Jack McCaffrey came off the bench for Dublin in an Allianz league game against Donegal last February and scored 1-1. In a five-point win for the Dubs, his personal haul was crucial and manager Jim Gavin cut a relieved figure afterwards.
“I’m delighted for Jack, he’s back to his best and we can all see it,” said Gavin who, one suspects, was uttering much more than just post-match platitudes.
After a quite stunning 2013 campaign for Dublin, McCaffrey captained the U21 side to All-Ireland glory in 2014 but his form dipped that summer with the seniors and he started just two games.
The great fear was that Dublin’s shooting star had burned out early so when McCaffrey began tearing it up again earlier this year, there was more than just Gavin breathing a sigh of relief.
Playing in a half-forward role for UCD in the Sigerson Cup, McCaffrey cut a number of opposing defences asunder, particularly in the quarter-final win over GMIT.
In that match, his searing runs from deep, clever creative play and expert finishing all added up to a man-of-the-match display. Speculation was rife of a similar move from defence to attack at county level though Gavin has been happy to continue with the Clontarf man in the half-back line and exploit his talents from there.
Six games into Dublin’s Championship, he has started every match and will undoubtedly be a marked man ahead of Sunday’s All-Ireland final.
“Jack came in at a very young age, he was very successful at underage and came into an All-Ireland final in his first year and must have woke up some mornings and thought, ‘what’s after happening here?’” said Dublin selector Declan Darcy.
“Fellas play a lifetime. I never got to play in an All-Ireland final, Ciarán Whelan never got to play in an All-Ireland final and he does it in his first year.
“That was a huge thing for him to take in, doing that in his first year and I think he might have struggled with it last year.
“But now he’s very focused this year, you can see it in the way he’s playing. He’s still playing the way he can play from a skillset and flair point of view but he’s very focused and that’s good to see.
“It’s tough for young lads to go through that, winning, for an 18- or 19-year-old, it’s an extreme thing to have to experience. People might even say it’s bizarre to win an All-Ireland at 19, extreme, and why wouldn’t he enjoy it? Yes. But it’s tough, it’s tough enough on them too, all the stuff they have to deal with.”
Darcy believes that McCaffrey’s poor form last year was, in some ways, an inevitability.
“It would have been unreal for him to continue winning, it wouldn’t have been realistic because it was never going to continue like that,” said the former Dublin and Leitrim forward.
“He was always going to lose. That happens to all teams so it’s good that it’s happened to him, to be honest.
“And maybe it was a good thing it happened to us overall last year. We won’t know that for sure until Sunday but maybe it was the best thing that happened to us, it took the whole expectation out of the team.
“As a player you have good years and you have bad years so you can’t legislate for that. You have to be able to fight your way out of the bad spots to know how good you really are. I think Jack did that well last year and he’s back fighting really hard for us this year.”
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