“I went off to Thailand with a few of my friends around Christmas time of 2015 and came back at the start of 2016 and thought that it would just take me a while to get back into it. But it quickly became apparent that I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I’m used to, and as I am now.”
Was it because he had won almost everything? “I don’t know, is the answer to that question. That definitely wasn’t in my thinking. You’ve won a lot — that’s not my principal motivation. I play football because I really enjoy it and I’ve made some of my best friends through it and I love being around them and having the craic. But I don’t think the success that led up to it was a factor in it.”
How did he reconcile being acknowledged as the best footballer in the country that previous season with a lack of satisfaction? “Well, I was enjoying it a lot when I won it,” he says, smiling, of the footballer of the year award.
“I look back at the year before; I was having the time of the life and it led to this. I’m not now. It’s nearly not fair to yourself to try and push it on. I don’t know what it was. But I was never something I… you’re not even thinking of the footballer of the year stuff. It was a year on. I made the decision on the here and now, rather than anything about the year before.”
The year away from the game is something he looks back on with not an iota of regret. “Yeah, I really, really enjoyed it. My head wasn’t in the football. And the one thing about inter-county football is you don’t half-do it. You’ll be found out if you do that.”
The UCD medical student travelled to Ethiopia with the GOAL charity doing some voluntary work before moving to Kenya and Zambia where he had hospital placement as part of his degree before holidaying in Malawi and Tanzania. He returned home two days before Dublin beat Kerry in August’s All-Ireland semi-final.
His father, former Dublin defender John, and his family supported his plans, having spoken with him. “There was probably a little concern that this was a kneejerk reaction and there was some weird stuff going on but once we had a chat, they were happy enough that I was happy.”
McCaffrey’s father helped him realise the repercussions of leaving the panel for the season. “It was a departure for a year of my own volition. I had to be OK with the possibility that I’d never play for Dublin again. That was probably the thing that I discussed with my dad a bit. (He said) ‘Just so you’re aware, hopefully it won’t happen,’ and luckily it hasn’t happened, but it was a possibility and I ended up being OK with it.”
In December, McCaffrey said he would be available to Dublin “for the next year-and-a-half at least” but now insists he won’t be going anywhere. “The way medicine works, for your intern year you could end up anywhere in the country. But no, I’m around long term. I’ve had my craic. [Africa is] somewhere I would love to go back to but when I’m in a position to do more professional stuff.”
December was also when Jim Gavin came calling again. McCaffrey wasn’t worried that the communication was relatively late. “No, I was fine, training away and again it was like, ‘what will be, will be’. I can’t remember exactly when it was I went in but, again, it was fine. It was a little chat on the phone and get back to work kind of thing.”
Even being out of the country for 11 weeks, McCaffrey managed to play more club football than most of the Dublin panel last year. That he can’t play more frustrates him. Mention Jonny Cooper’s revelation that he played four times with Na Fianna in 2016 and he says, “It’s ridiculous if that was the norm — Jonny could have been unlucky with injuries, I don’t know exactly what that reference was.
“You want to play as much for your club as you can. It’s very tough seeing your club, you go up and you’re watching the lads lose by two or three points, a point, and you’re standing there unable to do anything. These are your best friends.”
McCaffrey missed the end of the league with a hamstring injury but has recovered. “I’ve been very careful with it, given it plenty of time, stayed on top of it. Hopefully, that will put it to bed.”