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Friday 6 December 2019

Jim set the standard

Manager struggled only when he had to tell players they were left out or dropped from the team

20 September 2015; Alan Brogan and Kevin McManamon, Dublin, celebrates with the Sam Maguire cup following their side's victory. GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final, Dublin v Kerry, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
20 September 2015; Alan Brogan and Kevin McManamon, Dublin, celebrates with the Sam Maguire cup following their side's victory. GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final, Dublin v Kerry, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

One of the things people don't fully appreciate about Jim Gavin is how quickly he went from playing into coaching.

Jim was a team mate of mine in my first year with Dublin in 2002, but his career was winding down just as mine was about to take off.

Then he retired and immediately, himself and Declan Darcy took over with the Dublin Under 21s.

I was captain and we won an All-Ireland in 2003 - Dublin's first at the grade - but because I was with the seniors at that stage, I wasn't part of all or even most of the Under 21's preparations.

This was Jim's seventh year managing the Dublin seniors but he had four prior to that with the Under 21s in his second stint as well, wherein he won two further All-Ireland titles at that grade.

I'm sure he's never sat down to calculate the hours he has poured into Dublin football at the inevitable expense of other aspects of his life but the mind boggles when you even begin to try and conjure a rough estimate.

By the time Jim took over from Pat Gilroy in 2012, everything had moved on a long way for us both and I wouldn't have crossed paths with him very often since we last shared a dressing-room.

But what chimed with me immediately in the very first team meeting we had was how he wanted us to play football.

Jim is equal parts traditionalist and pragmatist.

He felt we should play football on the front foot, full-court press because that's how Dublin teams traditionally played their football.

But he also knew he had the players to pull it off.

He wanted to create a set of values that we would aspire to, on and off the pitch.

Much of it was how we treated the responsibility of being a Dublin player. How he conducted ourselves away from the group.

But my ears pricked up when he said he wanted us to play attacking, man-to-man football.

In those initial seasons, right up until the Donegal defeat in 2014, we played the most ambitious, attacking football of any team in recent memory.

Get the ball, take your man on or give it quickly.

It seems almost reckless now in hindsight when you compare it against the predominant ideologies of the current day; possession and control.

I'm not sure how our defenders felt about it but for me, as a forward, this is how I had always wanted to play football.

Jim's declaration of intent was sweet music to my ears.

But really, the thing that made Jim Gavin the manager he became was his ability to adapt after that Donegal defeat.

I'm sure that was a hard swallow for Jim.

That on some ideological level, part of him wanted to resist changing our ways, to discard the Donegal defeat and the manner of it as a once-off or a fluke.

I'd be certain there was part of Jim that simply wanted get back up on the horse again and go all out to win the 2015 All-Ireland as we had tried to win the '14 All-Ireland.

But Jim always had a deep appreciation of the weight of responsibility that the role of Dublin manager carries.

He was tightly bound to the tradition of the team and was constantly reminded us of the same.

Initially, he found a way to prevent that sort of defeat happening again though a closer focus on defence and slowly, laid block after block and turned the group of players into the greatest winning machine football has known for thirty years.

That he did it all without ever really dropping his guard is testament to his own discipline.

Jim put a slight distance between himself and the players.

Only on the very rare occasion on a trip abroad or maybe at someone's wedding would you end up in anything like a normal conversation with Jim.

That was by his own design.

He wouldn't have had the sort of close relationships with anyone - except for maybe Stephen Cluxton - that 'Pillar' Caffrey or Pat Gilroy naturally cultivated.

The reason he did that was simple.

Every decision he made was done to a system. There was logic and rationale behind it and if you wanted to know what it was, he'd tell you as matter-of-factly as you could imagine.

There was nothing personal.

It wasn't about personalities or egos or whether you considered yourself a key man or an experienced player.

We saw only glimpses of his human side.

I know that the one aspect of the job Jim struggled most with was telling players they were being left out or that they were dropped.

In 2015, after we drew with Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final, I was selected to start the replay in place of Diarmuid Connolly, who was suspended.

After Diarmuid was cleared early on the morning of the second game, Jim approached me in the team room in the Gibson Hotel and informed me I'd be back on the bench.

The conversation only lasted a minute. And with throw-in just a few hours away, I wasn't inclined to argue the toss with Jim.

But I could tell in that short exchange how uncomfortable he found the whole experience.

People think Jim's public persona was one he used only for interviews but that's how he dealt with players too. He removed his own personality from the process.

He was simply there to put in place the structures for us to be the best football team we could be. Easily said. Not so easily done.

I've heard all the nonsense about him having the best players in the country and the resources and the population so he can't be considered for a place on the pantheon of all time great managers.

The fact is, we judge those players now as individuals through the prism of having won so many All-Irelands.

But they never would have attained so much success were it not for the fact that collectively, they were the best prepared, most tactically aware team in the country.

And that all comes back to Jim.

For me, his greatest trick over the past five years was keeping the players hungry and a repeatedly generating a feeling of freshness about the season.

It might be as simple as choosing a different venue for a training camp or maybe he'd bring someone in to sing for the team.

Anything to stop the day to day stuff from wearing thin.

Winning takes so much emotional energy out of you, there's a certain comfort in just coasting along the following year.

That's just human nature.

But Jim's greatest achievement was unfailingly bringing a panel of players up the standards he had set for himself and everyone around the team.

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