IF JOHNNY McCaffrey was destined for greatness, days like Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final were still an awful long time in coming.
As a minor, he captained both the Dublin hurlers and footballers in the same season (2005), a feat which reflected not just his natural leadership abilities, but also his potential in both codes.
Five years after making his senior hurling championship debut in a disastrous Leinster defeat by Westmeath in Portlaoise, he's leading out Dublin against the reigning All-Ireland champions for a spot in September's annual showpiece. “To be honest, I always believed we could make the breakthrough,” McCaffrey says now.
“The team of youngsters we had, I knew they would be good enough at some stage. “I think we all sensed something would happen and that's why a lot of us chose hurling instead of football. “Because we knew what a massive thing it would be to be there and bring hurling in Dublin up to that level.” Some weren't so confident that the rising tide which was lifting most of the Dublin hurling boats would overflow in the manner it has this year.
“These are the type of games that growing up,” McCaffrey says before checking himself, “... actually, some lads might not have even dreamt of being in this sort of situation. “But we've seen ourselves as one of those teams for the last two or three years. Only this year, we're starting to show it and make strides on the pitch. “The structures were there. It was bound to happen. We just needed somebody to steer us.” And so along came Anthony Daly to navigate his way through all the potential and shape a team which could break with decades of tradition and challenge the game's seemingly impenetrable aristocracy.
McCaffrey, like the rest of the Dublin squad, is a fan. Not just of the Clareman's commitment to the cause, but his willingness to learn and adapt as the task in hand has assumed different dimensions. Daly's appointment brought with it a natural buzz but that would only take the team so far. This year, he has cajoled the players to take responsibility for their own destiny and it is that, more than anything else, that has been the chief reason behind their most successful season in generations. “His one-on-one management is brilliant,” McCaffrey enthuses.
“But also his management of the whole set-up has been exceptional. That's the reason we're going so well. “He's been massive. But let's not forget the panel of players, the backroom staff, the selectors – everyone involved wants to do everything as best as humanly possible. “Everyone has knitted together. There is 52 or 53 people in total that are part of this group in one form or another and they have all had their part to play.”
If you viewed Dublin's team sheets for the Walsh Cup into the league and then on as far as the championship, you could justifiably conclude that Daly is taking up the Claudio Ranieri ‘Tinkerman' approach to squad rotation. NEGATED The reality is that ill-timed injuries to vital components of the Dublin machine have negated any selection consistency. If anything, Dublin are so used to being without key men at this stage, the loss of a couple more is unlikely to faze them too much. “We've been getting knocks all year,” McCaffrey acknowledges. “We didn't put out the same 15 in any league game and that's mostly because of injuries.
“Like, we've never really had a full team. We've just been winning, taking knocks and getting on with it. “We know there is a strong panel there. Lads have been training for exactly this sort of situation.” The idea of Dublin in an All-Ireland final is, according to McCaffrey, “hard to put into words” but the squad and the management have a sufficiently high opinion of themselves that faced with the realistic prospect, they won't easily baulk at finishing the job. For that to happen, they will have to knit the most rampant forward line in Ireland into tight knots in Croke Park on Sunday. Deprive them ball, deprive them space and generally make nuisances of themselves. “It's going to be a similar task to the Leinster final,” McCaffrey reckons.
“If they get good ball, there is nothing our backs can do. So we have to put pressure on them out the field. “The aggression levels have got to be top class. Defending has got to start from our full-forward line. But that's our plan anyway. Try and cut out space and give it everything,” he adds.
“If we do that and they still get goals, well, there's probably not much more we could do.”