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'I've lost some great friends - pilots in aviation accidents. Life can be very fickle'

How his military career shaped Jim Gavin the manager.

IN HIS MIND’S eye, Jim Gavin can still picture the scene like it was yesterday.

jim-gavin Jim Gavin at the All-Ireland final press night. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The year is 1990 and it’s a wet, miserable morning at the Curragh Camp in Kildare.

An 18-year-old Gavin has just been dropped off in line by his parents to join the 67th Cadet Class of the Defence Forces.

He’s wearing one of his father Jimmy’s old suits that’s a couple of sizes too big for him, sporting “big floppy hair” and holding a retro briefcase-style suitcase in one hand as he waves goodbye to his parents with the other. 

It’s a seminal moment in the young life of the Clondalkin native. Much of what he achieved in the GAA, the six senior All-Ireland titles – one as a player and five as a manager – can be traced back to the man that was formed and shaped through his military career. 

Only weeks earlier, Gavin had started his third level studies when a letter arrived in the post saying he was accepted into the Defence Forces. His dream was to become a pilot and to do so he was required to enlist as an Air Corps cadet.

The Defence Forces took on just 30 cadets each year with only six of them qualifying for the Air Corps. 

“I was delighted to get the opportunity,” he recalls. “The Defence Forces looked after me really well. I couldn’t speak highly enough of the career I had, and the great time I had.

“I’ve great, fond memories of my experiences there. Travelled the world. I’ve some great friends from the military.” 

IE-MA-MCCS-67th_cadet_class_1990-1992 The 67th Cadet Class 1990-1992. Cadet Jim Gavin is on the second row, ninth from the right.

He was brought to the limits both mentally and physically during those early days in the Curragh and throughout his subsequent aviation career with the United Nations that took him to what he calls “the dark heart of Africa.”

But the toughest part of the journey for Gavin came at the very outset, a moment that’s ingrained in his mind.

“Waving goodbye to my mum and dad who had just handed their son over to the Defence Forces, that was probably the hardest thing,” he says.

“They had obviously looked after me so well growing up. Everything else was a massive challenge. 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.”

That floppy head of hair didn’t last long after his arrival.

“I remember it well. 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 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,” he admits.

A few years ago, the Defence Forces released some video footage of the training that Gavin’s Cadet class underwent between ’90 and ’92. 

The military training was deliberately tough so nothing they encountered while deployed would be as intimidating as those tests in camp.

“They mould you, absolutely,” Gavin says.

“You’re essentially raw when you go in there. Our generation were all very fortunate to have opportunities that our parents might not have had, and our grandparents certainly never had.

“So we probably grew up in a very sterile environment. The Defence Forces certainly prepare you for… Well, they’re an armed force.  

Their role ultimately, like an insurance policy, is to protect the citizens of the state from ultimate aggression. The very end of it – their job is to put their life on the line to possibly take the life of somebody else, at the very worst case.

“That takes a lot of discipline, a lot of training to mould somebody into that mindset. To have the discipline to have that and use it in the appropriate manner, is something that probably doesn’t get acknowledged enough about our Defence Forces personnel who are there as our backstop.

“So yeah, it was a great experience and that service of something higher than yourself, as in serving your state. I wore the uniform of the state, with Óglaigh na hÉireann (Defence Forces) for 20 years and I was very proud to do so.

“Each day you’d get up and stand to attention as the national flag was raised. At the end of the day, at sunset, you’d stand to attention as the national flag was brought back down. That’s in my blood, that sense of service from a very young age.

“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 in my life ever since.”  

jim-gavin-celebrates-scoring-against-kildare-761998 Jim Gavin celebrates scoring the equalising point against Kildare in the 1998 Leinster quarter-final. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

Gavin played minor football with Dublin in 1988 and ’89 before his army career took precedent. He wasn’t part of the U21 side that reached the Leinster final in 1992, but the following year made his senior debut under manager Dr Pat O’Neill. 

By 1995, he was an All-Ireland winner at 24-years-old. That season Gavin fulfilled the role of what we now know as a modern wing-forward. O’Neill recognised that Gavin had the attributes required for the position. 

He wasn’t the most talented player on the squad but he was hard-working, intelligent and versatile. He was tasked with nullifying the influence of attacking half-backs against both Meath and Cork. 

“He was strong, small, good fitness, good footballing technique with his left foot,” says Charlie Redmond, who was full-forward on that side.

When he came into the team in 1995, he was brought in to do a marking job on Graham Geraghty. He did such a good job there on so then he was kept on to mark Ciaran O’Sullivan – he did a good job there too. He was well able to do a job.

“Not only was he able to do a job though, he was well able to play football as well. He was a lovely man to boot. He always had a love for the game, he always had a love for the behind the scenes stuff too. We also know that he’s a pilot by trade so he’s by the book, he knows the importance of sticking religiously to what you know is good and what works.”

Like a good army man, Gavin was given a brief and he carried it out to the letter. Small in stature, he was a fiery competitor that was prepared to do what it took to win.

“If you gave Jim a job to do, he would get that job done,” adds Redmond.

“He would stick zealously too it, and then he might broaden the perimeters of that job. Just like an army man would, you tell him to do something, he’ll do it. If it wasn’t done, it wasn’t for the want of effort.”

Given his defensive wing-forward role, the army lads would poke fun at Gavin for years after ’95, calling him the best wing-back Dublin ever had. 

The latter part of Gavin’s Dublin career overlapped with the first six years or so of Johnny Magee’s. He could spot the influence of Gavin’s military training on his football a mile off. 

“He was very meticulous with how he went about his training and stuff,” says the Kilmacud manager.

“You can see those attributes in the lads today. On the field, Jim always gave everything. There was no quarter given with him. He gave 110%, it was always the way he went about his training and how he played his football.

“As a guy away from the field I couldn’t speak highly enough of the guy. He always gave time to me. He’s just a generally good guy.”

jim-gavin-28111999 Gavin during his playing days with Dublin. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Gavin’s Dublin career ended in 2002 and Tommy Lyons suggested he and Declan Darcy fill the void by training a talented Dublin U21 side that was emerging. The team that featured future stars Alan Brogan and Bryan Cullen delivered Dublin’s first All-Ireland at the grade in 2003. 

Magee says Gavin was destined to move into coaching after he called time on his inter-county career.

“Himself and Deccie (Darcy) were the coaches. You could see the lads were eager to get in there and they had the grá for it.

“I think they were at that stage of their career where they knew they were coming to the end of their careers. I think they were looking forward to fill that void that was going to happen after you finish playing football.”

He drifted away from management for a few years as his work took hold once again.

He returned to lead the U21s to All-Ireland glory in 2010 and 2012 before assuming his current role with the senior team ahead of the 2013 campaign.

By that stage, Gavin had risen through the ranks of the Air Corps, operated as its chief flying instructor and flown the government jet before his move to the Irish Aviation Authority. 

“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,” he says.

Aviation, by its nature, the reasons we have commercial air transport is it has become so safe. We take it as second nature to go fly an aircraft, a medium-bodied aircraft, the max take-off weight would be about 80 tonnes, full of fuel, two big engines, 150 degree celsius on fuel. It’s the norm now.

“But the reasons we have assumed it’s so safe is it’s an industry that learns from its lessons. So I’ve always taken that. There’s great lessons to be learned from our game against Mayo. It’s a rich environment for learning, for each challenge that you face.

“We’ll try and take as much as we can from that game in preparation for the next game.”

While the perception may be that life in the military is extremely regimented, Gavin’s experience suggested otherwise and it has shaped his management philosophy.

“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. Ultimately as a platoon commander on the battlefield, 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.

jim-gavin Dublin manager Jim Gavin. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“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.”

In many ways it was his experience serving overseas with the UN that defined the Dublin manager. His time serving with the UN brought him all over the world into some exceedingly hostile environments. It was a life-changing experience.

“I served with the United Nations, a 12,000 troop contingent in Chad,” he explains. “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.  

jim-gavin Gavin looks on during the Super 8s clash against Cork. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“On its west is Cameroon, to the north is Libya, to the south is the Central African Republic. But to its east is a country called Sudan and there’s a conflict area called Darfur, which was the land of Fur that 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. I spent a lot of time on the ground as well with Nepalese and Mongolian troops, walking the land. 

“So 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, that’s closer to the poles than we are to the Equator.

“But we have a relatively stable democracy, good economy generally speaking, and lots of opportunities for you to excel. So it makes you very grateful for what you have.” 

So when it comes to talk about the five-in-a-row and what’s at stake on Sunday, Gavin can retain a good deal of perspective. 

“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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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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