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A complete skillset for modern era: McCaffrey had a lot more than blinding speed in his locker

 

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KEY FIGURE: Jack McCaffrey celebrates after last September’s All-Ireland SFC Final replay win over Kerry at Croke Park. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

KEY FIGURE: Jack McCaffrey celebrates after last September’s All-Ireland SFC Final replay win over Kerry at Croke Park. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

KEY FIGURE: Jack McCaffrey celebrates after last September’s All-Ireland SFC Final replay win over Kerry at Croke Park. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Time makes fools of us all. Even Jack McCaffrey.

Only hours after he was named Man of the Match in the 2018 All-Ireland final, McCaffrey revealed an epiphany he'd had.

Some time during Dublin's tactical dismantling of Tyrone the previous afternoon, the Clontarf man "figured out that I'm actually a defender as opposed to some loose attacking player".

His ninja-quick dispossession of Mattie Donnelly in injury-time had offered compelling evidence that matters of defence were McCaffrey's true calling.

So, as he noted himself, had some of McCaffrey's shooting.

Roll on 12 months.

McCaffrey is again Man of the Match in an All-Ireland final, the first player since RTÉ began giving out the award to receive it twice.

His defensive output in the draw against Kerry went largely underappreciated (he forced eight Kerry turnovers, easily the highest of any player) - but only because McCaffrey scored 1-3.

Potent

The collective contribution from play from Dublin's starting six forwards, plus the four recognised attackers they brought on as substitutes, was 1-5.

In a year, he'd gone from "not some loose attacker" to the All-Ireland final's most potent player.

It's an interesting development. And it's instructive in quantifying McCaffrey's loss now to Dublin.

In the 2018 championship, McCaffrey scored 0-2. In the '19 version, he scored 2-6.

In '18, he took seven shots at goal, a 'shot efficiency' of less than 29%.

Yet despite this relatively poor final product, he was nominated for Footballer of the Year.

Largely, that was due to McCaffrey's defensive deeds but also, his development as a kick-out option, not something for which he is particularly renowned.

McCaffrey won 17 Dublin restarts in the 2018 championship.

Most were delivered short. But when you consider that Brian Fenton, 2018's Footballer of the Year, collected just 13 of his own team's kick-outs, it reflect s well on McCaffrey's versatility.

Arguably more impressive again was McCaffrey claiming five opposition kick-outs during that championship.

For context, Fenton - one of the country's most prolific fielders - won just two more.

Partly, that was due to opposition targeting McCaffrey, misidentifying him as a weakness.

In the 2018 All-Ireland semi-final, when the game was still a gritty contest, Galway goalkeeper Ruairí Lavelle twice went wide to his right to the '45, where Johnny Heaney and McCaffrey were isolated in an apparent mismatch.

Twice, McCaffrey won the kick-out and hared straight back at Lavelle.

Perceptions of weakness have never been lost on McCaffrey.

"I've seen it in games over the last number of years," he once explained, "teams will get the ball and can see that I'm eyeing them up and, 'Oh, it's McCaffrey, I'll just go at him, he can't tackle.' To be able to invite that on and then turn them over is great.

"Similar with kick-outs or whatever, I'd probably be targeted a bit."

It goes without saying that the biggest factor in McCaffrey's potency in either direction is his extraordinary speed.

Which was why his ACL injury in 2017 caused such concern.

There were 267 days between the '17 All-Ireland final and his return in the Leinster semi-final against Longford.

In that time, questions over whether his pace had been affected by the injury were inevitable.

McCaffrey admitted later he had been more worried than anyone.

Yet when he came on at half-time in the Leinster final against Laois, he killed those doubts stone dead.

Twice he generated goal chances for himself from nothing; the first saved by Graham Brody and the second, by his replacement Eoghan Keogh.

How quick is McCaffrey?

At an AFL combine (trial)in 2013, he ran 20 metres in 2.8 seconds. The record was 2.78.

There is nuance, however.

"My strength would be running with the ball," McCaffrey explained before.

"Paul Mannion would be quicker than I would be in terms of pure speed."

As recently as two weeks ago, Eoin Murchan - the man touted now to fill McCaffrey's role with Dublin - made similar, only half-joking, claims about himself.

Improved

What McCaffrey's pace doesn't explain is why his final product improved so radically between 2018 and '19.

Most likely, it's attributable to his injury. And that the 2019 version of McCaffrey was merely returning to what he had always done well, albeit at a higher level and a year on from his return.

In 2015, the season McCaffrey was named Footballer of the Year, Dublin scored 18 championship goals. McCaffrey was involved in nine of those.

Last year, in a single Super 8s game against Cork in Croke Park, he scored one goal and contributed direct assists for three more.

Less calculable is the panic he triggers in defenders when he has possession. Or the number of times his running opens up shafts of light in some of football's most blacked-out defences.

In six seasons, he has scored 7-34 in League and Championship action from defence, notably prolific for a defender.

The most relevant recent comparisons are Tomás Ó Sé and Lee Keegan, the 2004 and 2016 Footballers of the Year respectively, and fellow attacking wing-backs.

McCaffrey's championship record is 4-17 from 39 games, an average of 0.75 points per game.

It's well ahead of Ó Sé's 0.5 points per game (3-35 in 88 Championship appearances) but behind Keegan's remarkable 7-42 in 55 Championship matches, or 1.14 points per match.

Both are arguably more refined point scorers than McCaffrey, though his shooting in last year's final was exemplary.

And just a quick Youtube search reveals the quality of finishing involved in all of McCaffrey's seven goals for Dublin, each one tucked away precisely at high speed.

Like Keegan, Ó Sé carried the ball most purposefully when he took possession of it already at full tilt, on 'the burst'.

What neither of those two had, or indeed any other player of recent vintage, is McCaffrey's uncanny ability to turn static play into a scoring opportunity with one gear change, to chase down an opposition break from 10 metres behind or to send a jolt of electricity around Croke Park when he takes possession and scorches the earth.

There's simply no replacing that.