s hard to disagree with a man who has that many medals.”

Last year, Lyons hit out at other traditional football counties like Kildare and Meath who Dublin had left in their wake. He includes Cork in that bracket now.

“I think what’s been lost in this whole Dublin era of dominance is the dramatic collapses of counties who by now should be back to where they were. The media has given a soft ride to some of these counties. It’s great to see Kildare and Galway are coming back up to Division 1 and Meath are starting to shake the tree again and actually out to do things the Meath way again.

“I think there’s no excuse whatsoever for the three of them not to be competitive.

“It’s a reflection on everyone from the county board to the players if that isn’t happening.

“It’s an absolute disgrace that Cork aren’t competitive in football and hurling. It’s wrong in every sense and the GAA is a poorer organisation when these counties aren’t in the mix.

“Like, are you telling me Donegal can be competitive Galway or Meath can’t?

“Donegal give bang for their buck every time they go out in championship and as a supporter that’s all you want. When Dublin are beaten, supporters will take that defeat because this team have died with their boots on every time they have gone out. Part of the whole culture of the GAA is that we go to games to see our teams give everything and whether you’re from county No.12 in the pecking order or county No.1 that’s all you want.”

Lyons has grown fatigued with the money argument that has been annually thrown at Dublin since they got their affairs in order and re-commenced winning All-Ireland titles – “pure drivel and absolute nonsense”.

To illustrate his point, he criticises Offaly, who he guided to a Leinster SFC title in 1997.

“The big issue down the country is clubs are putting their hands in their pocket for coaching.

“In Dublin, while yes the central fund does help create coaches, every club in Dublin that gets a coach pays 50%.

“If you went down to Offaly and said, ‘Right, we’re putting five coaches in here and everyone of ye has to put in €20,000 a year’ they would all run in a mile and say they can’t do it. Yet they will pay one fella €80 a session to drive 30 mile across the county to run fellas around a pitch and that’s where the GAA has lost its whole focus. There is too much money going into paying Mickey Mouse managers at club level and I believe it’s a complete cancer.”

That’s not to say Lyons believes all is rosy in Dublin.

“Only six or seven teams have a chance of winning the Dublin senior football championship every year and that’s wrong. The amount of people playing the games in Dublin as a percentage of the population is very small. Cuala’s All-Ireland club hurling win, to me that is probably the greatest sporting achievement in GAA history. To think that the skills of hurling have been learned so well in Dalkey village and then to come out and go around and beat the cream of Ireland from all the traditional hurling counties is absolutely mind-blowing. We did it in ’95 but football is a different game and so many more are playing it in Dublin. To do it is hurling is just unbelievable.

“We always need to be challenging what we do at club level. Every two or three years, there should be strong research done on clubs and how they’re developing. Because clubs can disappear off the map within two or three years. That’s how fast the downward spiral can happen. I just think success for a county is wonderful but success at club level and by that I mean more of their teams being competitive is vital.”

Ask Lyons if he believes Gavin will extend his time as Dublin manager beyond this year, the last of his current three-season term, and he is momentarily flummoxed before remarking, “God, I wouldn’t have given that a minute’s thought but now that you say it I would be surprised if Jim stops now. I think he’s a very professional set-up and all of his management team are fulfilling their roles and they seem to be very united too, which is good. It’s not that management is ever easy but when you have a good collective going and everyone is playing their role it’s a nice place to be.

“It’s no accident that they’re winning a lot of games by a point or coming from behind to win games. That’s a great and incredible desire within the camp. It’s not a singular thing: it’s a collective thing and a great spirit from within the camp. They’re all fine, level-headed men and that’s a reflection on Jim and his management team. Win or lose on Sunday, it’s not going to affect the way Jim Gavin is going to approach the championship. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jim has plans already in place from May, June and July and getting ready for August.”

He is reluctant to start or even entertain comparisons between Gavin and previous managers but throw in a contemporary like Brian Cody and he is expansive.

“I think the comparison that can be made between Brian Cody at his peak and Jim Gavin is that they both have 25 or 26 in the panel that they could call on.

“I wouldn’t use the expression that it’s easier to manage when you have that amount of choice but it certainly makes tough calls easier because you know you have a man to go in. There have been times when many managers have looked behind them to the dugout and they know in their heart and soul what they’re putting in is worse than what they’re taking it. And yet the man out in front of him isn’t performing. That’s a difficult decision because you know deep down that you’re doing it (making the change) for show.

“Brian Cody is just a legend in management and has a phenomenal track record and I think Jim still has a while to go before he can stand beside Brian Cody but that’s only because of Brian Cody’s longetivity and what he has achieved. But Jim’s not doing too bad, is he?”

That’s saying something.

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Join us for a special evening of Cheltenham chat on Friday March 12 at 6.30pm with racing legend and Irish Examiner columnist Ruby Walsh, Irish Examiner racing correspondent Tommy Lyons, and former champion jockey and tv presenter Mick Fitzgerald, author of Better than Sex.

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