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'I left my friends’ Whatsapp group the week before the 2013 final thinking, 'I can’t have any distractions''

Dublin defender Jack McCaffrey has learned that taking a more relaxed approach helps him perform on the big days.

JACK MCCAFFREY’S TV interview after Dublin’s All-Ireland semi-final win over Galway on Saturday night drew a wisecrack from Sunday Game pundit Colm O’Rourke.

Fexco launch the Asian Gaelic Games 2018 Jack McCaffrey at the launch of the 23rd Asian Gaelic Games at sponsored by Irish international fintech company Fexco. Source: Piaras Ó Mídheach/SPORTSFILE

“It’s fantastic,” McCaffrey told Marty Morrissey before he was presented with his man-of-the-match award. “It’s what we play all year for. We want to come out here, have a bit of fun and play the match but, ultimately, win and get back to a final. So we’ve done that,  buzzing.”

Back in the RTÉ studio, O’Rourke quipped: “He used the word ‘fun’, which is unusual for an inter-county player to use anymore.”

It’s as good a place as any to start an interview with McCaffrey. He’s a player who retains a child-like ability to look like he’s really enjoying himself out on the field. Not many things excite the Hill as much as the sight of McCaffrey burning an opponent down the wing with his searing pace.

“It’s just really enjoyable,” McCaffrey said at the launch of the 2019 Asian Gaelic Games in Croke Park today.

“These are special times that we’ll all look back on one day. I’m definitely conscious of enjoying them while they’re here. When I was growing up, following Dublin, there weren’t many All-Irelands being won and there weren’t many final appearances, so these are good times.”

It’s no surprise he mentioned the word ‘fun’ in his interview. For the Clontarf defender, staying relaxed and trying to enjoy himself on the field is how he gets the best out of himself. Experience has taught him that.

“In 2013, I remember I left my friends’ Whatsapp group the week before the final, thinking I can’t have anuy distractions. I maybe put too much emphasis on it, but it’s all part of a learning curve, I was pretty crap that day then.

“Being relaxed around games, it’s definitely how I tend to get a good performance. If I’m overly tense or worked up about it, it can be counterproductive. Everyone on our panel respects that everyone is doing their own thing and it all feeds into a good team performance.

“We’re obviously very lucky that we have experienced this a couple of times now. The buzz will start to build now in the next three weeks and will just crescendo up. There’s that little bit extra about a final, sorting out tickets and all that kind of craic, and trying to enjoy yourself because it doesn’t come around that often.”

Jack McCaffrey and Johnny Heaney Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Joe Canning gave a little indication into how elite sportsmen stay motivated when he called out Galway’s “doubters” after their All-Ireland semi-final replay win over Clare.

McCaffrey has used criticism to drive him on in the past too, but these days he prefers to steer clear of outside influences.

“That’s interesting. I didn’t see that interview but no, not particularly. I remember in 2015, coming off the back of having not been great the year before, I kind of used that to motivate me.

He continues: “But now I’ve bought into the whole relaxed approach. Through trial and error, I’ve figured out what works for me, so my motivation wouldn’t really pull from external factors. It would be intrinsic stuff mostly.”

When you’re on top you’re there to be knocked down and the wing-back is well aware that sometimes it’s impossible to avoid criticism.

“As a group we’ve come to realise you’ve no control over what people say. I remember someone telling me a long time ago, that if you buy into all the positive stuff, once a negative comment is thrown out you’ll take that and it’ll bring you down a bit.

“So you’re better off ignoring it all, otherwise you’ll open yourself up. All the people that are talking about that kind of stuff would only be delighted to tear into us if things went south. You have to take it all with a pinch of salt.

“The way things are now with Twitter and social media, you’ll always happen upon something. One of the lads sent me a photo of a girl saying I had a brutal beard on Twitter the other day, so I’ll have to go and find that.

“Obviously you can’t shield yourself or not be exposed to it to a certain degree, but it’s just a matter of not buying into it yourself.

“No harm if you see something on social media, you just go by it, but the problem is when you see, ‘Oh that’s great, I’m great, because that’s on Twitter’ or else, ‘I need to shave because this woman was slagging me’ or whatever. You have to tow that line.”

The 24-year-old made his return to action from a cruciate injury as a half-time sub against Longford in June. He stepped up his recovery by starting Super 8s games against Donegal and Roscommon, but against Galway at the weekend McCaffrey was back to his best.

Con O’Callaghan’s first-half goal arrived after one of McCaffrey’s probing runs, while he went close with a goal chance of his own and cleaned up a dangerous ball in his own full-back line. Throw in his two interceptions on Ruairi Lavelle’s kick-outs and it was a masterful all-round display.

Jack McCaffrey and Seán Kelly Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Was it his best performance since making his comeback?

“Yeah, I think that’s probably fair to say from my point of view,” McCaffrey agrees. “It’s been a while trying to get back fit, and back to where I was before the injury, so it’s starting to come together nicely.

“(The extra games in the Super 8s phase) was definitely something I was conscious of. I was thinking, ‘If I can be fit around then, there’ll be plenty of matches to play.’ I ended up getting back a bit before that, but it was definitely great for me because I needed to play football. I played a bit with the club, was very rusty initially, but it was helpful.”

After suffering the injury, the trainee doctor admits he had concerns he might not hit the top speeds he had done pre-cruciate.

“Yeah, definitely (had concerns). There’s a lot of people that have come back from cruciate injuries well, but there’s an awful lot of people who haven’t.

“You’ve a lot of time alone with your thoughts over the seven or eight months, it’s definitely something that’s crossed my mind. The medical team, Bryan Cullen who is strength and conditioning, were excellent at just keeping me in shape.

“I would always have been quite casual about the dietary side of things, and when you’re off your feet for such a long period of time, I would have talked to a nutritionist a lot, and he was phenomenally helpful too.

“Nothing mad, just kind of tightening things up a bit. I gave me an opportunity to work on other areas that I would have traditionally been weaker in. I got to hit the gym uninterrupted for four or five months, which doesn’t happen in the GAA calendar. It wasn’t exactly a good thing, but every cloud has a silver lining and all that craic.”

McCaffrey suffered the dreaded knee injury just eight minutes into last September’s All-Ireland final. He’s had a strange relationship with recent All-Ireland deciders.

Jack McCaffrey down injured Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He watched the 2016 win over Kerry in the stand after taking the year out to travel, while he was struck down by illness in the days leading up to the 2015. He managed to start that day and ended up with man-of-the-match and, that winter, Footballer of the Year.

“I was sick on the Thursday and Friday (before the 2015 final),” he says. “It was actually really helpful looking back on it because it took all the pressure off the final. The whole thing was, ‘Will I be okay?’. Even leaving my house to go and meet at the hotel on the day of the game, the call hadn’t been made on whether I’d play or not.

“Jim (Gavin) just said go out as long as you can and go for it. I played 50 minutes and ran out of gas, but funnily enough it was nearly a positive thing. I still would have preferred if it hadn’t happened, but it’s a good story.”

McCaffrey well used to the All-Ireland final build-up at this stage. Dublin are searching for a fourth All-Ireland title in succession which would put them in esteemed company as only the fourth side to achieve it in Gaelic football after Kerry (twice) and Wexford.

He puts their sustained excellence down to the squad depth and the standards set within the group.

“The management have been fantastic, they really guard against it (complacency), and we’ve been around for so long now that there’s a really good understanding between the players and the management group.

Jack McCaffrey Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Players take ownership a bit, but it’s all empowered by the managers which is great. It’s a bit of a cliché, but everyone is pushing each other so hard. There’s probably ten lads that are annoyed they didn’t get picked to start the game the other day, and that’s the fine margins there are.

“Sometimes its horses for courses, sometimes its particular matchups, but you can’t afford as an individual to not be going 100% as you won’t be picked, and when everyone is like that, it just drives the group on.”

The two-time All-Star reckons the Dublin players will begin to get an idea of the starting team ”a week out” from the All-Ireland final.

“That’s when you think that the team is coming together. We’ll go hell for leather for the next two weeks, and take the foot off the pedal a little bit in the lead-in to the game itself.

“It’ll be hammer and tongs stuff, and it’ll be great because we’ve learned as a group over a couple of years that holding back in training, or trying to be clever like that, doesn’t work.

“There are lads that will be sick they didn’t start or get on or make the panel, and will be doing everything to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. It’ll be a very competitive environment for the next couple of weeks.

“I thought we performed really well on the weekend, we’ll obviously look to tighten up a few things. You look back on that game, and after every match there’s room for improvement. We’ll have to take a look at Tyrone as well, and see how we’ll set up.”

Once the ball is thrown in, the real fun can start.

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Kevin O'Brien

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