Updated: Nov 8, 2020
Last year while sojourning in California, I paid a visit to San Diego's SS Midway, a Gulf War era American aircraft carrier turned military museum that showcases almost every US fighter plane from the 1930's through to the 1980's. They even had F-14's - the type flown by Tom Cruise's character, Maverick, in the 80's popcorn classic, Top Gun.
A charismatic, gnarly old veteran fighter pilot who had completed thousands of missions was giving an entertaining tourist talk up on the flight deck. His job had been to fly planes, presumably drop bombs, and return safely. Jump in, wait for the signal, pull back the lever and off you pop; Kenny Loggins' Danger Zone running through your napalm-addled head. Simple enough?
To successfully catapult 25 lethally-loaded aircraft from a steam-powered 60 yard runway required no less than 150 odd sequential steps per plane by a huge team of launch personnel, engineers and flight commanders. A single missed step under pressure could have potentially fatal consequences for the pilot and crew. This was military precision executed at the highest level; nothing was left to chance, every man knew his job, every man knew the plan, every single step had a higher purpose, every man was following....go on....say it with me...the PROCESS.
As I sat there listening, soaking up the California sunshine, my mind turned inevitably to our own military leader, Wing Commander Jim Gavin, perhaps the most humble, self-effacing, multiple All-Ireland-winning manager in the history of GAA. I don't pretend to know the man, but to my way of thinking, the guy is a genius. And above all, a gentleman.
The nature of his media interviews means he will never be loved - or perhaps even understood - by neutrals. To casual observers dipping in and out of another county's Championship soap opera, it's much easier to latch on to management personalities positioning themselves as gurus and revolutionaries - the Jim McGuinness and Mickey Harte types - or beloved masters of cute hoorism like Mick O' Dwyer and Sean Boylan. Jim will never be thought of in such terms. Rather he will be remembered by outsiders as a good manager, very tactically astute, but opaque and characterless; a man with infinite resources who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Lucky.
Dubs will remember him differently.
Should Dublin win on Sep 1, they will have secured seven championships in nine years, a ratio of success to parallel that great Kerry team who also won seven out of nine between '78 - 86'. Gavin will have won six of them. Under his tenure, Gavin also secured the longest unbeaten record in League and Championship history and five out of seven National League victories. If Dublin win this year, the mantle of 'greatest team' will be unequivocally in dispute, if not completely settled. In the long game that is the Dublin-Kerry rivalry, this matters.
Dublin fans need no reminding that in the thirty-two-year chasm bridging victories in '77 and '11, Dublin won just two All-Ireland's.
This is why the context of Gavin's achievement is critical.
For the best part of three decades, poor coaching structures, North-South divides, ego-tripping players, over-hyped media, well-intentioned but famously slow thinking or flamboyant managers all contributed to Dublin teams that failed year after year against superior opposition from Meath, Offaly, Kerry, Tyrone, Kildare, Armagh, Cork, Donegal and Westmeath. If the nineties were bad, the noughties, were pure misery.
When Pat Gilroy finally led us to the promised land in 2011, nobody could have envisioned the new era dawning for Dublin football. He steeled a determined, battle-hardened team from the white-hot forge of the 2011 All Ireland, but it was his successor, Gavin, that would take this team to heights never yet soared in Gaelic football.
But how does he do it? How has he kept them all interested?
The short of it is that he treats them all the same way. Everyone knows the rules: perform or lose your place, reputations mean nothing so leave your ego at the door.
His relentless pursuit of excellence has seen multiple All-Ireland winners, All Stars and former Players of the Year dropped without qualm - Bernard and Alan Brogan, MDMA, Cian O'Sullivan, Philly McMahon and Dean Rock to name but a few. And who could forget the 2017 Final when he famously made Diarmuid Connolly sit out the first half?
And yet, they return. Over and over, year after year, to give this man their all, to squeeze every last breathe of oxygen out of themselves to reach the dizzying heights of GAA immortality.
Crucially, he has delivered on his promise to the players.
2011 final Man of the Match, Kevin Nolan, explained once in an interview that Jim Gavin outlined his vision to the team for three All Ireland titles in a row when he first took the helm. He did it, and then some.
That's why the players trust him.
All great leaders learn from mistakes, Gavin is no different. That 2014 semi-final defeat to Donegal will define this team and most importantly, Jim's response, forever. Alan Brogan once wrote that Gavin became obsessed with defeating the blanket defence. Evolve or perish. Gavin chose to evolve.
Instead of following the slow, turgid, mechanical, unimaginative, suffocating, factory farm template championed in Ulster football this decade, Gavin developed his own system. He wanted something different, something better, something that would crush the blanket forever.
Possession would be key, Cian O’Sullivan would be deployed to patrol the full back line as a sweeper and defences would be unlocked using basketball tactics introduced by Dublin legend and former Irish basketball international, Jason Sherlock. Ciaran Kilkenny would play point guard while Fenton, McCarthy and McCaffrey penetrated from deep to find Mannion and Rock on the loop.
Gavin's possession-based man to man system focusing on high percentage plays is systematic, relentless, and punishing. It was light years ahead of the blanket and still looks amazing to watch in an expansive game.
In 2017, Dublin annihilated Tyrone by 12 points in a decisive semi-final victory and did the same to Galway the following year by 9.
By 2019, not a single genuine contender to the All-Ireland throne would play the blanket defence. Even Tyrone have acknowledged that it cannot work. The blanket is dead. Jim Gavin killed it.
His innovation had changed how the game would be played. In the business world, this is known as a paradigm shift.
Jim was playing chess while everyone else was playing checkers.
Beyond Gavin’s innovative brand of Barcelona-style possession football, his defining achievement has surely been to cultivate a player-led culture of continuous self-improvement.
Each member of the team serves without ego, all are committed to the greater good of the team. Gavin constantly reminds us and them that they are merely custodians of the county jersey who will eventually pass it on to the next generation, leaving it in a better place for the next player to wear.
As a former soldier, Gavin believes in the idea of service – to his country, to his county - and lives by his values: humility, honesty, integrity.. These values infiltrate the very fabric of what this team represents both on and off the field.
Giving back to the community
Time after time we have witnessed remarkable acts of charity by Jim Gavin and his team – just 10 days after the 2016 All Ireland final, he flew to Rwanda as part of a delivery of over 5,300 livestock to families in need on behalf of the Bothar charity.
He’s a regular visitor to children’s hospitals in Temple St and Beaumont. And when Jim visited the mother of award-winning journalist, Roy Curtis, in a hospice, and she asked him about Diarmuid Connolly’s return, he told her she’d be the first to know if he ever did.
When it was announced that Diarmuid would rejoin the panel, Gavin called in to tell her the news the very next day.
All the money in the world can't buy you that kind of class.
Jim's ability to see the bigger picture means that he and his players have a much deeper perspective on football, and they embrace their position as role models. It's the kind of thinking that led Philly McMahon to found his charity, Half Time Talk to nurture self-belief in the youth of communities.
The Dubs know what they are achieving on the football field is extraordinary, but they also know that one day it will end. There's a whole lot of life outside of winning All-Ireland's. It's what keeps them grounded.
Outsiders distrust this kind of altruism. And football fans from other counties don’t understand it.
Neither, of course, do their detractors in the media - spiteful, click bait trolls pedalling their worthless porn to attract attention. Paper never refused ink.
“What about the drive for 5”, asked our enthusiastic RTE sideline reporter to Man of the Match, Con O’Callaghan, after last week’s victory over Mayo. “In fairness, that commentary is coming from outside the camp” said the 23 year old with unflappable calm.
Jim Gavin doesn’t do hype. Dublin will go after a performance to be the best they can be - and try to win a football match. That's the process.
Win or lose on September 1, Jim Gavin has already achieved more than any other Dublin manager in history. It may be decades before his true genius is recognised by the broader GAA community but eventually, it will be - a man who flew the flag for football in an utterly bleak decade for the game.
And he did so with humility, class and style.