Jim Gavin: The modern day Micko?

Eoghan O’Connor discovers the many parallels between the two GAA coaches

RTE’s documentary on the legendary Mick O’Dwyer was an incredible insight into the mindset of the greatest GAA manager of all time. Micko is totally addicted to the game. A great scene comes at the beginning of the documentary: as Micko sits on a dingy boat off the coast of Kerry, he looks upon the birthplace of his mother, Scariff Island. One of his granddaughters asks him how they fed themselves on a secluded island like Scariff. Micko replies saying that they had to fish for their dinner but they always had enough to survive. “If you have enough to eat, you live you know,” he says as he spreads some of the wisdom he’s acquired during his 82 year life.

However, a hunger for success and All-Ireland trophies is very different to the hunger for food to the legendary Mick O’Dwyer. In his footballing career, just to survive was never going to be enough for the most successful Gaelic football manager in the game’s history. Micko had to achieve, success was the only option to him. Especially in the Kingdom of football that is Kerry. He believed that Kerry should be the top county in football. Second best was not good enough.

Parallels of Micko’s constant drive for more success can be drawn with Jim Gavin. The current Dublin manager is on track to match Micko’s four-in-a-row in 2018, and few would bet against the Dubs achieving this. Dublin are the modern day Kerry and Gavin is at the helm of this team of champions, just like Micko was at the helm of his Kerry side – both men driven by a desire for their county to be the best, year in, year out. The expectation Micko felt from the people of Kerry in the 1980s is the same as the expectation Gavin’s team have on their shoulders now. And deservedly so; Gavin, like Micko, achieved with his team early on and won an All Ireland Championship in his first season.

What struck me the most from the documentary was the sickening feeling Micko felt after the 1982 final, as Kerry lost out on a five-in-a-row in the last minute against Offaly. Over three decades on, he is still bitter. For two months after he remembers not leaving his house, replaying the tape of the final over and over again, asking himself what if Michael Sheehy had scored the penalty to put Kerry eight points ahead. Micko will never know. Even to this day, he mentions how he still thinks about it at least once a week.

Dublin have only lost one championship game since Gavin’s reign began in 2013, an epic Jim McGuinness masterclass in the 2014 All-Ireland final. Defeats are totally unacceptable for the two respective managers. The fear of losing may outweigh the desire for to be the best in both cases.

A criticism of Gavin after the 2017 All Ireland finals against Mayo – one of the most gripping finals of all time – was his refusal to even offer a smile after the final whistle blew. Dublin were the three-in-a-row champions but Gavin merely shrugged it off as if it was an O’Byrne Cup win, whilst slowly making his way over to Stephen Rochford to offer his consolations.

A huge critic at the time was the outspoken journalist Paul Kimmage. He described Gavin in the post-match press conference as having a “lack of grace” and looking like he lost the final. But this is the sign of a man who is constantly looking towards the next goal; the next All Ireland, which will be the four in-a-row. The feat that will mean his Dublin side are spoken about in the same breath as the Kerry side in the 80’s managed by Micko.

When Dublin are eventually beaten again in the championship, Jim Gavin’s already deflated appearance in press conferences will be much much more profound. Just like Micko, who to this day still ponders upon the result of that ’82 final which denied him five-in-a-row, Gavin will be no different. Even since his side lost to Donegal in August 2014, Gavin has won every championship game since, only losing once to Kerry in the league final last year. The criticism and the manner of that defeat hurt him. The blanket defence had beaten his apparently unstoppable team. His bullet proof side now seemed quite flawed and easily opened up.

But just like when Micko lost out on the five-in-a-row in ‘82, Gavin’s team have bounced back by winning three All-Irelands on the trot. The fear of losing is what has driven them on. This may be what drives the best managers and Micko was the prime example of this. As he reflects on his life in the documentary, the biggest loss of his career is still something he thinks about. Even though he has won so much, being content with his lot is just not how he thinks. Much like Gavin.

Although Gavin has much less charisma and charm than Micko, their psyche is the same. Just as Micko addresses the Kerry supporters after the ’81 final, he proclaims that they “have seen nothing yet”. In much more reserved way, that is what Gavin does after he wins the big games now. Showing that he is looking to the next title by not dwelling on the one just gone.

The 2018 championship should see Dublin lift their fifth All-Ireland title under Gavin and equal Micko’s four-in-a-row. The former Kerry manager may want to see his home county end their short drought, but he may just have to wait. The influence of his legacy may be having more of an effect on his bitter rivals Dublin. Gavin wants to beat Micko’s record and not many would say that they won’t, as they continue to be the cream of the crop.