GAA Football

Kicking Out: Want to produce a legend? Sell their PlayStation

IF you are the parent of a young child who has sporting dreams or abilities, please follow the four-step Road to Greatness outlined below.

1. Go down to your child’s bedroom.

2. Take a picture of their PlayStation 5.

3. Sell it on eBay.

4. Have them thank you in 15 years’ time.

Brian Fenton and Jack McCaffrey are very close friends. In the last six years, only once has a season passed without either or both of them being nominated for Footballer of the Year.

Fenton has five Allstars and while there are five in the McCaffrey house too, one of those belongs to his father Noel from 1988.

Both Brian Fenton and Jack McCaffrey both grew up without a PlayStation in the house.

McCaffrey didn’t even have a TV. Remarkably, he only has three siblings.

They were not reared in a poverty-stricken 1960s Dublin. Both were born in 1993, eight months apart. Their teenage years were in the late noughties.

McCaffrey’s father Noel was a famous Dublin footballer in his own right and ended up coaching both his son and newly-reinstated Footballer of the Year as they strived to make their way through the Dublin underage scene.

It wasn’t that they weren’t watching TV as such. It’s more what they were doing to fill the void.

The pair only ever dreamed of playing for Dublin, yet the line wasn’t dead straight.

McCaffrey went to the private Belvedere College, which didn’t have many O’Neills size fives bouncing around the halls. He played rugby and did athletics at school.

But his primary school grounding in Scoil Neasa, and being down the park every day with his father, siblings and four footballs meant the love was always going to burn on.

Fenton dreamed the same dreams but had swimming in the blood too.

His uncle, David Cummins, swam for Ireland in the 1980 Olympics. His sister, Fenton’s late mother Marian, was fiercely passionate about it.

Brian Fenton won an Irish U14 gold medal in the 100m butterfly, and his sister Anne Marie swam for Ireland in the Youth Olympics.

The sheer athleticism of Fenton is frightening. He has attributed it to hours spent in the pool as a youngster.

As full-body workouts go, it has hard to beat swimming.

The famous McGoldrick clan from Coleraine are all ace swimmers. Like Fenton, it came from the mother’s side.

Schira McGoldrick was a talented swimmer who took her children to the pool from a young age.

Naturally rakish, a handful of them swam for All-Ireland titles.

Sean Leo’s ability to record numbers that made the GPS system question itself was particularly notable.

In terms of increasing Brian Fenton’s aerobic capacity, nothing has stood him in better stead.

In some ways it didn’t matter what they were playing, as long as it didn’t involve a TV screen and a controller.

Whether he will go on to reach a point in his career from which it can be definitively stated that he is the greatest footballer of all time, we will only know when he goes.

Defeat is not something he’s familiar with. The Raheny team he grew up on was unbeaten in Dublin from U10 until U15, losing only the All-Ireland Féile na nÓg final to Magherafelt – which he almost rescued in injury-time, having a shot blocked on the line and then another deflected on to the post.

To be turning 28 next week and still not have lost an inter-county championship match is an incredible statistic.

But any of the Dublin squad can claim they haven’t lost a game in six years. It is a nice statistic that hangs around him, but it’s not really his to own.

The five Allstars, two Footballer of the Year awards and a further shortlisting (2016), and six All-Ireland medals are a truer mark.

It’s the way in which he glides effortlessly on to the ball, comes to the ‘D’ and drops it on to either boot, and you know before he kicks it that it will clear the black spot.

It’s how he has had brilliant finals and average finals, but almost always with big moments. Man of the match in 2015, for my money he was the same again in 2020 for the way he dismantled Mayo’s midfield platform with a series of unbelievable second half catches.

Yet he had been dropped from the Dublin minors because, in a nutshell, he wasn’t big enough to play midfield. The growth spurt only came on later.

Then he suffered a dislocated kneecap. Studying physiotherapy at UCD, he missed almost a year of football and was just back from a summer in America.

He found himself in Raheny’s second team, wearing a knee brace and struggling to recover, eventually needing surgery. What bits he was playing were at wing-forward, not where he wanted to be.

He’d come back from the States a bit out of shape and was signed up to a 16-week placement at the School of Physiotherapy in Cork.

Football was not going how he imagined it. The dream seemed to be getting away from him, and he was starting to countenance the idea that a career in physio might turn life away from Dublin.

But as his mother’s illness worsened, he rejected the placement and stayed at home.

His mother, his inspiration, sadly passed away in December 2013, just as his chance with Dublin U21s was about to come.

Dessie Farrell called him in and he would win the All-Ireland, playing at midfield.

Fate would offer him the chance to start that day too. He hadn’t got a game in the Leinster final and pulled Farrell on it. The following week, he went to a college ball instead of training.

That decision could have ended his Dublin career there and then.

Instead, the timing coincided with the beginning of Shane Carthy’s struggles with depression. His place opened up at midfield and Fenton stepped in.

Jack McCaffrey’s career was a straighter path with abrupt stoppages. News that he would take a year out in 2016, and then another in 2020 with the potential that he might not come back, were as though someone had pulled the emergency brake.

He’d grown up dreaming of Dublin but when it was in his hands, he came to feel they were so full that he had no room for life’s other joys.

Despite having won Footballer of the Year in 2015, it’s almost as if his decision to take a year out in 2016 and the cruciate injury he suffered in the All-Ireland final the following year made his nomination for the same gong in both 2018 and 2019 more impressive achievements.

He is such a gifted athlete. McCaffrey never fitted the physical bill for the AFL but when he attended the combine trials, his 20-metre sprint pace was faster than that of any Australian in the previous year’s draft.

Perhaps his greatness is assured already but there’s the sense that he’s more taken a swig from the bottle and left it back on the shelf, satisfied that he knows the taste.

Fenton seems content to sit at the bar a while yet.

When they were younger, sport was all there was for them to do. In that, there is innocence and there is direction.

By the time adulthood arrives to this generation, those that spent their childhood outdoors will be at an even greater advantage than before.

Turn the PlayStation off, give them a ball and kick them out the back door.

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