Paddy Durcan’s marking job on Jack McCaffrey in Mayo’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Dublin didn’t matter much in the end, but it was no less impressive for that.
Durcan approaches the task of marking like a great white shark approaches lunch: Greedy, remorseless, not overly concerned with social niceties.
The stats men say that McCaffrey — hitherto a Footballer of the Year contender — only touched the ball five times, didn’t score, didn’t make an assist, and watched Durcan knock over two points of his own, the Mayoman completing a busy summer of defenestrating some of the game’s greatest talents.
Their duel was a delightful brushstroke on the game’s greater canvas, but if you are talking about individual battles in a Dublin game then you are missing the point. You’re fishing in the wrong paradigm, dude.
It’s why deciding on a man of the match after a Dublin victory is so hard. Him? Or him? Maybe this guy? Actually, that fella was brilliant too?
They never depend on a hero to turn the tide. They are a team of supreme individuals who don’t play like a team of supreme individuals. They rise and fall together. They are a collective in thought, word, and deed.
And yet McCaffrey seems to stand apart.
He brings something singular to Dublin, something that doesn’t quite follow the pattern, a glitch in the code. Amid the earnest roundheads of modern Gaelic football, he is the Dubs’ laughing cavalier.
What is it? His trademark lacerating runs that act as a devastating counterpoint to passages of measured build-up play, like a concert pianist suddenly whipping out a Fender Stratocaster?
Is it the physique, which is, well, kind of normal? Like the body of a 25-year-old postgraduate, say, rather than the titanium abs and mountainous biceps of his contemporaries.
Is it the way the camera pans down the Dublin team during the Croke Park parade, taking in Stephen Cluxton’s icy stare, past Jonny Cooper’s impenetrable gaze and Cian O’Sullivan’s moody movie star smoulder, and there’s McCaffrey, smiling nonchalantly and waving at someone in the crowd, unkempt curls and starter-beard, looking like he might be carrying a bag of cans just out of shot?
Is it the Dublin 2017All-Ireland-winning banquet? Remember? Michael Lyster manfully quizzing Cluxton and Jim Gavin on stage, drawing blood from a stone as best he can.
Suddenly the eye is drawn over Gavin’s shoulder, and there’s McCaffrey, three sheets to the wind, goofing off and clowning to camera.
The crowd in the Gibson Hotel is watching on monitors around the banquet room and suddenly everyone is laughing. Gavin’s face twitches — he knows something’s not quite right but still McCaffrey charges on, mugging with perfect comic timing.
The wide shot of the room shows Brian Fenton, among others, in absolute convulsions, before the Dubs media handler arrives on the scene and shuts down the fun.
In one sense it was just a silly moment of viral levity; in another it was as jarring as peeking through a keyhole at the G7 summit to see all the leaders of the free world playing Twister.
The juxtaposition of the on-message, ice-in-their-veins Dublin image with the reality of daft young lads having the craic was delightful, and cheering.
But Jack Mac is not Gazza. And that’s Dr McCaffrey to you, by the way. It’s one of the small pities of this current Dublin team that much of their public pronouncements, taking Gavin’s cue, are in the form of sterile platitudes designed to filibuster airtime and promote sponsors’ products.
We know from players like Philly McMahon and Kevin McManamon, who have spoken honestly and vividly about their real lives, that the picture of faceless blue unsullied is not accurate.
No-one busts the myth more than McCaffrey. He is an engaging interviewee, intelligent, articulate, and quick-witted.
You can imagine him becoming a well-known figure in Irish life in the decades to come, who will contribute to public discourse on sport and general matters with equal confidence.
He is a deep thinker, as we saw when he talked about his decision to walk away from Dublin in 2016, him the reigning Footballer of the Year if you don’t mind, choosing to volunteer as a student doctor in Africa rather than lap up the acclaim from Hill 16.
He didn’t want to be simply ‘Jack McCaffrey: Footballer’. He felt there was more to life. He had an itch and knew he would have to scratch it. Sounds simple, but to have the self-possession and intelligence at just 22 to figure all that out is anything but.
While outside the pale, McCaffrey revealed things about how the Dublin machine works. Nothing salacious, or startlingly revelatory.
Small things. Like when he turned up for his first training session wearing a Cork jersey, and was welcomed by Stephen Cluxton: “Welcome on board. Now don’t wear that fucking thing here again.”
Or the time Gavin took to talk him through his decision to step away, and how he felt able to confide in senior teammates.
For now, at least, he is Jack McCaffrey: Footballer, of Dublin, and Clontarf, precisely the type of middle-class area into which Dublin GAA frogmarched its games development forces earlier this century, bankrolled by central funding.
As the son of a county player and with his phenomenal physical gifts, McCaffrey probably would have come through anyway, but this issue, added to Dublin’s dominance of the football championship and Gavin’s chilly austerity, has detracted from any sense of general warmth towards this remarkable team.
But McCaffrey is one of those Dubs who deserves to be savoured aside from all the hubbub and chatter about the five in a row, funding, systems, and strategies; for the moment on Sunday when he’ll get the ball in the middle of all that sweat and sinew and madness, and smirk, and decide to have a cut.
The surge will electrify Croke Park, but you will still almost swear you can hear him laughing as he goes.