The feeling that you have more to give in the game never leaves you and is perhaps the main reason McCaffrey and Mannion returned to Dublin
Sometimes, the universe gives you a sign. Batten down the hatches. Things are about to get freaky. We played Tyrone in the league at the end of February 2020 in Omagh.
The conditions were apocalyptic; screeching winds and sheets of driving rain. Standing water everywhere.
To the best of my recollection, we played into the shallow end in the first half.
No-one escaped without getting a few clips in the brawl in the tunnel at half-time and naturally enough, we lost the game.
Then things got really bad. A couple of days later, the GAA season was cancelled indefinitely due to a looming pandemic and all the hardship that that entailed.
Somewhere in the middle of all of that, Jack McCaffrey left the Dublin panel.
All told, it was a fairly undistinguished exit for Jack.
I distinctly remember thinking, ‘this isn’t a Jack McCaffrey sort of night,’ when he went on at half-time in Omagh and, lo-and-behold, he hobbled back off with a hamstring injury about 10 minutes later.
Jack is prone to those sort of injuries. It’s an unavoidable risk of being so quick. A small payback for those natural gifts.
The best way to put it is, Jack’s like a Ferrari. He travels at huge speed. As much as you’re anticipating it, it’s still exhilarating.
But travel long distances at that speed and you’re going to break down. Acceleration like that puts great force on your joints. That’s how injuries occur.
Me? I never got injured because I couldn’t move at that speed.
If Jack is a Ferrari, I was a trusty Skoda. Good old reliable Philly. He’ll get there eventually.
That night in Omagh wasn’t made for Jack, the same as last Saturday evening in Croke Park wasn’t either.
I know some people went to the Kildare game expecting to see the return of Jack McCaffrey, but you have to factor in how long he’s been away and calculate the various risks of breaking down.
The first round of the league isn’t the time to be taking any risks.
Soft pitches put greater stress levels on the muscles, making you more conducive to injuries at this time of year.
My guess is that Jack is busy doing a maintenance programme, a strength-based block of gym work, to improve the quality of his muscle fibres, effectively to make them as strong as possible for when he presses the ‘engage warp speed’ button later this year. You have to remember that most of Jack’s pace comes from genetics. He was born with those fast-twitch muscle fibres. He’s no gym monster.
He’s not in bad shape, but you wouldn’t say he’s ripped either.
You can’t coach someone to have Jack’s pace. That’s not how it works.
But you have to make sure the rest of your body can handle the sort of pressure that sprinting at that speed puts it under.
The other thing about pace is, if you don’t use it, you tend to lose it. And it naturally goes with age anyway.
So we won’t really know how quick Jack still is until he’s unleashed on some poor defence later this spring.
He’s an incredible weapon to have though.
The debate over Lee Keegan versus James McCarthy as the best wing-back of their generation is an interesting one because of their longevity, but for sheer force of impact in the time he was there, Jack takes some beating.
He puts the fear of God into teams, more than any forward I’ve ever seen.
You can nearly see the look of dread in a wing-forward’s face when he gets caught too high up the pitch and Jack is sizing him up.
I watched him in the regional tournament in December and technically, everything about Jack’s game looked in working order. But the trend of the match meant he never cut loose.
That’s another aspect to Jack’s return now. The game has moved on, even in the couple of years he’s been away.
When opposition teams get their defence set up, he’s not as effective a runner.
Look at all of Jack’s goals. Generally they come when an opposition is out of position or stretched at the back; from a turnover or a kick-out where they’ve pushed up.
Slow transition doesn’t make best use of Jack’s talents. He’s no more effective than anyone else at running straight into bodies.
But he’s so quick that even the threat causes teams to think twice about how they set up.
I’d be shocked if any team tried to make him defend this year because the risk is just too high. That’s a powerful thing to know.
Then there’s Paul Mannion.
Who knows when we’ll see Mannion back in a Dublin jersey but in most aspects, he’s more of a sure thing than Jack.
For a start, he’s been playing – and excelling – at a high level since he left the Dublin panel.
He hasn’t been away as long as Jack and the injury he’s coming back from was an impact injury, rather than a muscular problem.
He’s also a beast. He possesses an extraordinary physique for a fella who eats grass and twigs morning, noon, night, and day. Like McCaffrey, he’s unique.
There isn’t a forward playing in the country as good a tackler as Mannion.
As a back, there are times you’re under siege and as much as you know fellas are doing what they’re supposed to, some part of you thinks ‘give us a hand here, lads.’
Then Mannion tracks 90 yards back towards his own goal and executes a clean tackle and the surge of energy you get is like scoring a goal.
I’m not surprised the two of them are back. They’re two independently-minded guys who, it’s worth remembering, opted out in the past.
But watching Dublin lose the past two years can’t have been easy for them.
That’s a realisation I came to early last year in my first season in retirement: that I’ll be 50 years old watching Dublin and still be bursting to get back on the pitch, still on some level thinking that I can help the team.
It’s an almost primal urge. It makes no rational sense.
But the thing I’m starting to realise is probably the same reason the two lads came back: it never leaves you.