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Dublin senior football team manager, Jim Gavin. 
Dublin senior football team manager, Jim Gavin. 

Jim Gavin - the making of the man


By John Harrington

It’s a wet, miserable day in 1990.

A floppy-haired Jim Gavin is standing outside the Irish Army’s Curragh camp wearing his father’s out-sized suit and carrying an old-fashioned suitcase.

The 18-year-old has just waved goodbye to his parents, Jimmy and Ann, and is feeling the loneliest he’s ever felt in his life.

He’s about to begin first day as an Irish Army cadet. The floppy hair would not last much longer.

“I remember it well,” Gavin told GAA.ie “I was marched over to Pearse Hall, all the buildings there are named after the leaders of 1916. I’d say it was gone inside of the hour.

“I sat on the seat, with Reggie Darling, people in the Curragh camp will know who Reggie Darling is. His one job was to shave that floppy hair off my head, and make it bald.

“I’m not going to say the shouting, but the orders began at that moment to Cadet Gavin. Great memories. I’m shaking now.

“Cadet training is very, very demanding. A lot of my class left and said ‘not for me’. But that’s probably the hardest thing.

“Once you get into it, like everything else, we’d great fun, great comrades, great friends that training makes for life.”

A fresh-faced Jim Gavin, pictured second from the left in the front row, on the day in 1992 he received his Military Pilots Wings from the Irish Air Corps.
A fresh-faced Jim Gavin, pictured second from the left in the front row, on the day in 1992 he received his Military Pilots Wings from the Irish Air Corps.

Jimmy and Ann Gavin gave their son Jim a great start in life, but it was the Irish Defence Forces that moulded him in to both the man and the manager he would become.

Gavin is the very picture of someone in control of the situation whenever he stands on the sideline watching his Dublin team play.

There are no raw outbursts of emotion. He remains cold and calculating regardless of the tumult playing out in front of him.

Staying calm in stressful situations is one of the many life skills his two decades in the Irish Air Corps.

“Oh yeah, they mould you,” nodded Gavin in agreement when he spoke to GAA.ie

“Absolutely. You're essentially raw when you go in there.

“I'm trading off the skillset that Óglaigh na hÉireann, the defence forces gave me many, many years ago when I joined the 67th Cadet Class, as a cadet.

“Back then I was an air corp cadet. I obviously wanted to be a pilot, but back then I had to do the full army cadet-ship. So I graduated from the cadet school as a second lieutenant, essentially as an infantry officer, platoon commander.

“So you're taught all those leadership skills at a very young age which I've been trading off all my life ever since.

“And, obviously, the aviation industry and aviation itself teaches you so much about managing teams, as in your flight crew as opposed to a football team.”

Dublin manager Jim Gavin congratulates his players including John Small and Eoghan O'Gara after the Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Meath at Croke Park in Dublin. 
Dublin manager Jim Gavin congratulates his players including John Small and Eoghan O'Gara after the Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Meath at Croke Park in Dublin. 

Perhaps Hollywood has a lot to answer for, because the stereotypical image of military leadership is of a very authoritarian one where soldiers must follow orders to the letter rather than use their own initiative.

Gavin politely rebuts that notion, and makes it clear his own management style is something very different.

“It’s interesting you say that. It's probably one perception of armed forces.

“But, from a leadership perspective, because I was taught that as an officer, you’re taught those leadership skills, you gain control by giving control away.

“Which is another way of saying you empower people. By using your transformation leadership skills. Ultimately as a platoon commander on the battle field, you can't control every section of the platoon, every rifle of the platoon.

“They need to make a choice on the field of play. So they're the skills. Even though it comes across as a very authoritarian style.

"If you're in a battle, I was fortunate to serve overseas with the United Nations in an Irish uniform, you're in some very hostile environments.

“So there has to be a very direct command and a very precise control, because obviously you have weapons and you’re putting people's lives on the line.

"Thankfully that's not the case in sport, but the principles still remain the same. You empower people. You’re serving them and the officer and the troops.

“Myself and the management team are serving the players. We’re enabling them to be their very best, that’s all you’re trying to do. Being your best has many, many guises. We embrace diversity, we want guys to be different, to think differently.

“We like having guys from different backgrounds, who have different tastes in music, different tastes in whatever.

“We see that as a strength rather than a perception that everyone needs to be robots. That’s the last thing we want.”

Dublin manager, Jim Gavin, is a composed and controlled figure on the sideline.
Dublin manager, Jim Gavin, is a composed and controlled figure on the sideline.

Gavin can at times seem almost unnaturally impassive on the sideline, but it’s not an act.

There’ll be a moment, and hopefully plenty of them, in Sunday’s All-Ireland Football Final when every supporter in the stadium will be driven half-mad by the drama playing out in front of them.

But even though the stakes are high in a sporting sense, Gavin never loses sight of the fact that inter-county football is, ultimately, still just as sport.

His time in the military threw him into far more pressurised environments that have given him a healthy dose of perspective.

“I served with the United Nations, a 12,000 troop contingent in Chad,” recalled Gavin. “My role was in force headquarters. Chief of the military aviation was my title.

“Controlling air assets, from MI26 helicopters, MI28s to various other transport aircrafts from Bangladesh, Canada, Norway.

“But that particular country is called the dark heart of Africa for a very good reason. On its west is Cameroon, the north is Libya, to the south is the Central African, Republic, CAR.

“But to its east is a country called Sudan, and there’s a conflict called Darfur which was the land of Fur which kind of goes into the eastern part of Chad.

“In the countryside, for every five kids who are born, three are dead by the age of five. Horrific conditions.

“So that would certainly give you perspective. I spent a lot of time on the ground as well with Nepalese and Mongolian troops, walking the land.

“Very harsh conditions, and that certainly gave you a perspective on life, and makes you very humble and grateful for what you have on this little island on the northwest corner of Europe.”

Jim Gavin pictured with his Dublin players after their last defeat in Croke Park - the 2017 Allianz Football League Final against Kerry. 
Jim Gavin pictured with his Dublin players after their last defeat in Croke Park - the 2017 Allianz Football League Final against Kerry. 

So, there you have it. A historic five-in-a-row might be up for grabs on Sunday, but Gavin has seen enough of life and death to enjoy the occasion for what it is, a game of football.

“That’s it. There’s obviously a lot at stake for both counties, a lot of expectations. But, yeah, I’ve been fortunate.

“And in the aviation industry as well, as one who is exposed as someone who regulates the industry, and one who sees on a regular basis incidents and accidents and fatalities, and understands how fragile life can be.

“I’ve lost some great friends, some very close friends, pilots in aviation accidents. Life can be very fickle. So it probably informs my view on the sporting world that there are no guarantees.

“You just turn up every day, and all we have done by winning an All-Ireland semi-final is to earn the right to perform in another game, and that’s simply it.

“If you can perform to the best of your ability, hopefully you’ll be there or thereabouts at the end of the game.”

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