Macauley takes the long road to centre stage
Late developer makes up for for lost time in Dublin’s engine room and prepares to take the fight to Kerry
Aside from the frequently told general history of rivalry between Dublin and Kerry, the fixture has assumed contemporary significance in recent times as a touchstone of Dublin’s progress.
Four years ago this month Pat Gilroy, at the conclusion of his first season as manager, described his team as “startled earwigs” in shocked response to the sort of trimming that Kerry hadn’t inflicted on Dublin since the dying years of the 1970s.
Viewed as positively as retrospect allows, it was useful for Gilroy. It gave him an established baseline after a season sifting through his predecessor’s team and also green-lighted significant changes in personnel.
The next major outing for Dublin was also against Kerry, this time on the opening weekend of the league season. Just five players remained on Gilroy’s team from the previous August but they took home the county’s first away points in the fixture since 1982.
Among that day’s debutants was Michael Darragh Macauley. Lining out at centre forward, it was he who broke the match in the last minute. With Dublin leading by a point, he turned over Kerry possession, raced in on goal and fisted the point that guaranteed the win.
The result was a prelude to Dublin’s best league campaign in 11 years. And although that summer was the only one in the last nine that didn’t finish with the county as Leinster champions, the new-look team, configured for tighter defence and kept buoyant by a dazzling season’s contribution from Bernard Brogan, travelled the qualifiers and reached the All-Ireland semi-final, losing narrowly to eventual winners, Cork.
Macauley didn’t come quite from nowhere but few familiar with his early years envisaged the Ballyboden St Enda’s player making the sort of impact he has managed in less than four years: All-Ireland and national league medals and an All Star.
His height, 6ft 5in, made him competitive in the air. But it was his dexterity – until minor level he was a talented basketballer with Notre Dame – with ball in hand and aggression as a runner that distinguished him.
A starter on Dublin minor and under-21 teams in 2004 and 2006 that included future senior colleagues, but which achieved little themselves – losing first rounds to Laois and Kildare and missing his last year as an under-21 with back injury. Macauley never really promised to be among the most successful graduates.
Peter Shovlin managed him as an under-age player, including at under-21 level and for all his club pride in the player’s achievements he candidly says he was surprised.
“Back then he had these back injuries that always limited what he could do. Playing two matches in a week . . . would be very hard on him. I think it was important that he grew out of the injury and he did. He concentrated on football and that saved him jumping half the week on boards and the other half on grass,” says Shovlin.
“We also got him to talk to Dr Pat Duggan, former chair of the GAA’s medical committee, and he worked hard at it. Some players improve over a couple of years but there was no way on God’s green earth that you’d have seen that coming down the path. It happened literally between 2008 and 2009.”
Former Dublin All Star centrefielder Ciarán Whelan, now a pundit with the Sunday Game on RTÉ and a columnist on the Herald newspaper, was another surprised by Macauley’s sudden emergence.
“I remember him on (earlier) training panels. He was a late developer, not as big when he first got involved – which is unusual; most players develop from the age of 16 or 17 until their late teens – but he always had a great leap. I remember him catching ball over bigger players but he was in and out of panels a lot and I would never have seen him turning into the player he became.”
Ballyboden were the beneficiaries as Macauley’s form became the engine that drove the club to a county title, which rounded off a double for the club more renowned for their hurlers in recent years.
Naturally he attracted county interest. Mickey Whelan was Gilroy’s coach until 2011.
“I remember seeing him in the championship,” he says. “He had fabulous hands. In Dublin we don’t often come across that since Ciarán Whelan retired. He was also able to catch the ball from a standing jump. I thought: ‘we could do something with this guy’. We did a lot of ball work with him but I think the most important thing was that he knew we believed in him. We didn’t make him a better player but he became more confident and that made him better.”
If his first season in 2010 marked him out as a valuable recruit, the next went supernova. Again Kerry marked out the parameters. Under lights at Croke Park in the league Dublin edged home in the league with Macauley coming into the match to turn around an ailing centrefield and help himself to 1-1 in the process.
It had been a feature of the matches with Kerry that Dublin’s centrefield found itself in trouble. In 2009 they were wiped out and in the pivotal match in recent times between the counties, the All-Ireland final of two years ago, the problem re-emerged after a promising first half in which Dublin started well.
Then Kerry manager Jack O’Connor had successfully executed plans to disrupt Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs in 2009.
“The game has changed,” according to O’Connor. “The amount of kick-outs put up that are genuinely up for grabs is limited. The ball is kicked into pockets or short by goalkeepers and tomorrow the two ’keepers who are the best . . . at finding runners are up against each other.
“In 2009 as well as 2011 that was a big part of our game: contesting the ball in those pockets. Séamus Scanlon had great joy doing that in the 2009 quarter-final.”
Yet he acknowledges that Macauley outlasted the blitz on Cluxton’s restarts – Dublin winning only one of their contested kick-outs in the second half.
“We managed him well for most of the final until later into the game when he hurt us . . . He’s extremely strong and fit and nearly always breaks the gain line and creates space out wide.”
From the 65th minute, the phase just after the goal by Kevin McMenamon that got Dublin back into the game and when everything was up for grabs, Macauley featured on four separate occasions: intercepting the ball in Kerry possession, breaking through to provide the assist for Bernard Brogan’s point, breaking through to shoot a narrow wide and processing the ball in the lead-up to the free that decided the match.
An All Star followed later in the year.
In 2012, he was Dublin’s best player in a disappointing season. It would be his redeployment as an orthodox centrefielder that kick-started the revival against Mayo in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, a comeback that fell just a score short.
This year under a new manager Jim Gavin, Macauley’s role remains fundamental. He’s the team’s best ball winner and the player who can make things happen even in heavy traffic.
Meath manager Mick O’Dowd sent out a team in this year’s Leinster final which thwarted Dublin’s kick-out strategies and forced aerial contests in which they prospered until Gavin made changes. But he was constantly aware of the threat posed by Macauley.
“What I like about him is that as a link man he can create a chance very quickly. He’s got this change of gear . . . which enables him to break tackles. He rolls his marker and . . . suddenly there’s a goal chance on.”
Should Kerry again hack into Cluxton’s kick-outs there’s going to be a lot of pressure on Dublin’s centrefield. Ciarán Whelan believes Macauley is equipped to deal with that.
“He has the ability to be a specialist, high fielder but the way Dublin have played has allowed him to emphasise the mobility and drive of his game. Because of the variety of Cluxton’s kick-outs the primary focus isn’t on him to win, say, six clean possessions in the air.
“Looking ahead to this and the presence of Anthony Maher, and if Dublin win, to Aidan O’Shea in the final, Michael Darragh Macauley may have to sacrifice some of his game.
“On Sunday I expect Kerry will pressurise the kick-outs but there’s a risk-reward issue there . . . they won’t be able to drop players back to protect the defence.”
Dublin and Kerry re-engage in what will be a watershed afternoon for two first-term managers. Macauley will survey what has become his territory and maintain his trajectory from nowhere to everywhere.