Back in the mid-90s during my playing days for the Antrim Gaelic football team, we came up against Dublin in a National League game (yes, we were in the same division as Dublin).
It was one of those freezing cold, wet, winter Sundays in Casement Park. Dublin were physically stronger than us and they won the game. One member of the Dublin squad was a certain Jim Gavin, who I was aware of, but I was probably a lot more aware of the attentions being paid to me by their centre half back, Keith Barr. That’s another story.
Jim, of course, later became the manager of the Dublin senior team and is the only manager in the history of Gaelic football to win five all-Ireland titles in a row. I think it’s also fair to say that Jim has changed football forever because of his approach and the standards his Dublin teams have set. His preparation, team and game management have made other counties and their management teams modify their behaviours – though nobody has worked out a way to beat Dublin yet. It will be very interesting to see if Dublin are as unbeatable next season, now that Jim has retired.
I eventually met Jim properly in 2014 when helping out with the visit of his Dublin team to the Kingspan rugby stadium for the Game for Anto. Many readers will be aware of my former Antrim and St Paul’s teammate, Anthony (or Anto) Finnegan. He captained both St Paul’s and Antrim in his day and he was a star performer for club and county in the late 90s and 2000s.
In August 2012, he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and he is still fighting it to this day. And since 2013, the charity DeterMND that he, his wife Alison and his family and friends have set up, has raised over £300,000 for academic research and support for sufferers of MND. Anto and his family are proper heroes, and Jim Gavin has been a constant and brilliant supporter from the start.
At Anto’s invitation, Jim also attended the St Paul’s 75th anniversary dinner in Belfast City Hall in October 2016. He had just won his third All-Ireland title in four years and he brought the Sam Maguire cup with him. Everybody wanted to talk to him and get their photograph taken with him, and he said to no to nobody.
I managed to get a a decent chat with him, talking about how his team’s approach had changed following the defeat to Donegal in the All-Ireland semi-final in 2014 (Dublin has won every All- Ireland since) and I told him about my son Rory, an aspiring footballer and free-taker. I asked Jim to sign the anniversary programme for Rory and this is what he wrote:
“To Rory, continued success with your football & free kicking! Practice often and a little each day. Focus on executing the shot – stay present – nothing else matters when you’re kicking frees and don’t become ‘outcome focussed’. All the best, Jim Gavin”.
Given the time pressures he was under that night, I was amazed, though it’s just the mark of the man and the manger that Jim Gavin is. And just one example of the level that he is prepared to go to assist. I’m sure Anto could give you 50 more examples and the Dublin squad could fill this paper with further examples, no doubt.
Practice and then believe in your preparation, stick to the winning routine you follow and don’t let the impact or outcome of your action fog your ability to execute. Simple really. And great advice across the board – in sport or business. That programme is now a treasured possession and a source of continued inspiration.
I have always been fascinated by the transferable lessons that elite sport can teach business. In interviews, Jim Gavin has regularly referenced his training in the defence forces (he is a decorated military pilot) as having influenced how he has prepared and managed his teams.
And while his preparations, team building, management and coaching are much talked about, I am also very interested in how he has treasured and nurtured individual flair, even among men who don’t often start the games but who come on and play a large role in the winning of them in the last 15 minutes.
How a good manager can create a winning team and yet allow for individual brilliance is surely one of the sweet spots in business or sporting management. And one that we should be very aware of as the business focus switches to 2020, a year when caution and risk aversion may well come to the fore as the reality of Brexit dawns.
There may be no more important time to have the best possible teams in place. I wonder if Jim is up for a bit of consultancy work…?
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