No longer a lad - why Jack McCaffrey is now the man
Explosive half-back emerges from difficult second season to become a Jim Gavin mainstay once more
IF this Sunday's All-Ireland final bends in a certain direction, Jack McCaffrey could end up as Footballer of the Year.
All this, and we still haven't seen the best of jet-heeled Jack, according to Paul Curran.
"He is developing all the time," says Curran, who knows a thing or three about the job-spec of a Dublin half-back. "He is in a very professional set-up; he is getting more mature, physically fitter and stronger. He is probably getting quicker as well, by extension.
"There is more to come from him - he is not the finished product at all yet, which is frightening."
Almost as frightening as the prospect of trying to derail the 'Dart from Clontarf' when he presses the accelerator.
And yet there have been several speed bumps along the way even as McCaffrey prepares for his second senior All-Ireland final, against Kerry on Sunday, still a month shy of his 22nd birthday.
He was Young Footballer of the Year in 2013, reward for his dazzling exhibitions of attacking prowess from deep. Yet even that All-Ireland winning campaign showcased a player with plenty to learn about primary defensive duties: during that memorable semi-final against Kerry he suffered a chastening first half in the slipstream of Donnchadh Walsh while, in the final against Mayo, he was replaced at half-time.
Then, last year, came the 'Difficult Second Album' phase. McCaffrey only started two of Dublin's five SFC outings: the Leinster final and All-Ireland semi-final (when he was again hauled off at the break). He wasn't even named on the 'official' teams, wearing 19 against Meath and 24 against Donegal: a double-digit symbol of his relative fall from grace.
This season, though, has seen a stunning reaffirmation of McCaffrey's potential. His defensive game has palpably improved: few players tackle with such ball-stripping power or precision.
Declan Darcy is not surprised by McCaffrey's recent form - or by last season's dip, something he viewed as almost inevitable.
"He was very successful at underage level and he came into an All-Ireland final in his first year," the Dublin selector points out. "He must have just woke up some mornings and thought, 'What's after happening here?' I never got to play in an All-Ireland final, Ciarán Whelan never got to play in an All-Ireland final - he does it in his first year. It was a huge thing to take in, and I think he might have struggled with it last year.
"But now he's very focused, you can see it in the way he's playing. He's still playing the way he can play from a skill-set and flair point of view - but he's very focused."
He adds: "People might say it's bizarre to win an All-Ireland at 19, it's extreme, and why wouldn't he enjoy it? But it is tough enough on him too - all the stuff they have to deal with. So I think he washed that out of himself last year."
Anyone who observed McCaffrey's stellar underage progress (a standout minor on the All-Ireland runners-up of 2011, a two-time U21 champion in '12 and '14, the latter as skipper) won't be surprised by his career graph. Promoted by Pat Gilroy, he made a fleeting SFC debut against Laois in 2012. When Jim Gavin took over the seniors, he quickly became a mainstay.
He didn't just have underage credentials but family pedigree: his father Noel was an All Star centre-back in 1988. Curran played alongside McCaffrey Snr. "Fitness is in the genes, although Jack would be a lot quicker," the Herald columnist points out. "Noel could go and go and keep going … I don't know if there was that real explosive stuff that Jack has."
He continues: "Jack is all-action, 100 mile-an-hour stuff - but controlled, and he's a very good footballer. You very rarely get those two qualities - someone who is able to go that quickly and have that control. That's a huge talent to have. Some players are very quick but not quick upstairs, to offload at the right time - but he doesn't run into too much trouble.
"He is creating the whole time: he has scored goals, he has created goals. He probably doesn't kick enough points for a fella who has that much speed, but we are still talking about a young lad."
Darcy describes last year's experience as "earthy" for McCaffrey and says it would have been "unreal for him to continue winning".
"As a player, you have good years and you have bad years, so you can't legislate for that," he reflects. "But you have to fight your way out of the bad form to know how really good you are, and I think he did that well last year and he's back fighting this year."
ALL-IRELAND MHC 'C' FINAL
Ballinamore, Leitrim: Mayo v Tyrone, 2.30, D O'Driscoll (Limerick)
DUBLIN SFC 'B'
Rush: St Maur's v St Sylvester's, 6.0, D Harrington
DUBLIN JFC 'A' FINAL
Parnell Park: Round Tower Lusk v Raheny, 5.30, J Durkan
DUBLIN JFC 'B' FINAL
Parnell Park: Bank of Ireland v Fingallians, 4.0
ALL-IRELAND MFC FINAL
Croke Park: Kerry v Tipperary, 1.15, D Gough (Meath) Live TG4
ALL-IRELAND SFC FINAL
Croke Park: Kerry v Dublin, 3.30, D Coldrick (Meath) Live RTE/Sky Sports