The highest compliment I can pay Jim Gavin is that he is the closest thing we have to a Billy Walsh in the GAA. The best tribute I can offer to Dublin GAA and CEO John Costello is that they embody the spirit of a Gary Keegan and the idealism that led to the creation of amateur boxing’s High Performance Unit in 2003.
To everyone complaining about how much money is spent in the capital, I would offer the defence that the Dublin County board have ensured that Gaelic football and hurling are the top sports played in the city by young kids every year. And that this situation is likely to continue for another generation, based on the work they have done to date.
In a sprawling metropolis like Dublin with many, many competing distractions this is no small achievement. Money well spent as far as I’m concerned. Dublin is now the type of global city that could easily lose touch completely with the rest of Ireland. The GAA is one of the elements that keeps it grounded and connected with the rest of us.
In the aftermath of Dublin’s second half , 11 minute, demolition job of Mayo a week ago, Jim Gavin has been increasingly been on my mind. The word ‘Great’ gets fired around in sport nowadays like bullets in a spaghetti western , but there is little doubt in my mind that Jim Gavin is a great manager.
The reason why he is great though, seems to be unsatisfactorily explained in the Irish media.
So let’s test a theory here and see if it holds water.
A good manager can build a great team. A great manager will build a great environment.
The only grass-roots fed, world class, sporting environment in Ireland is the IABA’s High performance boxing unit. Boxing’s high performance unit was founded in the early noughties, so it has almost a generation of living under it’s belt at this stage. The results speak for themselves. Olympic, World and European champions and medallists to beat the band.
John F Kennedy once said
” Victory has a 1000 fathers but defeat is an orphan”
In the case of the IABA High performance it has three fathers that should never be forgotten. Two of the holy trinity have departed. Gary Keegan and Billy Walsh. Rightly, many people point to Gary Keegan as the architect of the high performance unit. But it is Billy Walsh that most reminds me of Dublin’s Jim Gavin.
In the bloody mess of Walsh’s long departure the thing I was most focussed on was the reaction of the boxers. It was fairly muted.
Sure, they paid lip service to Billy Walsh but also, almost never failed, to subtly mention that Zaur Antia was technically a superior coach. This is probably true but misses the point.
Could it be possible that our most talented athletes didn’t understand the full impact of Billy Walsh as the leader of the High Performance Unit?
Billy created the environment for excellence to flourish. He gathered the best available coaching talent around him and let them at it. Entry to this exclusive club is and was high. But once in, you were guaranteed to get better and in most cases better beyond your wildest teenage dreams.
In Billy’s case this turned out to be a risky approach because in the event of failure the knives would be out for him. In the event of success people quite often pointed elsewhere. With no failure on the horizon, the curiosity was that the knives were drawn anyway.
To anyone thinking Billy Walsh wasn’t an integral part of the success all I can say is that the genuine home of boxing, The United States of America, have put him in charge of everything. Lock, Stock and barrel. It took him about two minutes to figure out that the big issue in the amateur system in the States was that all boxing is geared towards the professional game. To be successful in the amateur arena all this had to change.
Changing an environment requires time and backing. He has received both and still managed to find himself voted World coach of the year at the end of 2016.
Altering the environment and psychology of the amateur fighters and their coaches was going to be the key to his success. Change in most instances must face down resistance.
To do it he had to stare down, the USA’s golden child, America’s Katie Taylor – Claressa Shields. Claressa was and is the original maverick talent. A two time Olympic gold medalist. But you can’t build environments on mavericks alone. Billy found an accommodation for her but not without initial defiance. Walsh’s environments don’t disregard mavericks he just doesn’t build the foundations of his culture on them. It seems Jim Gavin is cut from a similiar cloth.
In Ireland, the strength of what Keegan blue-printed and the foundations and structure of what Billy built had an inherent weakness for them personally. The environment was robust enough to survive their departure. And that is what truly makes the fruit of their labours world-class. That is what real greatness looks like and we should never forget or airbrush them from history as the IABA website seems to do. See below.
What interests me particularly about Billy Walsh is that in an individual sport he created a lasting team ethos. Why?
A team can create a momentum and energy greater than the individual constituent parts. If you can produce that kind of environment and then for the individuals involved to feed it into their individual performances. Well…that’s some superman shit right there.
Earlier in the summer, Jim Gavin brought Diarmuid Connolly back into the Dublin camp. It irked me that it required a quirk of US immigration policy to bring this about and this initially distracted me to it’s significance. Gavin didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Jim Gavin doesn’t wait for storm clouds to gather before buying an umbrella. It indicates a mind that is constantly looking for ways to improve and get better, good husbandry in other words. A messiah type, might luxuriate in how well they survived without Mr Connolly in 2018. No messiah complex here then.
It would be a disservice to describe Billy Walsh or Jim Gavin as journeymen athletes in their own sporting careers. Walsh was an Olympian in 1988. Gavin won an All-Ireland in 1995. But it would be fair to say neither were mavericks in the Claressa Shields mould, blessed with the truly outrageous gifts of the supremely talented.
Every great manager I can think of, like Walsh, Gavin or indeed Alex Ferguson has had a special gra for having a maverick in the ranks. A transformational character. A singular figure like Diarmuid Connolly , John Joe Nevin in Irish amateur boxing and for Ferguson it was riding around Paris chasing Eric Cantona on the back of a motorbike.
Pure, bewitching and infuriating magic. Both Walsh and Gavin have an inclination to accommodate the light and darkness of it and we should be thankful for that as sports fans.
Jim Gavin has developed, improved and perfected an environment started by Pat Gilroy and even Pillar Caffrey. The beauty of it now, is that it is no longer reliant , on Jim for it to be successful into the future. That is Jim Gavin’s legacy to future Dublin managers.
This is not to disregard his tactical nous as an individual. That certainly shouldn’t be underestimated. Last week Mayo arrived with an innovative game plan in the first half. They figured out the best way to keep the Dublin score down was to keep possession of the ball for long periods. Dublin can’t score when they don’t have the ball. It led to a two point lead at half-time for Mayo.
Jim Gavin looked at the data, recalibrated the system and Dublin killed the game in 11 minutes of all out attack. As much as to say – There you go now Mayo…..Keep the ball as long as you like…Game’s over.
The Dublin county board is not the IABA – it doesn’t seem determined to cut off it’s nose to spite it’s face. But it is not all doom and gloom for the rest of the country.
Kerry, Galway and Mayo have good underage environments in place. Kerry in particular. A county with 60 or 70 All-Ireland winning minors coming nicely to the boil. This year might be a year too early in their development without a little lateral thinking.
Most counties that play Dublin look at strategies of containment. The opposite is what is required for middle of road counties. I’d love to see the next great coaching innovation to be a positive one. To build a forward line that was totally focussed on goal scoring as an example. A forward line that delivers a scoreline of of 7-7 in a match rather than 1-13.
Hmmmm…….might require the services of a maverick to get you out of jail.