Michael Darragh Macauley calls time on glittering Dublin career
There was plenty more to his game than being the wrecking ball in so many big wins
Michael Darragh Macauley with the Sam Maguire trophy after the All-Ireland final replay win over Kerry in 2019. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Dublin manager Dessie Farrell celebrated the county’s record sixth successive All-Ireland last month at the end of his first year in charge but otherwise his tenure has been notably disrupted.
His appointment to the position came late in the day, half way through December 2019, and weeks later his first campaign ended abruptly with the Covid lockdown.
In June, current All Star Jack McCaffrey decided not to rejoin the panel in 2020 and by September another key figure in Dublin’s successes this decade, Diarmuid Connolly, had retired.
This month, with the glow of the All-Ireland still detectable there have been more departures. Paddy Andrews retired last week and Thursday saw two further exits – both significant but in different ways.
Michael Darragh Macauley, former Footballer of the Year, announced his retirement at the age of 34 and later, it was confirmed that Paul Mannion, a contemporary of McCaffrey’s and also a multiple All Star, had decided to take a break in 2021.
Macauley’s calling it a day wasn’t unexpected, as he hadn’t featured in Farrell’s teams in 2020, although he made the bench for the All-Ireland final. But he leaves a significant legacy and becomes the 10th member of Pat Gilroy’s team – who in 2011 got the ball rolling on a remarkable decade for Dublin football by beating Kerry in the All-Ireland final – to retire.
His power and athletic prowess were the most obvious assets but a sporting background in basketball meant that he had good hands, which attached to a 6’ 5” frame and a prodigious leap spelled trouble for opponents.
He made his debut on a memorable day for the county in the opening fixture of the 2010 league in Killarney, which culminated in Dublin’s first win in Kerry in 28 years.
Lining out at centre forward, it was he who broke the match in the last minute. With Dublin leading by just a point, he turned over Kerry possession and raced in on goal and clinically fisted the point that guaranteed the win.
The result was a prelude to Dublin’s best league campaign in 11 years and a year that saw them reach the All-Ireland semi-final where they narrowly lost to eventual champions Cork, with Macauley by then playing at centrefield which would become his predominant position.
It would be Kerry though that would provide milestones for his career. After his league debut in 2010 came the All-Ireland final in 2011 and a famous win in which he played a big role.
Although Kerry did well at centrefield and in a recurring motif of the counties’ rivalry in the past 10 years exerted pressure on the Cluxton kick-outs, Macauley impacted when the Fahrenheit levels rose.
“We managed him well for most of the final,” remembered Kerry manager Jack O’Connor, “until later into the game when he hurt us. He’s a big engine and powers through. He mightn’t be poetry in motion but he’s effective. He’s extremely strong and fit and nearly always breaks the gainline and creates space out wide.”
From the 65th minute of that final, the phase just after the goal by Kevin McManamon 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 scoring assist for Bernard Brogan’s point, breaking through again to shoot an attempt that went fractionally wide and processing the ball in the lead-up to the free that decided the match.
Macauley was at the top of his game by the time Jim Gavin arrived in 2013. He personified the team, hard, aggressive, all-out attacking football. In the memorable semi-final against Kerry that year it was his defiant, lunging flicked pass from a centrefield contest that set Kevin McManamon off on his memorable run.
By the end of the year, Macauley had his second All Star and had been named Footballer of the Year.
The following season’s big crash against Donegal – Dublin’s last championship defeat – marked a turning point for the team, whose cavalier instincts were ruthlessly exposed by Jim McGuinness’s system – and Macauley.
Gavin and coach Declan Darcy went away and redrew the team’s terms of engagement. Never again would a blanket defence be allowed to smother the team. The tactic of retaining possession and reloading attacks until a gap appeared became characteristic.
If you didn’t want to challenge possession, Dublin would hold it until they scored or you got it back.
There was a further consequence for Macauley, personally. In the matches against more orthodox opponents, he would continue to play to his strengths as a winner of kick-outs and a wrecking ball runner but against defensive systems, a player more adept at using the ball and maintaining possession would slot in.
Even under the new dispensation Macauley was a valued member of the team whether starting or coming off the bench and in the six finals, including replays, between 2015 and ’19 he started two and played in four, losing out only in 2017 when injury had undermined his season.
As importantly, he was a very popular member of the dressingroom, his easy-going disposition and eccentricities – such as skateboarding – co-existing with an ultra-competitive nature.
In his pomp, he was nearly impossible to curtail but impressively he adapted as the team evolved and continued to contribute. He deserves the rest but will be missed.