Jack McCaffrey surges past Gavin White.

Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

IT COULD BE argued that Peter Keane got every decision right on Sunday apart from his failure to put a dedicated man-marker on Jack McCaffrey from the start. 

A muted display in the semi-final against Mayo may have worked in McCaffrey’s favour and convinced Keane that his side would be able to deal with the Clontarf ace’s runs from deep. 

Kerry waited 26 minutes to send Gavin White across to pick up McCaffrey, by which time he had already netted Dublin’s goal and his dander was up. He finished with 1-3 and created plenty of scoring chances but much of McCaffrey’s good play came on the defensive side of things. 

He forced eight Kerry turnovers – a remarkable statistic and by far the highest of any player on the field. A couple were interceptions, he used his body and good footwork to steal the ball away from Gavin Crowley, Stephen O’Brien, Sean O’Shea and Jack Sherwood, while his pressure forced Paul Geaney to send a kick-pass over the end line. 

All-Ireland final day tends to be an eventful one for McCaffrey:

2013: Played his first All-Ireland final at 19-years-old against Mayo, but was withdrawn at half-time. “I was pretty crap that day,” he admitted last year. 
2015: Struck down by food poisoning the week of the final, he was on an IV drip just days earlier. He managed to start against Kerry was later named Footballer of the Year.
2016: Watched Dublin’s replay win over Mayo from the stands after spending the summer in Africa.
2017: Tore his cruciate knee ligaments just eight minutes into the decider against Mayo.
2018: Scored a point and was a constant thorn in Tyrone’s side throughout, winning winning man-of-the-match. His first time to finish an All-Ireland final on the field of play.
2019: Bagged 1-3 against Kerry, winning man-of-the-match in a final for the second successive time. 

While scoring 1-3 from five shots and 20 possessions deservedly saw him named man-of-the-match, he’ll be just as pleased with his work at the back.

He played high up the field and touched the ball just four times inside his own half from open play – two of them interceptions – and he also completed two short frees. When Dublin were without the ball he dropped deep and showed a good nose for danger.

McCaffrey has bristled in the past at the perception that he’s a weak defender. It’s an area of his game he’s worked diligently on since bursting onto the scene in 2013.

“You can hear lads talking about it on the pitch,” he told The42 last year. “Like, they get the ball, they are going, ‘Go on, got at him, go at him, go at him.’

“I’ve seen it in games over the last number of years that teams will get the ball and can see that I’m eyeing them up and, ‘Oh it’s McCaffrey, I’ll just go at him, he can’t tackle.’

To be honest, I never felt I was a particularly bad defender. It’s something that the narrative with me has been that I’m one of Dublin’s attacking weapons and can do my defensive duties but maybe don’t excel in them as much as other lads.”

He stripped Mattie Donnelly of possession in a key play late in last year’s final and McCaffrey’s defensive instincts showed up in the opening quarter on Sunday when he forced four turnovers. 

Kerry played with a two-man full-forward line and three men across midfield – David Moran, Jack Barry and Adrian Spillane. Rather than sending David Byrne out to the middle third, Dublin pushed McCaffrey into a more advanced role on Spillane, who couldn’t live with his blinding pace.

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Dublin’s left-half forward Brian Howard, the man stationed in front of McCaffrey, spent a good deal of the first period sweeping in front of the full-back line which left oceans of space for McCaffrey to race into.

McCaffrey’s first involvement came in the third minute, when he bottled up Gavin Crowley under the Hogan Stand and forced a turnover that led to Dean Rock’s opening point. Two minutes later, he won a break in midfield that led to a Brian Fenton scoring chance.

Then he collected a David Clifford shot that dropped short above Adrian Spillane and won a free. In the 17th minute, he intercepted a loose Moran pass in front of Barry to set-up another Dublin attack. 

Those early involvements filled McCaffrey with confidence and then he set about hurting Kerry at the far end. When Brian Howard fetched a kick-out near the sideline in the 18th minute, McCaffrey took off from way inside his own 65.

Eight seconds later, he was 21 metres out from goal with just Shane Ryan to beat after Niall Scully’s handpass put him through. The swashbuckling wing-back finished his fourth ever championship goal in style. 

Outstanding work from Dublin as Jack McCaffrey sprints up the field and scores a goal! pic.twitter.com/xuzUZ4U3Sr

— The GAA (@officialgaa) September 1, 2019

He had a shot blocked by Adrian Spillane shortly afterwards that led to a converted Dean Rock 45.

Keane had seen enough and moved speed merchant Gavin White onto the three-time All-Star in the 27th minute. 

But he too was burned by McCaffrey when he played a swift one-two and sped through to set-up a Howard score. 

With Dublin down to 14 men following Jonny Cooper’s 34th minute red card, they were more vulnerable at the back. Shortly after the restart, White ran at McCaffrey and fed the hard-line run of Paul Murphy, who saw his shot tipped onto the crossbar by Stephen Cluxton’s fingertips.

McCaffrey’s opening point arrived in the 42nd minute when he charged into the Kerry half and was picked out by Paul Mannion. He hadn’t much space but beat Murphy with a neat sidestep and fisted over the bar to stretch Dublin’s lead to three.

At the far end, McCaffrey made a major intervention when he stripped Stephen O’Brien as the Kerry forward tore down on the Dublin goals, although he looked fortunate not to concede a free.

He made another key defensive stop moments later when he recognised the danger of Killian Spillane’s run and doubled up on him with Niall Scully. The pair forced the substitute to overcarry the ball. It was McCaffrey’s sixth forced turnover of the game. 

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Midway through the half, McCaffrey bagged his second point after he was criminally left unmarked by Kerry 40 metres from goal.

He took Ciaran Kilkenny’s handpass and ran at Brian O Beaglaoich before slotting over an impressive effort off his left on the edge of the D.

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McCaffrey was on the ball just twice in the 15 minutes after the restart and both resulted in scores.

He tracked back and put enough pressure on Geaney that forced the Dingle man to miscue a delivery into Tommy Walsh that bounced wide. 

With his fourth touch of the half, McCaffrey picked up the ball outside the Kerry 45 metre line with the opponents appearing well set-up defensively. Crucially, Mick Fitzsimons cleared the middle channel with a great run that drew both Paul Geaney and Killian Spillane. 

It’s these minor details that make Dublin great.

Spotting the gap created by Fitzsimons, McCaffrey cut inside and an explosive burst of pace brought him past O’Brien, who is no slouch himself.  

He sent his fourth score of the game sailing between the posts, giving him a hat-trick of points by different means – one from either foot and by hand. 

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With Dublin starting to control possession, McCaffrey took another hard-line run to create a shot for Paddy Small that he dropped short. 

Dublin were a point behind with Kerry playing keep ball when McCaffrey stole it from Murphy, leading to the Cormac Costello effort that was eventually ruled out by Hawk-Eye.

He was involved in the move for Diarmuid Connolly’s 73rd minute wide and then made vital challenges on Sean O’Shea and Jack Sherwood to win the ball back in the fifth minute of stoppage-time in what turned out to be Kerry’s final attack.

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A day of days for McCaffrey, on both ends of the field. 

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