GAA Football

Time Out: End of Dubs' dominance shows Gavin loss greater than them all

Jim Gavin walked away from Dublin after the 2019 All-Ireland Championship, and his absence his been felt on and off the field. Picture by Philip Walsh
Neil Loughran

THERE’S no more pulling up outside Croke Park half an hour before throw-in like the last forgettable winter endured, when whistling winds and the sound of empty crisp packets catching concrete provided the only company on those short walks down Fitzroy Avenue towards Jones’s Road.

On their first All-Ireland semi-final appearance in 23 years - and last for who knows how long - Cavan were trumpeted onto the big stage to the deafening sound of silence, the eeriness of a most anticlimactic moment ringing around the stadium as warm-up shouts started up.

It was cold, clinical and cruel on a county whose football-mad supporters would have relished going toe-to-toe with the Dubs.

That was December.

Arriving down to the capital last Saturday afternoon, the continued return to normality almost feels odd. You couldn’t get a parking spot for love nor money. Proper order. The young lady with the keyboard was there at the corner as you turn towards the Davin Stand stretch, her beautiful voice filling the August air.

The Croke Park hawkers are back, some static, some meandering, but all with facemasks now added to hats and headbands among the wares for sale. An opportunity missed is an opportunity lost.

You’d even have missed the smell of stale beer as punters loiter around the blue bins either side of the match day cordon, reluctant to relinquish their grip until every drop has been drunk.

Mayo’s green and red masses patrolled the pavements, another potential date with disappointment never enough to wipe smiles from faces or remove hope from oft-broken hearts. It was good to be back – it’s always good to be back.

Hours earlier, long before Dessie Farrell and James Horan brought the boys together and issued the final rallying call, RTE radio ran a section on its Reignite programme about leadership. Their special guest, following a vox pop of holiday-makers in Bundoran, was Jim Gavin.

In a 15 minute segment, Gavin discussed the influence of his mother and father growing up, and of his roles with the Irish Aviation Authority and Irish Defence Forces. He recalled bonding trips with the Dublin team during his era-defining tenure and stressed, as always, the power of the collective.

During Gavin’s days as Dublin manager you nearly dreaded being dispatched down to the Croke Park media room in search of quotes, watching on as hands cradled heads moments after, wondering what on earth to do with such nothingness.

A couple of personal anecdotes aside, this radio piece was much of the same - until, when asked about Dublin’s roll call of success over recent years, Gavin paused momentarily.

“You fall to the level of your training,” he said, “it’s about preparing for that chaos.”

Those words must have been rattling around the heads of anybody who listened in the aftermath of a mighty Mayo win that brought an abrupt end to Dublin’s dominance.

Gavin could not have foreseen the mania that was about to unfold later than evening. Dublin might have prepared for it, expected it even, but for the first time they were unable to react to it. In the end, the men in Sky Blue looked like the startled earwigs they had successfully banished from memory.

Myriad explanations have been rolled out as to why that was the case, and all with some justification. The uncertainty over Stephen Cluxton’s place in the panel. The loss of experience from the ranks of what was once the most stacked squad in the history of the game.

In recent years former Dublin captain Paddy Christie has been telling anybody who would listen that the end could be nigh, amid fears of a relentless blue juggernaut brushing everybody aside until the end of days.

The Ballymun stalwart was manager of the county minors in 2015 and 2016 and, speaking in 2019 when involved with then-Down champions Burren, Christie sounded a note of caution.

“There are players coming through at underage but they are not the same extent or the same quality,” he said, “it will slowly drop a level, and then you’d imagine other teams will move up a couple of levels themselves.”

We saw the evidence of that drop again on Saturday night. Yet, for all the talk of Diarmuid Connolly, of Bernard Brogan, Michael Darragh Macauley and Jack McCaffrey and others who have left the stage – some for good, some indefinitely – there is surely one man who has been missed more than any other; Jim Gavin.

No doubt we’ve all seen the WhatsApp that has been doing the rounds in recent days, offering some ‘insight’ into what went wrong this year courtesy of a source “very close to the Dublin set-up”.

Among the idle speculation, the message touched upon the issue of the Dubs breaching the GAA’s Covid-19 restrictions during an early morning training session last April.

Sure where’s the harm, some said? Without even getting into where the country was with the pandemic at that particular stage, the knock that had on Dublin’s previously exemplary position in the court of public opinion was massive.

Having barely put a foot wrong on their way to Sam after Sam, it was a dropping of the ball almost as alarming as Davy Byrne’s spill along the endline last Saturday.

Farrell was slapped with a suspension, and subsequent talk of rancour among a panel that includes teachers and other frontline workers would hardly come as a surprise.

I tried to get a hold of a couple of ex-Dublin players to talk about the incident in the days after. Unsurprisingly, with most former team-mates of Farrell, none was about to throw him under the bus.

However, one theme was recurrent.

“It wouldn’t have happened under Jim Gavin.”

That’s an easy thing to say, of course. Gavin called time before the pandemic struck these shores, who knows how it might have affected his judgment?

But when it came to controlling chaos on the field, his sides became the masters. In the handful of times Dublin drifted close to the edge post-2014 defeat to Donegal, against Mayo and Kerry, they kept their heads and found a way out.

Mayo rocked them to their socks and led by two at half-time of the 2019 All-Ireland semi-final – within 12 minutes of the restart Dublin led by eight. That killer instinct, that goal threat (Saturday night was the third time this summer they failed to hit the net) was no longer there.

As that reality dawned, the Dublin players panicked. Some completely lost the run of themselves. Mayo’s performance reflected the level of their training, of their conditioning, but also their preparation for whatever came their way.

There will be no tears for the Dubs; their time will come again, it has to given how heavily the odds are stacked in their favour. Stephen Cluxton might return, so too Jack McCaffrey. But some men, no matter how discreet their impact, are simply irreplaceable.

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