Of course, it helps that he spent 22 years as a photographer. But it is a life in football – from the trenches right up to the top table – that has hardened the Dubliner and helped him realise that sacrifice is required in order to make headway.
“I remember sitting in the director’s box in Belgrade with Noel Byrne and Jonathan Roche from Shamrock Rovers when they beat Partizan Belgrade to qualify for the Europa League – something I didn’t think would happen in my lifetime,” recalls Gavin.
“It was a very proud moment for everyone involved. I thought to myself that the football was going so well with the league at the time and a big club qualifying for Europe. But I suppose you look at the rest of your life and ask whether you neglected other parts of your life through your dedication to football.
“So I was sitting there in Belgrade thinking that the football side of my life was up, but the personal side was down. I think that’s what happens in football as people get so engrossed in it and it’s like an addiction at times. It’s definitely in my blood but you have to find the right balance in life.”
Step into his office at the FAI headquarters in Abbotstown and it’s clear that work and football dictate his life. Scattered amongst the endless stacks of files and folders are pendants, photos, and assorted memorabilia that tell of someone who has travelled the world, trekking to football stadiums as if they were ancient cathedrals supplying divine sacrament.
Hanging on one wall is a dusty portrait of William Hooper, a former president of Bohemians and relation to Gavin, which stares down upon him each day with a glare of expectation to uphold a tradition of striving to improve the domestic game. Yet, it is also a reminder that football and family are like cells embedded deep within him.
Growing up in the Dublin suburb of Whitehall, Gavin remembers going to watch Bohs at Dalymount Park, where he would get a ‘lift over’ at the turnstiles and be instantly gripped by the sense of excitement that comes with witnessing live sport. He was hooked and never once thought of trying to wriggle free.
As a player, he stood out for St Kevin’s Boys and Cherry Orchard, while also captaining the Republic of Ireland U15 schoolboy team, before earning a move to England with Derby County. It was a dream being realised and he didn’t have any problem getting his hands dirty to keep it alive.
“Part of your role as an apprentice was cleaning the boots of first-team players. The guys who I had were Archie Gemmill, Charlie George and Bruce Rioch, players who I used to see on TV and they were legends during that period, so to clean their boots was a privilege,” he admitted.
No matter how hard he scrubbed, glamour was tough to find. Getting inside the corridors of an English football powerhouse opened his eyes to the “cut-throat nature” of how it was run where little sympathy was shown to an Irish kid desperate to return home for Christmas in his first year away.
At that time, there were only two flights from the English midlands into Dublin per week, so Gavin couldn’t afford to miss one. But the problem was that he couldn’t afford to get on one as Derby reminded him that the fine details of his contract stated they would give some money towards his flight, but not all of it.
Frustrated and stranded, Gavin needed his father to send money to get him home and he knew that his time in England was over. Crucially, though, it stirred a passion to stand up for players’ rights, which eventually led to a six-year term as General Secretary of the Professional Footballers’ Association of Ireland (PFAI).
Before his days in administration kicked in, Gavin enjoyed a long playing career in the League of Ireland, lining out for six different clubs after returning home to play for Shamrock Rovers, who had the idealistic duo of Johnny Giles and Eamon Dunphy attempting to blaze a trail for the Irish game.
“John and Eamon, at that time, saw the Champions League coming down the road. They wanted Shamrock Rovers to be the Irish representative in that and made up of the best young Irish players who were training full-time and getting an education. Unfortunately, our league wasn’t ready for them for that time.”
Fast forward a few decades and it is now Gavin who is trying to introduce the kind of structures that can elevate the league to another level. Some of his work has paid off (salary protocol measures, coaching qualification standards), but he embraces the motto: ‘a lot done, more to do’.
Scrutiny follows him around like a shadow and his critics don’t hide when he drops into a match on a Friday night, yet Gavin doesn’t shut them out. He will turn to a supporter and debate the merits of a lofty proposal, while he is practically on speed dial for clubs officials around the country.
Listening is something that he learned to do as a photographer, thanks to his late father, Frank, and it has helped with his mission to ensure the league keeps on progressing.
“I come from a family of photographers and the shop is still there on Dorset Street; it’s going 60 years now. My father, who started the business, taught me a lot and he decided after my mother died to become a priest. He was ordained at 63 years of age, but I won’t be going the same way,” explained Gavin.
“What photography taught me though was how to deal with people – it gives you very good people skills and negotiating skills because weddings are very pressurised situations. And that is something that has helped me in my role as director of the league because you have to listen to people.
“You have to see things from other people’s perspective and have empathy with them at times. I think I’ve seen football from every angle: as a player, a manager, a supporter, an administrator, and, now, a director. But it’s what I learned as a photographer that has helped me deal with some tough situations.”
There will be more tough times ahead, but Gavin just has to look up at that portrait of Hooper or photos of that night in Belgrade to realise that he has come a long way.
The future is bright for domestic football and it’s all down to clubs like Cork City leading the way out of the darkened past.
At least that’s how SSE Airtricity League director Fran Gavin feels as he insists lessons have been learned from clubs gambling with their existence in pursuit of glory.
City supporters can attest to that following a painful period when Examinership was mentioned more than players’ names. But they have turned it around in spectacular fashion.
It is that sort of hands-on approach – and long-term planning – which has led to several clubs convincing Gavin better days are approaching.
“The clubs have come through some rough years, like everyone has in the country. They are more stable now than they were during the Celtic Tiger era when money was being spent everywhere.”
“The clubs are trying to run themselves within their own means and we have to stay on top of them to make sure it’s all going well and advise them accordingly. People are much more prudent and that brings stability.
“Once you create stability around the league, that is when you can grow because you have a foundation to build on. That’s what we feel we are getting close to now. We’re going in the right direction and the clubs deserve great credit. Look at the likes of Cork City and Shamrock Rovers, who are such positive stories as the supporters are hands-on but they are looking to the future.”
The clubs are not alone in pushing forward as Gavin admitted the FAI plan to finally roll out an U17 League this year to tie in with the existing U19 competition.
While the option of a Reserve League is still being considered, it is hoped the U17 League will aid the continued support of developing more homegrown players.