herald

Wednesday 13 November 2019

Jack the ace of Dubs!

Back-to-back Man of the Match, top scorer from defence ... what next for McCaffrey?

Jack McCaffrey celebrates scoring his goal in the drawn All-Ireland final
Jack McCaffrey celebrates scoring his goal in the drawn All-Ireland final

What is it about Jack McCaffrey and September? There is no middle ground; no room for the mundane.

The half-time 'hook'. Pre-final food poisoning. The curse of the cruciate. And now this, RTÉ's All-Ireland Man of the Match in back-to-back finals.

McCaffrey's individual heroics in last year's final against Tyrone, and especially this year's original stalemate with Kerry, are beyond normal.

Not because the beguiling combination of unearthly speed and cerebral talent came as a shock - it has been palpably evident from his minor days in Sky Blue.

But rather because rarely, if ever, has the same player reached such a stellar level in successive All-Ireland finals. RTÉ veterans have no memory of any such previous two-in-a-row.

It certainly hasn't happened in the last decade, even as Dublin romped to the last four titles.

And yet it wasn't always this way for the 'Dart from Clontarf' ...

Revealing

On the Monday after last year's final, a handful of journalists shared a table with McCaffrey in the Gibson Hotel to reflect on his county's latest crowning glory. Rarely has a Dublin player been so relaxed and revealing in the company of the Fourth Estate - but then this was typical Jack, a refreshingly open book in this anodyne age of the say-nothing soundbite.

At one point in the conversation, McCaffrey reminded us: "This was the first time I've been on the pitch when the final whistle blew in an All-Ireland final. Incredible. It was so satisfying, such a relief."

His first final came in 2013, Jim Gavin's maiden campaign as manager. Still a teenager, he had excelled all the way through to the last-four, only to hit two speed bumps in succession.

Looking back, several years later, he would describe how Donnchadh Walsh "gave me a torrid time" in a first half marked by three Kerry goals and then, in the final against Mayo, he "got roasted by Kevin McLoughlin."

Cue his half-time exit - yet he had so much credit already banked that he won Young Footballer of the Year.

Two seasons later, in 2015, McCaffrey claimed the overall Footballer of the Year gong. Yet even here, his All-Ireland week was not without drama. "I got food poisoning in around the Thursday; I couldn't keep any food or water down so I got a drip to stay hydrated," he later recalled.

"But that was actually great at the time because it completely distracted from the build-up to a final ... all you were worried about is 'Am I going to be okay?' You're not thinking about the occasion itself. And then thankfully I pulled through and performed okay for the 50 minutes that I lasted."

As the final whistle blew after Dublin's two-game battle with Mayo in 2016, McCaffrey was again playing the role of Croke Park spectator.

For a very different reason this time: the UCD medical student had opted off the panel earlier in the year to spend much of his summer in Africa, where he worked with GOAL in Ethiopia before travelling on to Kenya, Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania.

McCaffrey is now a qualified doctor but, even without his medical training, he would have known something was amiss in those early minutes of the 2017 All-Ireland against Mayo.

He had made a seamless return that season and would finish it with a third Celtic Cross and second All Star.

He would also finish it on crutches.

"The parade around Croke Park before the final is my favourite place in the world," he reflected in an interview that December. "You can take stock of where you are, have a smile and just really look forward to it.

"And, for within 240 seconds, that to come crashing down ... it was very, very disappointing personally.

"But it would have been a lot, lot worse if we lost," he stressed.

McCaffrey had ruptured his ACL in what seemed an innocuous tumble. Even as he hobbled off, he didn't suspect it was quite so serious ... but a scan soon confirmed the worst and, a month after the final, he went under Ray Moran's expert scalpel.

Some special players, post-cruciate, have never recovered their old magic. Given that speed - in its most pure, uncoached, uncatchable form - is the key component of McCaffrey's game, some may have wondered if the injury would thieve him of that yard of pace and bring him back to the pack.

He made his comeback as a sub against Longford in June 2018. His second cameo, in the Leinster final against Laois, offered the most spectacular proof that Jack was back at his speed-of-light best, creating two goal chances for himself out of nothing.

McCaffrey was so good in that short summer window, earning Man of the Match awards in the semi-final and final, that he was an All-Star shoo-in and earned his second Footballer of the Year nomination.

HORRIFIC

His injury-time dispossession of Tyrone's Mattie Donnelly was like a metaphor for the new, improved Jack: whereas he used to be, by his own admission, a "horrific tackler", last year's final was the day he "figured out I'm actually a defender as opposed to some loose attacking player."

Thirteen days ago, however, was mostly about Jack the marauder. True, a closer inspection of the tape confirms he also excelled in his defensive duties - he has been credited with forcing eight turnovers.

It's just that everything was eclipsed by his attacking genius that day. In his previous 38 SFC games, McCaffrey had tallied 3-14. Here, in one staggering day, this nominal wing-back finished as top-scorer in open play with 1-3.

But that was only part of it. We had the classic hat-trick of points - via fist, left foot and right. The best part of his goal wasn't even the finish; it was the awareness to take off, at breakneck speed, thinking three passes ahead, the second Brian Howard soared to claim Stephen Cluxton's kick-out.

The rest? Poetry in motion.

Promoted articles

Entertainment News