Natural leader driving Dublin in search of their perfect moment
LEINSTER SHC SEMI-FINAL KILKENNY v DUBLINThey might deny it, but Johnny McCaffrey and Dublin know today’s clash with Kilkenny is a potential watershed
THIS COULD be the moment Dublin’s hurling revolution has been building towards. No really, it could. The alternative is Kilkenny, yet again, slow their progress.
Johnny McCaffrey, the young revolutionary leader, refuses to believe in watersheds anymore. He was asked recently where Dublin currently stand in hurling’s pecking order, in comparison to the standard witnessed during last year’s All-Ireland final between Tipperary and Kilkenny: “I think we’re not that far off. Our whole year has been based around what we are going to do in the summer. Especially on the 23rd.”
That would be today in Portlaoise against Brian Cody’s black and amber machine.
“We’re hoping we can pull together everything we have done in the last couple of months. If not, we’ll regroup and go again for the qualifiers – have a crack at the All-Ireland. We got a great taste of what it’s like in the All-Ireland semi-final and we want to get back to that and go one step further this year.”
But this evening could be the moment. Much like 2005 was a moment. McCaffrey captained the Dublin minors that summer to their first Leinster title in 22 years.
Kilkenny, stocked with teenage versions of TJ Reid and Richie Hogan, were beaten 2-16 to 4-7 in the semi-final. Joe Bergin’s Offaly felled in the quarters and Wexford dismissed in the final before Limerick quashed the ultimate dream a few weeks later.
Captain of both football and hurling sides that year, McCaffrey has been central to the capital’s small ball progress ever since.
“Tommy Naughton [Dublin senior manager in ’05] gave me a call after the minor campaign and I went with that at the time. I played a bit of under-21 football after that but hurling was always my first love. I was delighted to get the call up to the senior hurling team.
“Thankfully I’ve been there ever since. At the time I was playing regular at both but I always felt I was better at hurling and had more of a chance of making the team.”
When Stephen Hiney was a cruciate injury victim last season, Anthony Daly had a ready-made captain to fill the void. Still only 24, this promotion can be traced back to the hugely successful generation of development squads in Dublin, where McCaffrey’s leadership qualities were first identified.
“We knew him from the time he was about 14,” said underage mentor Jimmy O’Dwyer. “He is a very humble young fella who leads by example. Always ready to try new things and encourage fellas. Very well liked by other lads from different clubs. There was no problem with him being from Lucan Sarsfields, they all worked in behind him.”
Tom Fitzpatrick, McCaffrey’s manager at both minor and under-21 level, elaborates on why he was made first among the current crop of equals.
“His capacity to listen and accept direction was very impressive,” Fitzpatrick explains. “He was always enquiring, ‘How was that?’ or ‘What can we do better?’ And willing to accept advice. That’s what impressed us about him. There were others in the team. Tomás Brady immediately stood out as well.
“We had two other vice- captains at the development stage. We just wanted to see who would respond better to having the badge of vice-captain or captain. Johnny was aware of the responsibility that came with it.
“Some fellas would love to be captain just so they could say it in Coppers. The mileage they would get with the girlfriend or the neighbours, whereas with Johnny the responsibility of being captain rested easy on his shoulders, and most importantly it didn’t affect his play.”
What else? “Very punctual in training, very reliable. He never asked what you could do for him but what he could do for you. He was very special even from a young age, I must say.”
McCaffrey has already made two victorious, and watershed, speeches in Croke Park – 2005 was followed by the under-21 Leinster title win, up in Parnell Park one memorable evening.
But the National League success last year seemed, again, like a moment signalling Dublin’s permanent arrival.
Then Kilkenny swept over them in championship. The game has moved on rapidly; Dublin were relegated from Division 1A and Kilkenny appear again as All-Ireland champions.
“They are standard bearers – I’ve played them the last 10, 12 years,” said McCaffrey. “They are games I really look forward to and can’t wait to get involved in.”
Physicality and aerial dominance is what brings Kilkenny past teams of similar hurling ability. This Dublin team will not be outmuscled, or out- leaped, but possibly outhurled.
“They have everything in their game; physicality, intensity but they have their hurling as well.
“There are teams that maybe have one aspect but not three or four put together. They’ve got cool heads under pressure as well. When the pressure comes on they know what to do. They’ve been there before.”
But he refuses to let this meeting be built into The Moment, even though we all know it might be. If Dublin win. If not, it is a provincial scrap in June where Kilkenny, as usual, prevail and Dublin live to fight another day.
“The big thing about the Kilkenny game is our season is not over if we don’t go well. I don’t think people are going to turn on us too much if it doesn’t go well the next day. Everyone knows how good Kilkenny are and what they are capable of doing to any team. All we’re trying to do is give ourselves the best opportunity to put a big performance in.”
But Dublin are no longer intimidated by Kilkenny. In fact, McCaffrey and his generation never felt that emotion about any opposition, as Fitzpatrick confirms. “One thing that has happened since 2005 is Dublin hurlers no longer fear the colour of the jersey, no matter what county it is. That’s one of the huge psychological barriers Dublin had to cross before they started beating counties of the calibre of Kilkenny. That has happened; it has been moved aside in the last seven years.”
Now they just need a moment where it actually happens in a senior championship encounter.