Dubs are moving on from Galway disaster
Pressure to achieve comes from within a driven camp - McCaffrey
It has been a funny-peculiar season for the Dublin hurlers, and whether people view it as a relative success or failure may well be decided by the outcome of next Sunday's Semple Stadium showdown with Waterford.
Defeat the Deise and Dublin are back in an All-Ireland semi-final - statistical evidence of progress after last year's anti-climactic end to the uplifting Anthony Daly era.
But if Thurles is the scene of more Sky Blue trauma, then some of the critical questions that have dogged Ger Cunningham during his maiden campaign are bound to resurface.
That's a reflection of the reality for all elite inter-county managers. It's also a measure of how Dublin hurling is no longer viewed through a prism of condescension. With growing expectation comes greater pressure.
That's why the Leinster quarter-final replay against Galway was such a jolt - to the dressing-room, to the new manager, even to the watching public.
"When you lose by a massive margin like that (5-19 to 1-18) you have to question everything and question yourself," admits Johnny McCaffrey. "Thankfully things have picked up, and we are slowly getting to where we want to be."
Slowly being the operative word.
McCaffrey, for so long team captain under 'Dalo', disputes the notion that Dublin have been bedevilled by inconsistency this season; yet his comments underline that there remains major scope for improvement.
"We've been happy enough with how we've been playing generally all year," he begins, "bar obviously the replay against Galway, which was a disaster.
"But other than that we have been quite competitive in all the games we've played. We could have won the first day against Galway as well, and that could have been a different story - but I suppose it made us re-evaluate the whole thing, to make sure we were copper-fastened and ready to go for the qualifiers and the All-Ireland series."
The rehab road began with an emphatic victory in Laois, even if the performance was patchy. Then came that disastrous first 27 minutes against Limerick, at which watershed juncture the Dubs trailed by 1-8 to 0-3.
But for some Shannonside squandermania, that eight-point gap could have been an unbridgeable chasm. Dublin could have skulked quietly through the back door. Instead, they stood up and fought.
"We did show great character and resolve, and that was the most pleasing thing," McCaffrey reflects.
"You could see our reaction after winning the match - it was just joy, and it's great to have that feeling after winning a big game."
He adds: "We got off to a slow start, it was really backs against the wall. People were questioning us before the game, that our character wasn't there and we couldn't win big games and that. So to come out on the other side of that was fantastic for the group."
Was it like a pressure-release?
"Not really. We put pressure on ourselves to perform. We put all the work in and all the hard training, and we didn't feel we wanted to stop there."
He hopes there is more to come. He knows there will have to be against Waterford - league champions, Munster runners-up and still one of the big stories of this hurling year.
"At the end of the day, people remember your championship performances and so far we haven't had anything really for people to remember us by," the Lucan Sarsfields man concedes.
"There's a still a lot more in the tank; as I said from the last day, there's a lot to improve on. And we feel that we haven't reached anywhere where we need to get to yet.
"Winning a game like that (against Limerick) while not playing particularly well is great for confidence, knowing that you can grind out a win like that. So we're hoping the next day that we can bring a better start to the game, and that will in turn lead to a better performance."
They are bolstered by a clean bill of health, with McCaffrey reporting that his previously hamstrung clubmate Peter Kelly, plus Cian O'Callaghan and Niall McMorrow, are all now back in full training and "pushing for starting places", never mind inclusion on the match-day 26.
He is asked about last year's tame quarter-final exit to Tipperary but quickly counters that it's "different circumstances - you were coming in after a beating against Kilkenny in the Leinster final. This year we're going in with more confidence after winning two qualifier games."
Cue one last question about the flak directed at Ger Cunningham, arguably surprising for a first-year boss.
"I suppose people have high expectations of Dublin now," McCaffrey reasons. "But Ger doesn't take notice of any of that; we don't take notice of any of that. At the end of the day we have to go out and hurl."
He then concludes: "We've been to two All-Ireland semi-finals; we're hoping to get to another one again. So that's the expectations we have on ourselves, never mind what the outside think."