Wednesday 19 June 2019

Dublin's flying doctor Jack McCaffrey opens up on poignant celebration photo with his father Noel

 

Jack McCaffrey of Dublin celebrates with his father Noel
Jack McCaffrey of Dublin celebrates with his father Noel
McCaffrey: ‘So much of my game was just trodding up and down the pitch to create space’. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Near the end of Sunday's All-Ireland final Mattie Donnelly went on one of his trademark bursts deep into enemy territory, which routinely draw a free or an opening for someone else to score.

It's a Donnelly strength; possession isn't something he easily relinquishes and he has the upper body power to carry him clear of most danger. But in that moment he met a fired-up Jack McCaffrey, who stripped the ball away from him to send play in the other direction.

McCaffrey is reflecting on that moment on the morning after and the inner satisfaction it has given him.

It was pivotal for the team in closing out a fourth successive All-Ireland win, but for McCaffrey himself it was another big shift away from the stereotype he has carried over the last six years.

Recognised as one of the great attacking, swashbuckling wing-backs of this or any generation, McCaffrey has often been perceived as a weak defensive link, one to be 'got at'.

Thus the great buzz he got out of that moment was "something I haven't experienced before".

"It's great to turn a perceived weakness into a strength. I've seen it in games over the last number of years, that teams will get the ball and can see that I'm eyeing them up and go, 'oh it's McCaffrey, I'll just go at him, he can't tackle'.

"You can hear lads talking about it on the pitch. Like, they get the ball, and it's, 'go on, go at him' - not so much any more, but probably when I was a bit younger.

Dublin's Paul Mannion, Jack McCaffrey and Cian O'Sullivan after winning the All Ireland at Croke Park
Dublin's Paul Mannion, Jack McCaffrey and Cian O'Sullivan after winning the All Ireland at Croke Park

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"To be honest, I never felt I was a particularly bad defender. The narrative with me has been that I'm one of Dublin's attacking weapons and can do my defensive duties, but maybe don't excel in them.

"I still probably wouldn't be man-marking guys like Jonny Cooper or Philly McMahon, but to be able to turn over a player like Mattie Donnelly, not an easy man to tackle by any stretch of the imagination, that for me, was an exceptional high to get.

"I'd have to say that's one of the best performances that I've ever put in. I think I figured out that I'm actually a defender as opposed to some loose attacking player."

For McCaffrey, being on the field at the end of an All-Ireland final for the first time on Sunday was special. Taken off in 2013 and 2015 (when he was feeling ill), missing (spent the summer travelling) for both games against Mayo in 2016 and limping off with a cruciate ligament tear last year, he finally saw one out.

And it allowed him to enjoy another embrace with his father Noel, the former Dublin footballer and sports injury specialist who was influential in helping to coach the '1993' group.

That included Jack, Ciarán Kilkenny, Brian Fenton, John Small and Paul Mannion, the core of their 2011 minor team, subsequent All-Ireland U-21 wins in 2012 and 2014 and the current drive for five senior titles.

2 September 2018; Jack McCaffrey of Dublin celebrates with the Sam Maguire cup after the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
2 September 2018; Jack McCaffrey of Dublin celebrates with the Sam Maguire cup after the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

"When you take a little step back it's kind of great to be able to see his fingerprints on a lot of what has gone on," he admitted.

"He's the first man I look for as soon as the final whistle blows. He's been a bag of nerves for the last couple of days. Basically, what I was hearing every day was that this was this Dublin team's biggest ever challenge. And I agree with him.

"The last time I remember coming into a game as hot as that was Donegal in 2014, when everyone was saying, 'Jesus, this team is unbeatable'.

"It's so, so dangerous. So I think it was a real credit to the group this year that even though all of that was going on, we were on the money.

"Every year it seems that an All-Ireland final brings a slightly different dynamic to it. And this year, I finished training on Tuesday and I got a call from dad asking did I get hurt, was I fine, was I alright? I think he was so relieved and happy that I just lasted the game. And obviously that the result fell the way it did."

He felt a wave of relief when he passed the five-minute mark, the point where he turned awkwardly 12 months earlier and was forced out.

"There was a bit of a moment when the clock ticked past five minutes that I said, 'right, bonus territory now'.

"So much of my game was just trodding up and down the pitch to create space. It wasn't flashy, it was just 'do it'. It was a real source of inspiration for me. Who am I to not make a 20-metre run? This time last year I wasn't able to," he reflected.

His recovery came in a year when he completed his medical studies and now finds himself working in the paediatric department in Our Lady's of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. It's an area he thinks he'll focus on in the future and accepts that medical work could compromise his football.

"It will definitely become more difficult, but how difficult I don't know," he accepted. "It's a really humbling space to be in. When I'm at work I'm chasing down scans, doing various bits and bobs and there is no point where I am making a life-saving intervention.

"If I wasn't there everyone would tip along just as well, but you do get to experience some families that are in incredibly tough times.

"We went to visit a young man on Monday, myself and a few of the lads, who is passing away, an 18-year-old fella. To know that he is going to be sitting there with a Dublin jersey on cheering you on, 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. It's mind-blowing."

He feels Dublin may now be appreciated for the team they are and perhaps, more importantly, the people they are.

Funding

"There are so many arguments out there about Dublin football and the stuff we have done and the last couple of years with funding, but I would challenge anyone to take a look at our group and have a cut off us.

"I think when we cross the white line we'll kill you, no two ways about it, we'll do whatever it takes to win.

"But outside football, I'm looking at Brian Fenton taking photos of lads, I'm looking at some people visiting the Children's Hospital and it's something I take great pride in."

On the funding of Dublin's development programmes and the revenue they can generate, McCaffrey accepts "there is probably an argument there", but it should never take from what they have achieved.

"Things may have been a bit disproportionate in the past but, on the flip side of things, from what I have seen going on with my father coaching the 1993 lads, he wasn't bringing home a pay cheque," pointing out that group pre-dated the Government's €1m per annum injection in 2005 that has helped to build such an extensive coaching model.

"I think when everyone sits down and has a think about it, there are not many lads who look at us playing football and say 'Jesus the Dubs they've got so much money, it's not fair'.

"I think people are just starting to enjoy what we do and appreciate that."

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