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MacKenna On Monday: Jim Gavin Was Good But Not The Greatest

Homer: That little Timmy is a real hero.
Lisa: What makes him a hero dad?
Homer: Well he fell down the well. And can’t get out.
Lisa: How does that make him a hero?
Homer: Well, it’s more than you did.
‘The Simpsons.’

Back when he was working the latest in a long list of minor miracles, I went to meet Mick O’Dwyer after a Wicklow training session in Aughrim. He named the time and the hotel, but upon seeing the crowd outside and the alcohol that was flowing on a stunning summer’s evening, he shied away to his car.

His mother’s own drinking, he noted, had meant that he didn’t like to set foot in such places, so instead, he set off via his most favourite of pastimes, driving out across the landscape with his thoughts for company. It was there that he opened up about what made him tick.

gaa all-stars

He vehemently denied a story that, when Laois boss, he was given a fuel card by the county board that meant he could top up in selected stations only, but too far from the nearest one day, he’d pulled into another garage, put in two quid’s worth of petrol, and carried on to where he could get some more for free; he addressed the rumours of back-handers and miserly behaviour that plagued him; he spoke of how he’d realised that he was a loner standing among the crowds.

“My mother was born on an island called Scariff Island and I’d often land down there and get out and just lie alone on the shores,” he said. “That makes me happy. Was the same after I won an All Ireland. I’d love to get away from everyone and be alone on my boat.”

Leaving him that night, there was a feeling of accomplishment as he’d stripped down the yerrah and let the world in a little on the mind of an Irish sporting great. Perhaps now Jim Gavin has walked, we’ll get a true insight into him as well.

That’s been one of the few elements sorely lacking for while we are constantly told of the decency and of his real personality, we’ve never had any view of it. It’s hard to warm to coldness but the sterility has been fitting for this era in Dublin, and for this entire era of Gaelic games. The perfect man for an imperfect time and place.

jim gavin all-ireland

Devoid of insight, what those who haven’t been allowed get to know him have done is engage in an unflattering and chaotic scramble to grab the most outrageous superlative and attach it to their tributes. There’s been a reflex and knee-jerking move to chalk him down as the best ever. When the news of his stepping away broke on Saturday, it did have the feel of the end of an era, but any real analysis makes you realise that it also means the beginning of more of the same, with a different name operating the machine.

In that sense, Gavin in his absence from the intercounty game has already become some sickly monument to what little hope remains as if the last dull and dusted decade has been completely down to him.

We know we don’t question enough in many arenas in society these days, and this has been a sporting microcosm of that. Sheep following sheep as so many get in line and merely assume what the rest are saying is gospel. But stepping back and applying context isn’t contrarian. Instead, to understand Gavin’s place in this pantheon, it’s vital.


It’s strange although not surprising that Dublin not just want, but demand, to be treated completely differently and as the one-off exception within the Gaelic games world, yet when it comes to measuring their glories they want to suddenly be treated if the same. It doesn’t work that way though. It can’t. And while that may not seem fair to Gavin, then he might realise how the rest feel in the fix of an intercounty competition the GAA created and he thrived in.

Indeed it’s about the only downside to being part of the Dublin monster in this era.

A small give back after taking so much.

Gavin won an awful lot but a key point when digesting his term is that he should have won an awful lot. There’s even an argument to be made that the fact he came close to losing on the very odd occasion was an indictment of some of his efforts, rather than some false barometer of the standards of all the actual amateur teams they were put in against.

GAA Football All Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final, Croke Park, Dublin 6/8/2016 Dublin vs Donegal Dublin Manager Jim Gavin and Donegal Manager Rory Gallagher

It was like South Park, when Wing the Chinese singer showed up on The Contender with Eric Cartman announcing as she took a beating, “She’s got a hell of a chin on her, I’ll give her that.” Gavin could be as farcical in his take as well, and while keeping the lid on ego and maintaining focus in serial winners was arguably his greatest achievement, not everyone found it to their liking. Outside of Dublin, after his team had humiliated their latest victims, it was insulting to hear him talk about close games, quality opposition, and there being very little between his champions and the places where the game has been dying. To lie to those who don’t stand a chance wrongly got called humility when in reality it was smug.

What was revolutionary about his play anyway?

That’s an important query for the answer is little. And that answer also showed how crucial the cash was as they crushed teams with their strength and conditioning as a cornerstone. Recently speaking to a multiple women’s All Ireland winner at a conference, she told of how in that realm she cannot and won’t ever match Dublin again as the shift in fitness and physicality thanks to the investment made has been obscene. Back in the men’s game, a Kerry player also alluded to this. Having played with and matched Dubliners in college, he couldn’t believe the transformation that happened when part of this panel. Rumour has it they are using the same programmes as their AIG buddies in New Zealand.

jim gavin all-ireland

What isn’t rumour is that on one occasion they showed up to a pitch for an away-day challenge game, and with the locals closing the gates behind the first bus in, they were told there was another one behind. It was full with high-priced sports scientists and their own security team.

Money doesn’t kick a ball over the bar is the most simplistic and idiotic sports cliche in Ireland right now as, while perhaps literally true, it can break down footballers and rebuild them as semi-professional athletes. Aidan O’Shea a while ago spoke of how Ed Coughlan came on board in Mayo and he basically had to teach them how to run properly to increase efficiency and speed. This is what money can do and Dublin have so much more of it.

Nobody is saying Jim Gavin wasn’t good, for he was very good, brilliant arguably.

But the greatest against that background? We aren’t buying it as his county did.

jim gavin
There’s an asterisk at every turn. Replacing Bernard Brogan, Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly initially looks incredible, until you see that in such a system there was Con O’Callaghan, Niall Scully and Brian Howard rolling off the conveyor belt.

There’s something less ingratiating about using the inheritance to purchase a Porsche. There’s something more honourable about saving to get your first car, even if it’s a banger. That’s the dilemma here.

Thus his statistics will always be weighed down by the loaded dice, in the same way it can be hard to get excited by managers at Barcelona and Real Madrid winning in Spain, at Paris Saint-Germain winning in France, at Bayern Munich winning in Germany, at Manchester City winning in England. It’s not their fault just as the current debacle back home isn’t Gavin’s fault, but he still profited from it to the point it’s a major subtraction to make from his total.

jim gavin

The same to a lesser extent could be said about Mick O’Dwyer and his Kerry efforts, but they were never the wins held up to show his quality. Instead, it was guiding Kildare to an All Ireland final, Laois to a Leinster title, and Wicklow from the gutter to a seriously high standard. Could Gavin do any of that? Not likely for the Dublin job is so completely different from any and all others. What he’s been for years is a facilitator and a delegator, while the rest have to get hands dirty with what little that they’ve got.

At a time of avoiding the obvious and pandering to all things to do with football in the capital, there’ll be those who scream down such a view. But that’s because the truth hurts. Gavin’s legacy will in part be having overseen a cull. Meanwhile, if and when his replacement continues on buying titles, it will take away from that legacy.

After all, his departure isn’t the beginning of the end. Instead, this is the end of the beginning.

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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.