Jack McCaffrey - Dublin's smiling assasin
By John Harrington
When Jack McCaffrey hopped off the Dublin team bus before the drawn All-Ireland SFC Final against Kerry, he did so with a big smile on his face.
Still smiling, he closed his eyes for a couple of seconds as if to really mentally preserve the special moment of arriving in Croke Park.
He looked almost giddy with a happy excitement too when he paraded around the Croke Park pitch before the match.
As befitting a man who was embracing the occasion rather than being unnerved by it, McCaffrey then went out and produced one of the greatest individual displays ever seen in an All-Ireland Final as he scored 1-3 from wing-back.
Willie Lillis wasn’t the least surprised by any of it. Neither McCaffrey’s happy-go-lucky demeanour before the match nor his excellence throughout it.
Lillis coached McCaffrey in Clontarf GAA club’s nursery right up to the U-21 grade, so he knows him better than most.
“He was a giddy youngster, full of energy, a bit like he is now,” Lillis told GAA.ie “That's one thing I'd say, he's never really changed.
“What you see now is nearly what he was like as a youngster.
“From a young age was that he always loved it. He wanted to be there and would bounce in to training. As soon as he'd get off the bike he'd be just gone.
“He always showed that sort of happiness and he always enjoyed it. I've never seen him look like he was stressed about the game, he always looked like he was really up for the moment.”
From a very early age, it was clear to Lillis that the young Jack McCaffrey was something a little bit special.
“He was always running after the ball, and speed was something he had even back as a five or six-year-old,” said Lillis.
“I suppose the main early memories were when they got to eight or nine and playing Go Games. He was like a little engine running all over the pitch.
“I suppose apart from developing his skills and all that, back then he always had that base as a young fella. That drive to want to get to the ball.
“If you look at his run for that goal the last day. From where he ran to where he ended up to get the ball he must have ran around 70 yards without touching the ball but he was in a constant sprint for it.
“He was always like that as a kid, believe it or not.
“There was a lot of good players around but he always stood out. Probably his pace, speed, and hunger for the ball stood out then above others, maybe.
“Once Jack got onto the pitch, whether it was a training session of a championship match it didn’t matter, you just sort of unleashed this whirlwind.”
McCaffrey was part of a very talented generation of footballers in Clontarf who grew up together and made the club a real force at underage level.
Castleknock and Raheny were also very prominent at the time, and McCaffrey enjoyed some great battles against Ciaran Kilkenny and Brian Fenton coming up through the age-groups.
Clontarf might have had a bumper crop of talented footballers in his age-group, but McCaffrey was very much the leader of the pack and the one they turned to when they needed something a little extra-special.
“I remember when he was playing underage, sometimes when he was in the mood he was just unmarkable,” said Lillis.
“We were playing a minor match once and it was tight and we were struggling a little bit.
“There was an injury so we called Jack over and just said, 'Jack, the next ball you get, just go. We need a goal'.
“And he delivered. He took a pass on the half-way line, soloed, did a one-two with my Will my son, then hit the back of the net. It just lit up the game and then all of a sudden we took control and went on to win by six points.
“Without that moment, we were struggling. He was just unmarkable at times.
“He was always a pleasure to coach, he was easy to coach. The one thing I would say about him as well that even though he was always naturally talented and very fast, he was like a sponge as well. He listened and he wanted to learn.
“It wasn't like a kid who had a talent and knew he had a talent, he was always listening and always learning.”
Jack’s latent talent was hot-housed by his father Noel, himself a former Dublin footballer and a very committed Clontarf club-man.
Jack probably didn’t need all that much encouragement, but Noel was and continues to be a very influential figure in his development as a footballer.
“I would have seen them up in the park, it's only up from my house there, and Noel would have had Jack up there kicking a ball regularly,” said Lillis.
“He'd be kicking the ball 30, 40, 50 yards away from Jack so Jack would have to run onto it, so maybe that's where his speed came from.
“Jack is probably a bit more outgoing than Noel. But they would be similar. They’d both have a similar heart, they'd both do anything for you.
“Not only did Jack have a special talent, he had a great attitude. One thing I'd always say about Jack was that he wasn't all about himself. When he played on the pitch with his team-mates he'd always include them.
“Even the guys who were on the 'B' team rather than the 'A' team. He's always encouraged the 'B' players and involve them no matter what their standard was.
“He was that sort of genuine, inclusive kid.”
An All-Ireland Final always feels a little bit extra-special when a member of your own club is involved in it, and for Lillis and everyone else who has played a part in McCaffrey’s development, it was a real thrill to see him play so well in the drawn match against Kerry.
“It's funny, I was only looking at the video again this morning with my son at the goal he got,” said Lillis.
“Once Howard caught the ball Jack just took off on a sprint.
“And it was like as if he knew he wasn't going to get the ball until he got up near the '21. Because he didn't look for the ball, he just kept going.
“It was like he always knew he was going to be the end play. I think he has that vision. I would have always said with Jack even when he was playing with us at underage in the club that his decision-making is brilliant.
“I think that was very evident in that final. I think he had a 100 per cent pass completion. He doesn't give the ball away much. And when he's in that sort of form he's a real go-to man. You'd be nearly saying, 'just give it to him', because even if he doesn't score himself he'll create a scoring opportunity.
“He scored 1-3 and it was a sort of a complete 1-3. A goal, one point with his right-foot, one with his left, and one fisted over the bar. There were points in that game as well where he got back and made timely interceptions of the ball in space.
“People don't really see that side of his game, he does a lot more than attack, he's very good at getting back and using his speed to intercept danger.
“He turned over a few balls as well, and to me that makes him a complete footballer. On another day if he didn't get back to fill those gaps and make those interceptions, Kerry might have been in for a crucial score. Those moments are huge as well and are down to the work-rate and application he produces.
“Jack will never stand around waiting to see what will happen, he's a make it happen sort of person.”
As good a footballer and as big a name as Jack McCaffrey now is, he remains refreshingly unaffected by the profile the game has given him.
Back in 2016 he won a Dublin Junior ‘E’ Hurling Championship with Clontarf and seemed to take as much enjoyment from that as he did from any of the All-Ireland titles he has won with Dublin.
He might be a great footballer, but the main reason he’s such a popular figure in Clontarf is because of the person he is.
“We're all very proud of him,” said Lillis. “He's a credit firstly to his family, and a credit to himself. But he's also a credit to the club and we're delighted to have him and watch him play the way he does for Dublin.
“He never forgets where he's from and is a great club-man. Jack would always come back to the clubhouse after every Dublin game and would go out of his way to give some time to the local kids.
“He’s a real clubman and the club would always be close to his heart.
“Off the pitch he's a really genuine, nice sort of guy who would do anything for anyone if it was in his power to do so. And even if it wasn't, he'd still try to do it.
“He's just a very, very pleasant guy and always was. There's no badness in him whatsoever.”