Stats shows how important dynamic duo are but it’s a different team and equation now under Dessie Farrell
Everyone knew McCaffrey was lightning and his clocked time put a definitive measure on it.
But numbers alone couldn’t fully capture what made McCaffrey such a potent ball-carrier.
“My strength would be running with the ball,” McCaffrey once explained. “Paul Mannion would be quicker than I would be in terms of pure speed.”
From 2013 to ’15 and again from 2017 to ’19, McCaffrey’s uncanny ability to turn static play into a scoring opportunity with one gear change, to chase down an opposition break from 10 metres behind, made him perhaps the most exciting Gaelic footballer in Ireland.
At 28 (he turns 29 next month), it seems unlikely that that scorched-earth speed has deteriorated in any significant way.
In 2017, McCaffrey came back from an ruptured ACL, a competitive period of 267 days of inactivity, and returned for a Leinster semi-final against Longford looking, if anything, even quicker than before.
It should be emphasised here that by the time Dublin play again, McCaffrey will have been away from inter-county football for roughly the same span of time as Rory O’Carroll was between 2015 and ’19.
O’Carroll left for the southern hemisphere arguably the best full-back in the country. But spent two seasons, ’19 and 2020, on the periphery of the Dublin panel after his return.
There are no guarantees. Not even with players as accomplished as McCaffrey and Mannion. But what they might, with fitness and form allowing, bring to the Dublin panel next year will be intriguing.
Dublin’s concession rate hasn’t changed in any considerable way in the past two Sam Maguire-less years. What has changed – significantly – is their goal creation/scoring.
Dublin scored just two in their four championship games in 2021. This year, outside of the avalanche against a wide-open Kildare, they hit the net in only three of their other four championship games.
Through two championship defeats to Mayo and Kerry, Dublin’s transition seemed deliberate to the point of being laboured.
Cormac Costello’s low-percentage goal against Kerry has been their only green flag in the All-Ireland series since they last won Sam Maguire.
In 2015, the season McCaffrey was named Footballer of the Year, Dublin scored 18 championship goals. McCaffrey was involved in nine of those.
In his six Dublin senior seasons, which can be broken into two phases, he scored 7-34 in league and championship. Notably prolific for a defender.
McCaffrey’s championship record is 4-17 from 39 games, an average of 0.75 points per game.
It’s well ahead of Tomás Ó Sé’s 0.5 points per game (3-35 in 88 championship appearances), but below another roughly comparable attacking defender, Lee Keegan, who averaged almost exactly a point a game with Mayo.
Likewise, Mannion’s contribution to the Dublin team is layered and even as an inside forward, simple scoring stats alone only reveal so much.
But they’re still worth comparing with the players who have played in the inside Dublin line in his absence.
In 2017, Mannion scored just under three points per game from play in the championship. That fell to under 2.5 in 2018, but rose to 4.5 in 2019.
In the championship games in which they have started since 2020; Paddy Small has averaged 1.2 points per game; Dean Rock is 1.5 (from play) and Cormac Costello has scored 2.9.
But it’s worth recalling that by the time Mannion left the inter-county arena in 2019, he had developed into one of Dublin’s best defenders.
Against Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final, he had six successful tackles in a game in which he also scored 0-5 from play.
Twice against Tyrone the previous year; once in a Super 8 game in Omagh and again in the All-Ireland final, he made 90-yard retreats and successfully dispossessed an opposition player as they bore down on goal.
“I don’t want to be just a forward who can’t tackle or track back,” he once noted, “that’s the team ethos anyway, it’s not just me.”
There are many intangibles.
Mannion’s ball-winning (a key part in Dublin’s second-half overcoming of Mayo in the 2017 All-Ireland final), his free-taking from the right-hand side and his sheer presence, should take some of the opposition heat away from Con O’Callaghan.
Again, guarantees are few. Save for one miserable cameo in Omagh in February 2020, McCaffrey has been away from this level of football for more than three years.
Mannion has had a serious knee and recurring ankle injuries, setbacks that have blotted his exceptional club form since he last wore the Dublin jersey in a locked-down Croke Park in the depths of winter 2020.
But if either’s output compares even roughly with how they performed before they left, Dublin will have found the stimulus the team need after a stable but ultimately unsuccessful 2022.