WHEN Jim Gavin concluded his discussion on High Performance at the recent virtual leadership event ‘Leaders Lounge’, created by Titan Experience, Gavin showed a photograph of Dublin’s Croke Park dressing room after last year’s All-Ireland final replay.
Everyone had left but the dressing room was as clean and tidy as it would have been before the players entered it earlier that afternoon. The shine was even visible on the floor because it had been mopped by the players.
Dublin had just won the historic five-in-a-row but that didn’t make any difference to how Dublin went about their business. They always cleaned the dressing room afterwards and, making history, was no excuse for not abiding by their principles.
Deep down, Gavin probably knew that it would be his last time with that group as Dublin manager. And he also wanted everything to be done properly, until the moment he decided to walk away shortly afterwards. ”The culture,” said Gavin at that ‘Leaders Lounge’ event “is absolutely everything.”
In his excellent autobiography, The Hill Bernard Brogan graphically details the inner workings of that culture, and how much it dictates Dublin’s continued pursuit for excellence and high-performance. Skillfully ghost-written by Kieran Shannon, Brogan’s book also provides a fascinating insight into the Dublin machine and how hard the players and management drive it.
In chapter 16 ‘Line in the Sand’ Brogan goes through Dublin’s training schedule the week after their 2019 League campaign concluded, which was effectively the beginning of their championship preparations.
After playing Cavan on the Sunday, the whole squad was in Abbottstown at 6am the following morning for a swim at the National Aquatic Centre. The following day, Dublin did a weights session that doubled as a fitness test.
Thursday’s session in Inisfails was, according to Brogan “an absolute ball-breaker”; it included the Bronco fitness test followed by relentless tackling drills, followed by another Bronco, and then more tackling, before they finished with a cross-field match. “It was animal,” said Brogan.
At 7am the next morning, Dublin were in the gym again. On Saturday, they were in Bull Island at 6am for a series of team-building challenges on the beach. Then they retreated to Clontarf Castle for a small brunch, followed by a session with Gary Keegan, the high-performance advisor.
Keegan asked the players to reflect on their distinguishing characteristics and values — humility, commitment to a higher purpose, continuous improvement. And then he asked the players how they were now nourishing those values?
“They’re not just something you write up on a flipchart and then put up on a wall,” writes Brogan. “Farm Your Culture, he (Keegan) says. Don’t neglect it. You’ve to care for it, water it; sometimes when there’s been challenges and change, you might need to re-sow it. But always nurture it.”
Much of the current debate around Dublin’s current dominance is rightly centred on finance. Brogan even devotes a chapter to it in the book, of how Dublin — especially Pat Gilroy — initiated a transformative commercial model the likes of which the GAA had never seen before.
But the culture which began under Gilroy, and which was farmed and grown further by Gavin, has still been paramount to this team’s power and influence of the modern era.
Hard habits are hard earned. Dublin’s culture was dug out, planted and cultivated throughout the last decade. They had to because it’s easy to forget how weak the culture was before Dublin started to farm it properly.
In his book, Dublin: The Chaos Years’ Neil Cotter outlines just how chaotic Dublin were in the decades before their dominance.
The culture back then was mostly one of suspicion and lack of respect. Young new players found veterans distrusting and unwelcoming because veterans viewed young players as unproven and, therefore, untrustworthy.
That all naturally led to a huge self-fulfilling prophesy; usually the intimidated younger players didn’t flourish; the older players who were only looking out for themselves ultimately held everyone back.
Even after Tommy Lyons and Pillar Caffrey tried to change those hardened attitudes, Gilroy couldn’t alter enough of those bad habits in his first season in 2009. Brogan recalls how he and three of the Dublin players he shared a house with that year would fill their fridge to the top with alcohol the day before every championship game.
“That’s where our heads were at,” writes Brogan. “Planning what we’d be drinking the following night.” It wasn’t a fertile environment for personal or professional growth until Gilroy and Gavin flipped the culture on its head.
When Gavin spoke at that ‘Leaders Lounge’ event, it was clear how much he wanted the players to lead and drive the culture, and of how that environment was always about more than just winning all around them. It applied to anything and everything: how Dublin played; how they prepared; how they behaved.
Once the culture was flipped though, the other side of the coin was always likely to predicate and predict what could come, especially with Dublin’s huge financial clout and playing numbers — total dominance.
Along with Gavin, big names have stepped away this year — Jack McCaffrey, Dermot Connolly, Brogan, Eoghan O’Gara. However, new players have stepped up and Dublin haven’t missed a beat yet.
Against Cavan on Saturday, Dublin should take another step closer to securing the six-in-a-row. Yet, now that the culture is firmly encrypted into the DNA of Dublin GAA, at all levels, and they have the financial capacity to keep farming that culture to a whole new level, the worry for everyone else is when the counting will stop?