Roy Curtis: Return of the Mac a victory for self-expression over slavish adherence to join-the-dots coaching manuals
His hypersonic, slingshot surges – a biped somehow hurtling at (Jack) Mach 5 – were mood-altering, intoxicating, a hit of giddiness that made an audience feel tipsy and giggly.
ummer has missed a speedballing Jack McCaffrey, surging across Croke Park like an uncontainable wildfire.
A shot of tequila against the back of the throat, a human sugar-rush, a figure advancing in such an absurdly rapid Sky Blue blur that the absence of a trailing flare of rocket flame seemed like a contradiction of the laws of physics.
This is not about whether you are a fan of Dublin, or the GAA, or even if you are a disciple of team sport.
It is more about the phenomenon of fast movement, that visceral, endorphin-releasing exhilaration of seeing a human or an animal or a machine fizzbombing across the horizon.
Don DeLillo gets to the nub of it in his frequently quoted line from the novel End Zone: “Speed is the last excitement left, the one thing we haven’t used up, still naked in its potential, the mysterious black gift that thrills the millions.”
It is Usain Bolt surging along a track of vulcanised rubber; Coolmore’s mating of thoroughbred genes in pursuit of the perfect racehorse, one that moves like the wind; the reason Lewis Hamilton is paid $40m dollars per year or that Top Gun: Maverick is the box office hit of 2022.
Elite sport is, of course, primarily about winning.
But it is also about moments, unforgettable, life-affirming cameos that sear to the consciousness, that make you feel so giddy and alive, so overloaded with adrenalin and wonder that the only appropriate reaction is to emit some kind of loon-ball primal scream, while laughing uproariously and high-fiving anybody within a ten-yard radius.
Michael Jordan dancing on currents of air, his body snorting at gravity as he elegantly slam-dunks a basketball through the hoop. Diego Maradona, slaloming through England’s defence all those years ago, re-imagining Terry Butcher and friends as helpless mannequins melting under the Azteca Stadium sun. Tiger Woods, fist-pumping in Sunday scarlet, doing Tiger things.
These are the moments that carry sport – and the human spirit – to another dimension.
You can love Gaelic football and still find the endless lateral passing, the minutes of going nowhere, the suffocating defensive systems, as too much of a sleep-inducing study in choking caution.
McCaffrey was different, gloriously different: a leather-jacketed, rebellious James Dean gatecrashing a Zoom call of po-faced revenue auditors.
Unorthodox, fearless, utterly devoted to the team yet still lost in the rapture of his own movement.
There is a glorious image from the Czech writer Milan Kundera which to me sums up McCaffrey’s state of mind as he raced down the verdant Croke Park highway like somebody had pressed the x30 fast-forward button on the Sky remote control.
“The man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present instant of his flight; he is caught in a fragment of time cut out from both the past and the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time; he is outside time; in other words he is in a state of ecstasy; in that state he is unaware of his age, his wife, his children, his worries, and so he has no fear.”
In other words, he is free.
McCaffrey uncaged, a two-legged cheetah in full flight, achieved that state of absolute liberation and self-expression. And in so doing, he lifted those watching out of slumps and slouches and made them, too, feel unshackled.
On those days he was a damburst of joy.
Recall him, chortling among all the stern, tense, glacial faces in the pre-match parade, his personality simply too alive to embrace the robotic dogma of the age.
Perhaps it is because his work as a doctor – dealing with authentic life and death issues – persuaded him that All-Ireland finals were days to savour and smell the roses.
McCaffrey, both because of his talent and body language was a singular ray of sunshine.
The news that he and Paul Mannion are returning to the Dublin panel feels like a victory for self-expression over slavish adherence to join-the-dots coaching manuals that diminish the spectacle.
Here are a radically imaginative design team arriving to give a jaded old building a face-lift.
There were powerful signs of renaissance at the end of summer in the rewards reaped by the triumphant daring of David Clifford and Shane Walsh and Seanie O’Shea, artists emerging from a defensive dystopia to reclaim the stage for the entertainers.
Dessie Farrell’s jolting Sunday night announcement will surely accelerate the trend.
McCaffrey and Mannion – two bright men, strong personalities with rounded world views – will have been away a combined five years by the time Dublin suit up again.
There are no guarantees that McCaffrey can again showcase the electrifying combination of speed, ambition and skill that saw him elected as the 2015 Footballer of the Year.
Likewise, though Mannion has been an untouchable force on the club scene with Kilmacud, knee and ankle issues remain a challenge for the three-in-a-row All Star.
But this is no geriatric flight of fancy. Both are in their late generational talents in their athletic prime. Mannion turned 29 in May, McCaffrey joins him on that mark next month.
Jack Mac is some 16 years younger than the still standard-setting gridiron legend Tom Brady.
In his previous life as a Dublin footballer, his bullet train swallowing of the ground made other exceptional athletes look like they were running in treacle or tethered to a stake.
Opposing managers were unsure of whether to double-team the flying doctor, deploy tyre-shredders, or beg the cops to issue him with a licence-revoking 12 penalty points.
And now he’s returning for a sequel.
Football, it seems, can brace itself for another intoxicating tequila sunrise.
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