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MacKenna On Monday: Jim Gavin Can’t Be Considered The Greatest Given Dublin’s Advantage

jim gavin Dublin

‘You new models are happy scraping the shit, because you’ve never seen a miracle.’
Sappor Morton, Blade Runner 2049.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2018 Champions League final, despite the undeniable excellence that was hugely worthy of respect, Real Madrid’s victory still grated a chunk.

There was no talking down the crucial hardness of Sergio Ramos and brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo and creativity of Luka Modric, and empirically there was nothing to be argued in the face of a three-in-a-row in the toughest of spheres.

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 31: Real Madrid CF president Florentino Perez (L) and Zinedine Zidane (R) attend a press conference to announce his resignation as Real Madrid manager at Valdebebas Sport City on May 31, 2018 in Madrid, Spain. Zidane steps down from the position of Manager of Real Madrid, after leading the club to it's third consecutive UEFA Champions League title. (Photo by Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty Images)

But even in the realm of unmatched elitism and ultra-capitalism, little highlighted the artificiality better than one shocking statistic. As a manager, it was Zinedine Zidane’s third time to hoist the trophy. That brought him alongside Bob Paisley and Carlo Ancelotti as the most successful in the competition’s history, while moving him one clear of innovators like Béla Guttman, Helenio Herrera and Stefan Kováks, of Brian Clough, Arrigo Sacchi and Alex Ferguson.

Really though?

That was the level we were going to suddenly place him at?

The main issue is such excellence being mistaken for true greatness. For even the biggest admirers of Zidane – those who agreed ‘A 21st Century Portrait’ was a worthy endeavour and that headbutt was the cutting-of-your-ear moment of an absolute genius – found this measure of him as a manager absurd. Redefining little, his wins felt a bit inevitable.

Real Madrid's French coach Zinedine Zidane lifts the trophy after Real Madrid won the UEFA Champions League final football match between Juventus and Real Madrid at The Principality Stadium in Cardiff, south Wales, on June 3, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Filippo MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)

It was around that time, with the 2018 football championship in its infancy, that talk back home turned to Jim Gavin. Many editors and journalists, pundits and fans alike were planning ahead as he would almost certainly guide Dublin to an All Ireland for the fifth time and there was a knee-jerk reaction to his name.

What superlative would work?

Greatness was a consensus.

Except yet again there was a confusion between that and the undeniable excellence.

* * *

Tick tock.

In six days we’ll have the first five-in-a-row in football and Jim Gavin’s sixth senior crown.

Dublin , Ireland - 16 July 2017; Dublin manager Jim Gavin during the Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Kildare at Croke Park in Dublin. (Photo By Seb Daly/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

He’s breaking down barriers and making history and yet it feels so very wrong to fawn.

Perhaps it’s because by this time next week he’ll have two more than Seán Boylan, double the amount of Mickey Harte and Jack O’Connor, and treble what John O’Mahony, Billy Morgan and Pete McGrath racked up. With that comes a narrative that he’s better.

Like Zidane though, is he really?

The whole concept of greatest of all time is usually a bar-stool silence-filler when there isn’t an answer, and there’s no need for one. Many achievements can be respected without comparison but to understand Jim Gavin’s achievements brings about a need for comparison. Dublin may not like it, but as with all the teams placed on a pedestal by circumstance, to be analysed differently is the trade-off for any and all amount of titles.

jim gavin

As an example, is coming first the only or even the most important barometer when qualifying a managerial effort? Perhaps in the United States where there’s a constant effort by authorities to push equality based on drafts and salary caps. But elsewhere no.

Thus few would say Didier Deschamp did a better job at the World Cup than Zlatko Dalic, that Jurgen Klopp did a better job than Erik ten Hag in the Champions League, or even that Pep Guardiola had a better Premier League campaign than Nuno Espírito Santo. That applies to critiquing Jim Gavin as well for, while there may not be transfers in his game, given the financial, numerical, sponsorship, stadium and travel advantages his team hold, there’s no way of actually battling against them by scouting better or getting lucky.

jim gavin

We all know the figures around the Dublin set-up, but that plays out in the real world too. It’s a couple of seasons since a man in Tipperary was volunteering at a club grounds, with Dublin playing an early-in-the-year challenge match against the locals. A bus rolled up and the gates were opened but as they went to close the premises again a second bus from the capital came down the road. Coaches were on board but also security. They cordoned off the place as the big time and the superstars had come to town.

This is nothing new. Athletes in DCU have long complained about having to cut short their training while being told to move along when the champions arrived. Recently it emerged that some Dublin players can earn €6,000 in an appearance fee. Indeed if you want an example of the different reality the rest operate in, before the 2014 semi-final as Gavin was perfectly preparing with all he could ask for, Donegal were forced into ‘An Evening with Jim McGuinness’ as a fundraiser in an attempt to not fall further behind.

It has all played into a one-horse race and while that provides many issues from fairness to sustainability, solely looking at Gavin’s career it raises a key query usually overlooked. Does doing exactly what you should really qualify you as a great?

Jim Gavin and Stephen Cluxton at the end of the game 20/9/2015

Often what reinforced the reputation of other managers wasn’t just winning it all with the best players and teams, but going on to prove their talents worked with those less well-off. O’Mahony’s Leitrim effort in 1994, Páidí Ó Sé’s Westmeath triumph in 2004, even Pete McGrath’s league and championship runs with Fermanagh in 2015 all showed them to be adaptable as well as brilliant. It’s why even if Jim Gavin surpasses Mick O’Dwyer in the near future in terms of All Ireland titles, he still won’t have done nearly as much.

For it wasn’t so much the Kerry years that defined the latter, but Kildare and Laois and Wicklow thereafter.

That was the true sign of the absolute greatest.

Asterisk free.

* * *

When Jim Gavin got the Dublin job, it immediately felt different.

The usual reach-out for an interview had to be done through a de-facto agent and, if it was about controlling the narrative, it also seemed as if it was about going professional. Gavin was going to a higher plane against amateurs. Soon, so would his team. And today it has all reached the stage where it reminds of bygone days playing Championship Manager where you cheated by going into the editor and giving a club all the resources possible and buying your way to the top. But what feeling did winning then provide?

Brian Fenton Brian Howard Dublin Leinster Final 2019

It’s not only that Gavin’s victories have lacked joy, but so too has his attitude to them. It has the feel of a CEO spouting out quarterly forecasts and stock updates. That has sucked what little humanity has remained from Dublin’s dominance, meanwhile his reaction to opposition, calling 20-point wins close-calls, and talking down proven advantages is hugely smug.

As hard as it is to move that to the side though, looking at his legacy is strictly business and there’s no doubt he has a very specific skill-set that perfectly fits in with what he manages. Dublin may not have the short-falls and pit-falls that the rest deal with daily, thus for him it’s about maintaining composure and hunger and keeping a low level of ego and drama. That he has done superbly as his is a team that has never panicked. It takes us back to the person, no matter how much he’s tried to hide that.

Brian Fenton celebrates scoring a goal 10/8/2019

Once a commandant in the air corps, such were his skills that Tommy Lyons tried to recruit him as a selector in 2004 only for him to be “too busy flying the Taoiseach around the world”. Back then and there he had two alarm clocks, shaved every morning, shined his shoes each day and never flew if something was on his mind. In football, there’s been the same ruthless pragmatism. His teams always seem to respond to lessons in defeat, he’s intelligent with key appointments and is a great problem spotter and solver.

There are limits to how much admiration you can apply to such cold traits though, especially when playing a rigged game.

Sure enough, just as Zidane wouldn’t have succeeded at other clubs, other managers wouldn’t have succeeded at the Real Madrid circus and that also applies to Gavin. Ultimately though, at least the Frenchman had and has some semblance of competition.

Jim Gavin doesn’t.

Little may have eluded him in life, but being over Dublin at this juncture means that greatness always will.

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Author: Ewan MacKenna

One of the country's top sports journalists, and a recipient of Irish Sports Journalist of the Year.