Dublin hurling captain Johnny McCaffrey ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy
He led the Metropolitans to league glory in 2011 and he’s hoping to collect more silverware in the months ahead…
On the eve of the throw-in for the 2012 national hurling league, hoganstand.com caught up with the man who lifted the Division One trophy last season – Dublin midfielder and captain Johnny McCaffrey. The Lucan Sarsfields clubman speaks about the Sky Blues’ magnificent breakthrough success of 2011 (their first league triumph in 72 years); defending the title; Sunday’s eagerly-awaited opener against Galway in Salthill; the team’s ultimate All-Ireland aspirations; the continuing development of hurling in the capital; his career as a full-time GAA coach; and his genuine appreciation of the Dubs footballers.
Dublin’s hurlers haven’t won a Leinster SHC since 1961; their last senior All-Ireland win was in 1938. These are the next two gaps they aim to bridge. It’s all part of a natural progression and one which Johnny hopes to play a major role in. Having captained his county to minor and U21 provincial championships, he seems to have a knack of collecting major silverware – last year’s league title being the biggest one to date…
“It was great to win the league, especially with us having been so disappointing the year before, in both the league and championship,” he reflects. “We put our heads down and worked very hard from the start of the year and the Division One title was our reward for a lot of hard work, not just last year but over a number of years.”
With a new campaign about to get underway, is it now time to move on and consign that one to the memory bank? “Yes, I think so. It’s a new start now and what happened last year is just an experience at this stage. You can still look back on parts of it and draw from those but it’s in the past and 2012 is totally new and we’re really looking forward to the year.”
Anthony Daly commented earlier in the week that the goal for Dublin this year is either a Leinster title or an All-Ireland final appearance. Johnny agrees with these aspirations: “I think that’s fair enough. Any team that plays in the Liam McCarthy Cup wants to win it. You want to win any competition you compete in and the All-Ireland is always going to be your long-term goal. But in the immediate future, we will just concentrate on each game as it comes and build it up from there.”
After captaining the Dubs to provincial minor and U21 championships, does Johnny have his sights set on a rare hat-trick? “I’ve been lucky enough to have played on some very good teams coming up. A lot of those same players are on the senior team alongside me now and they are good hurlers. We are all focussed on the same goals.”
Of course, Johnny’s elevation to Dublin captain last year was only made possible by the long-term injury sustained by his county colleague Stephen Hiney. He felt a lot of sympathy for his team-mate as the year unfolded… “It was unfortunate for Stephen, especially as we went on to win the league. Even though Stephen was there with me in Croke Park lifting the silverware, I’m sure he’d have preferred to have been playing that day. He’s been part of the Dublin team for ten years and it was cruel on him to miss out. But he’s putting in massive work at the moment to get himself back into the team and that’ inspirational to us all.”
Everyone knows Dublin have made significant strides over the past few seasons, but have their substantial injury woes curtailed this progress in any way? “I don’t think so. Everybody has put in an extra couple of per cent to compensate for the injuries and the lads who have come in have done a great job, which just goes to show the strength in depth. There will always be occasions when you don’t have everyone fully fit and that’s where the panel is so important. We have a panel of 39 or 40 lads and they all think they have a chance of playing every game – and rightly so.”
How important is Sunday’s league opener against the Tribesmen and is there any added pressure on Dublin going into the competition as holders? “It’s a very important game. Every league game this year is going to be important because there’s no room to settle in as you’ve only got five matches. Having said that, it’s not the be all and end all if you lose one because there’s still four to go. It’s still only February and we’re all looking further ahead, but it would be great to win on Sunday.
“I don’t think there’s any extra pressure. We’re not focusing on any particular goal in the league; you just take each game as it comes.”
And the Dublin captain feels that the team is shaping up well for the challenges ahead: “Preparations have gone very well. Losing in the Walsh Cup was disappointing but training has been excellent and we have trained as hard in the last couple of months as we every have done. We’re feeling fit and strong and we’re all looking forward to it.”
Is hurling for Dublin almost like a full-time job, bearing in mind all the sacrifices and commitment involved? “There is a lot of commitment but the players are only doing it because we enjoy it. It’s not as if anyone is putting a gun to our heads. There’s great fun in it, going out training with the lads and playing matches. We are all delighted and proud to be part of the county set-up and there are great rewards to be had at the end of the day if we can win something.”
Speaking of full-time jobs, Johnny is employed as a Games Promotion Officer, coaching both football and hurling in his local club in Lucan. The dream job? “It’s something I love. It was bred into me from I was a young lad and I really enjoy the job. The coaching can be a lot different from playing but it’s a great job. You are out and about and I certainly can’t complain.”
Encouragingly, the Dublin captain is optimistic that the tremendous strides being made by hurling in the capital can be sustained. “Absolutely,” he says. “The structures that are in place in the County Board and in the clubs will make sure Dublin stays at the top. You only have to look at the U21s and minors both getting to All-Ireland finals last year and the Development Squads are also going brilliantly. There are more youngsters than ever before playing the game and there is a consistency of progress across the board.
“There are more people talking about us and recognising what we are doing. A lot of people are wishing us well and are delighted to see us as a force again and we can feed off that.”
The ultimate goal has to be an All-Ireland, though, right? “Yes. At the end of the day that’s what we are all working towards. You want to be in that final the first weekend of September and please God it won’t be a long wait.”
Will the day ever come when young lads in Dublin dream of playing for the hurlers the same way as, traditionally, they aspire to play football for Dublin? “I think it’s happening now. A lot of young lads who are good at both games are putting hurling first. That’s very positive. A lot of young people want to be part of Dublin hurling today. Lads like Conal Keaney, Shane Ryan and Ross O’Carroll opted for hurling because they realise that we are moving in the right direction and it has all helped to raise the profile of Dublin hurling.”
As a GAA man first and foremost, Johnny has great respect for what the footballers achieved last year and he sees no reason why the two codes can’t continue to prosper simultaneously: “I was at the All-Ireland final last year and I cheered the team on and it was a massive achievement for Dublin to win their first All-Ireland in 16 years. I was delighted and I hope they can win it again this year. When you look at the success we enjoyed last year in both codes, with the minors contesting both finals and the seniors in both league finals and also in the latter stages of the championship, then it’s clear that Dublin football and hurling can thrive together at the same time.”