If Stephen Cluxton follows Jim Gavin into retirement, all bets are off for 2020, writes
Jim Gavin has made a lot of good decisions during his time in charge of Dublin which is reflected in his incredible record.
Five in a row. Unbeaten in League or Championship from March 2015 to April 2017 for a 36-game run.
One championship loss in seven years and 11 of the 14 national titles he contested annexed during his reign.
To put all of that in context, he took over when winning back-to-back All-Irelands was considered a special achievement.
His decision to step away — while surprising from a timing perspective — looks another masterstroke from an individual perspective. History has been achieved and his part in it can now never be gainsaid.
I have had an eye on Jim Gavin from a young age. I did my Leaving Cert in 1995, the summer he was about to win his medal after a couple of disappointing near misses the previous few years.
I was weighing up what to do after my Leaving and I had a massive interest in aviation and in becoming a pilot.
The private route wasn’t an option so I explored the only other option open to me which was to join the Air Corps.
At that stage, I had won a minor All Ireland in 1994 and was in my second year with the minors.
The football bug had well and truly bitten and one of my big concerns was trying to balance both of these and wondering if it was possible. Jim Gavin was living proof to me that you could do both.
There were four spots up for grabs that summer and I advanced through the stages but I didn’t make the final cut so it never became a problem for me.
It wasn’t the last time I would look to his example.
We were appointed to our respective banisteoir positions within a few months of each other in the latter half of 2012 and one of the things that strikes me now is how complete he was from the off as a manager.
It takes most people a season or two to get everything right but he had it from the off.
His management structures and back room team were on the money. He had a playing philosophy shaped around attacking football by gaining possession from their own kickout and a relentless athleticism throughout his team.
He managed to achieve a remarkable balance between scripted plays and freedom of expression which is the Holy Grail of coaching.
His teams always had a hard and competitive edge. He also set out from the off to have a squad devoid of ego with humility as a key trait.
He led by example in this regard but he also had his squad do charity work and live a balanced life away from the field.
He was guarded and scripted in his dealings with the media but also had a PR guru shape the conversation for him in the background.
He was a complete manager from the off. He tweaked and improved as he went and constantly challenged himself and his group.
The easy reference is the post-2014 changes to the defensive set-up but each year they changed significant parts of their gameplan and/or personnel.
From gung ho to counter-attack to possession-based to a ramba-zamba style of football where positions counted for little in his final year.
He attended the top coaching conferences in Europe, some of which were accessible only to the elite of the elite in world sport.
When geography and my job prevented me from travelling to these events I was envious of Jim being there and felt that he was getting a step on us.
His planning, unsurprisingly, was of military precision.
The week prior to our National League game against them in Tralee in 2017, a scout appeared unannounced. Dublin had not played in Austin Stack Park since 2005 so the venue was unfamiliar.
Vince Linnane was going about his daily duties when a man approached him having just arrived on the train from Dublin.
He checked the Dublin dressing room, their dugout and everything else in between sketching as he went.
This year the Monday after the semi-final weekend, Dublin had their All Ireland media event and also had their meet-and-greet with their younger fans that evening.
The decks were cleared before they resumed training on the Tuesday night, which minimised distractions.
The morning of the drawn All Ireland final, the panellists who didn’t make the matchday squad trained in Parnell Park, presumably as part of their usual match day process but also in case of a replay.
Incredible attention to detail.
For me, his most impressive attributes as a manager — and the hardest part for his successor to replicate — is how effective he was at half time and how he honed Dublin’s ability coming down the stretch to get the job done.
In two of our three championship battles in 2013 and 2016, we were in a strong position at half time.
They rejigged and all of the changes worked and they went on and won tight games.
In countless games teams took them to the 65 minute mark and matched them.
However they had an enviable ability to make the right decisions and do the right things in those key game-defining moments.
Whether it was instructions from the sideline or a consequence of player empowerment on the training pitch, this is a hard thing for any coach in any sport to achieve.
In the drawn All Ireland final this year Dublin forced vital turnovers in injury time to draw the match. They did this with a man less on the field.
At one stage late on Stephen Cluxton played as a fly keeper and allowed his backs to push out and force turnovers. That game intelligence and decision-making came from the environment created and managed by Jim Gavin.
When he allows himself time to reflect he can be extremely proud of this.
Needless to say, and unsurprisingly, he had an edge about him as well. You don’t win as much as he did by being Mr Nice Guy all of the time. I’m sure his players saw that side of him on occasion.
I rarely saw it but there were a few moments. He had a few tussles with Liam Hassett when Liam was Maor Foirne with Kerry.
He would come within hearing distance of Liam and pass a comment while looking straight out at the pitch. To everyone else in the stadium, it was as if he was addressing one of his players, but he was making his point well known to Liam.
He was a good man to have a word with the sideline official or linesman when he felt it was needed also but it was always done in a very understated and dignified way.
I was surprised with the announcement on Saturday, but of course, it makes sense. When we look back to the replayed All-Ireland final he was more animated and more open than previously.
We never heard so much from the players after an All-Ireland victory. For the previous four All-Irelands, we only heard the stage-managed message.
This time we got a glimpse inside the circle. It was as if there was a relaxing of the control. I’ve said before and am convinced now: It was about the five-in-a-row all along for him, and them.
An inter-county manager requires huge appetite and boundless energy to keep the standards high. Gavin has been there for seven years.
Some of his most loyal and effective lieutenants have been drifting away. There must have been plenty of hard conversations. Paul Flynn, Bernard Brogan and Eoghan O’Gara have all finished up.
I am sure they didn’t go down without a fight. Brogan alluded to this in some of his media work when he retired. To borrow a phrase from cosa nostra: ‘This is business, nothing personal’.
It had to be all about the team, the squad, the jersey. But to an individual player, it’s always personal. Those conversations become tougher over time particularly with players that have given so much to the jersey and to you as the manager.
They did for me at least. Maybe Jim had enough of that.
Jim Gavin going gives everyone else hope. Of course, Dublin are still in a very strong position but his departure is a game-changer.
There could be a contagion effect if more of the old brigade decide they don’t want to have to prove themselves all over again. This is unlikely though.
However, the big one is Stephen Cluxton.
Cluxton’s influence on the field is massive but it is his presence in the dressing room that sets the standards for everyone else. If both of them depart at the same time, all bets are off.
The new manager comes into an interesting dynamic.
A talented and hugely successful squad but with a major changing of the guard with their leader stepping aside. To achieve the standards and control of the Gavin era is going to be an onerous task.
Anything other than an All-Ireland win will be viewed as failure.
Of course it is still an incredibly attractive proposition, but with those caveats.
Jim Gavin won it all and did it playing a fantastic brand of football - and with admirable humility.
He walks off into the sunset with the ultimate mic drop and a record to die for.
Gavin’s done it all and walks away with the ultimate mic drop and a record to die for
If Stephen Cluxton follows Jim Gavin into retirement, all bets are off for Championship 2020.