JUST when you thought it was safe, he’s back. Like Freddie Kruger appearing at the window. Or Jack Nicholson at the door with an axe, grinning, those dark eyes flashing. “Heeeeere’s Jimmy.”
Having engineered the most extraordinary coup in the history of Gaelic football in 2012, then the greatest ambush in living memory (the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final against the unbeatable Dubs), the architect of modern Gaelic football is back and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
When Jimmy met the country’s most celebrated losers in the Rosapenna Hotel at the end of 2010 and went up into the face of each player, one by one, saying, “We will be Ulster champions” eyebrows were raised.
Rory Kavanagh later recalled that blistering five-hour encounter.
“He must have said honesty 100 times. At that time, we didn’t really know what he meant to be honest. The whole thing sounded a bit crazy. He was telling us we would be Ulster and All-Ireland champions but only if we could trust each other and if we were happy to serve a purpose bigger than ourselves. But after a few months we could feel it. It is something you can’t see or explain, but every member of the group felt it deep down. When the penny dropped, we could feel the real joy of it. We were part of a movement.”
When I asked him what he meant by that, Rory said, “It’s very hard to explain. Jimmy was very keen that we immerse ourselves in the people and traditions of the county. We must have trained in 20 different clubs. We would meet and spend time with under-privileged children. We would go to the schools. After training we would eat in the local cafés and spend an hour chatting with the people. All very down to earth stuff but it gave us an appreciation of what ordinary people in the county were going through and how important the game was to them. Eventually, we had unbreakable bonds and there was a strong sense that nothing could stop us. We were a group famous for throwing in the towel when it really mattered. The throwing in the towel stopped. We were no longer playing for ourselves. We were fanatics in a cause. ”
The training was merciless. Once, in 2011, I sneaked into St Eunan’s where the group were training. It was ten days before the infamous Dublin semi-final, where Jimmy confiscated the players’ mobile phones on the morning of the game for fear they might leak the game plan. The squad glowed with fanaticism as they flogged their bodies. It was gruelling, unforgiving and endless. One of the things that stood out was a drill involving Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden. First up, Michael. He stood on the 21 with his back to the goal, three defenders in a triangle around him, a metre away. Jimmy then handed him the ball and he tried to score as they hit and shepherded and blocked him. Michael bounced, dummied, hit, drove through and after five exhausting attempts, he had gotten one blocked shot off and otherwise over carried or was dispossessed. Next up, Colm. When he was gasping for air, hands on his hips, Michael stepped in again and on it went.
As I watched, I finally realised what Jimmy was doing. He was teaching them that on this team, with the rest of the players withdrawn into the defence, they would often have to soldier alone. He was teaching them to take responsibility. They were learning how to work in inches. To avoid the block. To dummy. To get the shot off under severe pressure. When it came to match day and they were only being marked by one man, they thought it was Christmas morning.
After 2011, Jimmy went to Rory Kavanagh and told him he would have to play midfield. Rory was bemused, all 12 stone of him. Jimmy explained there was no choice and he was going to have to put on over two stone of weight. “He said I needed to be at least 14 and a half stone and that I would be put on a weight building diet.” What followed was grim. Protein shakes. Large tubs of ice cream at breakfast and after training. Often, Jimmy would appear into the Kavanagh family home at night to make sure the ice cream was being eaten.
Rory was force fed like a fois gras goose. Soon, he could see and feel his body swelling. He never reached the 14 and a half stone mark, but he got to 14 stone and that was enough. Jimmy had estimated that his adventure and skill were needed at midfield to win an All-Ireland and the following September, that is precisely what happened.
Two years later, in the legendary 2014 semi-final, Jim Gavin refused to sacrifice his principles. Dublin, as Jimmy knew they would, dashed themselves on the rocks playing open, attacking football. As General Bosquet said watching the disastrous charge of the British Light Brigade at the battle of Balaclava, “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre, c’est de la folie.” (It is magnificent, but it is not war, it is madness). Jimmy later said that he had begun preparing his team for that ambush in January 2014, predicting precisely what would happen and orchestrating the plan down to the finest detail. No wonder the players believed in him.
It was a painful lesson for Jim Gavin but he learned it, installed a sweeper, and the Dubs were never ambushed again. Eamonn Fitzmaurice learned it too and quickly. In the final a fortnight later, Kerry were a mirror image of Donegal. The game stank (as all modern football apart from Corofin does) but Donegal made the single mistake that decided it, a disastrous short kick out that Kieran Donaghy swept to the net.
Jimmy’s first coming electrified Donegal but had terrible consequences for the game we love. His scheme was ingenious, but now everyone is doing it. Now, the man who reimagined Gaelic football will have to do it all over again.
Is it too much to ask that he could come up with something entertaining?