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PJ Cunningham: Gavin stands tallest in pantheon of greatest managers

Gavin stands tallest in pantheon of greatest managers
29 September 2019; Dublin manager Jim Gavin waves to supporters during the Dublin Senior Football teams homecoming with the Sam Maguire Cup at Merrion Square in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

By PJ Cunningham

Two questions have dominated the GAA world since Saturday’s shock announcement that Dublin manager Jim Gavin had decided to step down after completing the historic five-in-a-row of All Ireland SF titles last September against Kerry.

The first was – where does he rank in terms of greatest managers of all time?

Almost as naturally as breathing, people followed up on their surprise at his stepping down by wondering who would take over the Dublin hot-seat as the team aims to sail through totally uncharted waters in seeking a six-in-a-row of titles in 2020?

In seven years at the helm of the senior football team, Gavin won six All Ireland, seven Leinster and five National League titles.

In all during his term, his team only lost one championship game – the 2014 All Ireland semi-final game against Donegal when his plans were disrupted by Jim McGuinness’s clever ploy of pulling the Dubs’ centre back and full back out of position.

This allowed Donegal to get in for two hammer blows of goals before half-time, and leave the holders chasing a game that they never quite managed to come to terms with despite a herculean effort.

Gavin stands tallest in pantheon of greatest managers
14 September 2019; Dublin players celebrate following the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

No other manager has managed to pack such impressive figures into such a condensed period – Mick O’Dwyer collected eight All Irelands in 11 years but his era was at a time when Kerry only had to win three games – against Cork in Munster and the All Ireland semi-finals and finals to add another Celtic Cross to the county’s collection.

Gavin has had an easy ride through Leinster for sure but then the introduction of All Ireland quarter-finals, or more recently the Super 8s, have definitely been a much tougher examination of teams credentials than the old knock-out route.

While managers such as Kevin Heffernan, Sean Boylan, Billy Morgan and Eugene McGee have all left indelible marks on the world of football management, the only one in the Gaelic world who could stand comparison is probably Brian Cody, the Kilkenny hurling supremo.

While he has 21 years in charge of Kilkenny since 1998, he has won 11 All Irelands in that time. His record is remarkable both for its victory rate and its longevity, yet Cody’s strike rate pales into significance when compared to Gavin’s.

The simple clincher for me on who is the greatest manager of all time is based on the fact that no hurling or football manager ever achieved the five successive All Ireland victories, until the Dublin pilot successfully landed that historic statistic last September.

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Gavin stands tallest in pantheon of greatest managers
14 September 2019; Dublin manager Jim Gavin and Jack McCaffrey celebrate after the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay match between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

He did more than just win matches – he changed the culture and character of how Dublin teams behaved on and off the pitch.

From time immemorial, players in the two tones of blue played with a sense and style of superiority against their country neighbours, often happy to embrace the concept of 31 v 1 when it came to the popularity stakes.

In some way that could be his greatest legacy – he made Dublin great but with a humble streak that made them likeable on a national basis.

They became a model sports team, grounded and happy to help out charitable causes without letting everyone know what they were doing.

It should also be remembered that without Gavin’s ability to dissect and create a counter to the negative football championed by McGuinness at the beginning of this decade, it is highly likely that such blueprints would have been copied by other counties.

Instead, Dublin’s attitude to play positive football, allied to their athleticism to carry out plays that few other squads possessed, meant that the so-called ‘puke football’ didn’t last too long in the midday sun.

Gavin stands tallest in pantheon of greatest managers
10 August 2019; Dublin manager Jim Gavin during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

While many of its components remain such as blanket defence, it is limited in terms of securing ultimate honours for counties.

And so we come to the 64,000 dollar question – who inherits the keys to the Dublin dressing-room?

One thing for sure is that the appointment will come from within – he will be a Dub just like Gavin.

Dessie Farrell has served a similar apprenticeship to Gavin with underage county teams and it will be a major surprise if he isn’t given first refusal.

Pat Gilroy’s time at the helm a decade ago was seminal in how he changed the thinking that brought All Ireland success in 2011.

He was also doing a good job with the hurlers when he was forced to take a time-out – again because of work commitments.

There is no doubt he has a lot to offer Dublin should he be the choice, but the reality is that time may again be his enemy.

Gavin stands tallest in pantheon of greatest managers
27 September 2019; Na Fianna manager Dessie Farrell during the Dublin County Senior Club Football Championship Group 1 match between Na Fianna and Ballymun Kickhams at Parnell Park in Dublin. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

I don’t foresee the likes of Jason Sherlock, Paul Clarke or Declan Darcy, or even Dublin women’s boss Mick Bohan, being seriously considered.

They would only come into the reckoning should Farrell and Gilroy rule themselves out of contention.

Amid the shock of the news of Gavin’s resignation, a ray of hope was shone into all other counties who will see his going as giving their teams a better chance of winning Sam Maguire in 2020.

Kerry will obviously feel they are even closer now than they were in September, while Donegal, Galway, Mayo, Tyrone and even Cork will take comfort from the fact that the General who doesn’t know how to lose in battle is no longer leading the blue army into battle.

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