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Enigma of a supremely talented Dub with his own world view

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HONOURS: Jack McCaffrey with his PwC All-Star award. Pic: Sportsfile

HONOURS: Jack McCaffrey with his PwC All-Star award. Pic: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

HONOURS: Jack McCaffrey with his PwC All-Star award. Pic: Sportsfile

If this is to be the end of Jack McCaffrey's inter-county career, as opposed to another hiatus, no-one can say it hasn't been eventful. Or fun to watch.

Has any footballer generated quite as much excitement in just six seasons? Five All-Irelands. Four All Stars. Both Footballer and Young Footballer of the Year.

Twice All-Ireland final Man of the Match.

Even his tragedies, few though they number, have had vaguely Shakespearean qualities to them.

The 2011 minor loss. The apocalyptic defeat to Donegal in '14. Rupturing his cruciate in the opening minutes of the 2017 All-Ireland.

All key chapters of McCaffrey's story, one of a thrilling footballer and a unique individual.

It is the latter, compelling side to his persona that holds the answers as to why, as it currently stands, McCaffrey won't be part of Dublin's 2020 and perhaps, whether he might be involved again in their future.

Jack McCaffrey the footballer is entering his prime years. His display in scoring 1-3 in last year's drawn game with Kerry stands as one of the great All-Ireland final performances.

True, his only appearance of the fractured 2020 season was a 31-minute appearance on a stormy night in Omagh. But McCaffrey has a knack for timing.

In all, he played only four full games in 2018 after coming back from an ACL injury (plus three halves), yet McCaffrey was nominated for Footballer of the Year.

Biggest games. Biggest stage.

And if his output suggested McCaffrey was born to perform on those days, nobody seemed to enjoy them more than he did.

For all that, he hasn't been shy to say how being a Dublin footballer doesn't define him. Indeed, McCaffrey's refreshing streak of independence is arguably the more defining characteristic.

It's hard to think of another inter-county player who has openly and repeatedly put such a premium on actually enjoying the experience.

Who, in an era of GAA players as hyper-focused athletes, grins like a lotto winner in the pre-match parade to the biggest game of the season?

And who opts out of one of the greatest teams in history - twice?

That decision won't have been lightly made.

More than most, McCaffrey appreciates the wider resonance to playing for Dublin, beyond the simple collection of silverware.

Speaking after the '18 All-Ireland final, he told a story of visiting a terminally ill 18-year-old Dublin supporter the Monday before they beat Tyrone.

appreciate

"To know that he is going to be sitting there with a Dublin jersey on cheering you on," he reflected, "rather than diminishing what football is because of how trivial it is, it just makes you appreciate it so much.

"The release it gives people, the joy that people get from watching us play football. It's kind of mind-blowing when you sit down and think about it."

He also has strong relationships within the squad.

The Dublin panel have cultivated an intense bond through the years, but McCaffrey's ties run deeper again.

He openly takes "immense pride" in the fact that himself, Paul Mannion, Brian Fenton, John Small and Ciarán Kilkenny were all born in 1993 and that having played with and against each other since they were barely teenagers, they have spent much of the last decade winning senior All-Irelands together for Dublin.

"It's something that is really special for all of us," McCaffrey noted last year.

Similarly tight are his familial binds to Dublin.

Of his father Noel, McCaffrey explained how he was "the first man I look for as soon as the final whistle blows. I've photos with him after every All-Ireland final we've won."

With so many strands tying him to Dublin and no sporting reason preventing him being part of it, the mystery of McCaffrey's optional absence will linger.

One prominent theory holds that time demands had become too much, particularly when balanced with the intensity of his professional life and the requirement to travel from Kilkenny.

And/or that spending such little time with his club and in pursuit of other areas of personal interest had become sacrifices McCaffrey wasn't prepared to make any more, regardless of his and Dublin's prospects this year.

"If I was solely focused on winning All-Irelands and not enjoying myself along the way with the group," he once said, "I'd find it very difficult to go all year staying just focused with that."

For now at least, it seems that winning is no longer enough.