The McCarthy story: From near tragedy to maybe Dublin's greatest ever footballer

James McCarthy set out in his father’s footsteps and long since marched past them. The son of three-time All-Ireland winner John, he’s in line to become the joint-holder of a record-breaking nine titles on Sunday if Dublin win. Cahair O’Kane charts the McCarthy story and how it came within an inch of tragedy…

If Dublin win on Sunday, James McCarthy will become the holder of a joint-record nine All-Ireland medals with team-mates Stephen Cluxton and Mick Fitzsimons. McCarthy's father John won three All-Irelands with the county in the 1970s. Picture: Sportsfile
If Dublin win on Sunday, James McCarthy will become the holder of a joint-record nine All-Ireland medals with team-mates Stephen Cluxton and Mick Fitzsimons. McCarthy's father John won three All-Irelands with the county in the 1970s. Picture: Sportsfile

THE last time John McCarthy togged out for a championship game with Dublin was the 1984 All-Ireland final defeat by Kerry.

He’d been a part of the tired-looking side that, having won three All-Irelands and lost three finals to the Kingdom, were beaten by Laois in a Leinster semi-final in ’81.

The Monday morning headlines read of the end of an era. The curtain looked to have fallen for him.

But after some glittering club form in the early part of ’84, Kevin Heffernan recalled McCarthy and put him into the starting line-up for the Leinster semi-final against Meath at the age of 32.

The remarkable thing about that was not that he had found his form again in the twilight of a career that brought him All-Ireland medals in 1974, ’76 (when he was man-of-the-match) and ’77.

A Garda based in the Bridewell Station, he was off-duty and on his way home from playing darts at Bohemians football club in February ’84 when he stopped to pick up a Chinese takeaway.

Standing in the queue, a woman recognised him.

“That’s a pig out of the Bridewell,” she said, alerting the others to his presence.

“I remember a voice in the background telling me to watch the knife but I never saw it. It was probably a flick knife,” he recalled in an interview in 1989.

John McCarthy was stabbed in the chest and the leg. The knife came within an inch of piercing his heart. If it had been pointed up rather than down, he most likely wouldn’t have survived that night.

His son James was born in March 1990, six years after the attack.

Tomorrow in Croke Park, James McCarthy, Stephen Cluxton and Michael Fitzsimons will aim to win their ninth All-Ireland medals. No-one in the history of Gaelic football has ever achieved that.

Not to diminish Fitzsimons’ incredible record but McCarthy and Cluxton’s achievements would be the more remarkable for having started all nine finals since 2011.

They’re the two greatest footballers to play on the greatest football team of all time.

Little did that takeaway assailant know that he might have robbed Dublin of two legends, not just one.


NOBODY looked more tired of it all than James McCarthy.

Mayo had chased Dublin for years. Everyone had.

But having been six points up and comfortable, the panache and pace of Tommy Conroy and Ryan O’Donoghue reeled them in. The Dubs suffered their first championship defeat for seven years.

McCarthy looked jaded. He’d fought with injuries all year. He clashed with Diarmuid O’Connor as Rob Hennelly’s equaliser landed, but got away with it. In stoppage time at the end of extra-time, he was black carded after throwing Lee Keegan to the turf out of the sheer frustration of it.

As Conor Lane pointed him to the line, you wondered if you’d ever see McCarthy in a Dublin jersey again.

It felt, like Laois in ’81, the end of an era.

Two years on, he’s playing as well as he’s ever played. His second half against Kerry last year was majestic.

In the last 20 minutes, he kicked a superb point from in front of the Hogan Stand and started the moves for another 1-3. Just when he and Ciaran Kilkenny looked to have dragged them back from the brink, Sean O’Shea’s monster free took Kerry past their nemesis.

McCarthy went off and got married in December and missed a bit of January, but the plan was always to return.

“You obviously take stock a little bit but I didn’t feel like a chapter was closed, if you like,” he said in April.

“I still felt there was a bit more to give. The nature of the game, the semi-final last year, it was a pretty tight game and it went down to the smallest margins so that made you think there’s a bit more there.”

After 13 years of trying to win every sprint in training, he’s looked after his body that bit better this year.

Dessie Farrell described him earlier this week as “probably the greatest we’ve ever had”.

The first time Brendan Hackett encountered McCarthy was when he took Westmeath U21s to a Leinster final in 2010.

The Dublin team that beat them and went on to win the All-Ireland would provide captain Jonny Cooper, Rory O’Carroll, Dean Rock, Nicky Devereux and James McCarthy to winning squads at senior level.

Hackett, a former CEO of Athletics Ireland, would later manage McCarthy, winning a county title with Ballymun in 2020.

“He’s certainly the best all-round footballer that I’ve seen,” he says.

“He’s probably the most complete athlete I’ve seen playing football in terms of his stamina, his speed, his strength.

“I coached Jack O’Shea at club level and the similarities were phenomenal. He was recognised at the time as the greatest of his generation because of his fitness and ability. Jacko was team of the century, team of the millennium - McCarthy is in that bracket.

“Both phenomenally fit, both at the absolute top in technical ability, they could do so many things. A natural fitness, an unbelievable ability to recover from injury – McCarthy’s the best I’ve ever seen at recovering from injury, and it’s as much his mental determination as his physical healing.

“Both very quietly self-confident without any trace of arrogance. Both of them had long careers that delivered on the big days, in All-Ireland finals when the team needed them both.

“There’s people have one-off games but he’s done it all the time when the team has needed him. There’s very few players like that,” said Hackett.

McCarthy has been a chief standard-bearer throughout his time with Dublin.

He was among the half-dozen that would go out to the parish centre in Palmerstown in the early mornings and do a bit of boxing training with Bernard Dunne.

“We could also do a bit of sparring at the end, without hitting the head – you wouldn’t want to be paired with James McCarthy, an absolute beast,” wrote Bernard Brogan in his book, The Hill, where he also referred to ‘Macker’ (the same nickname his father had when he was playing) as “that great big silverback gorilla of ours that rarely says a word, is stomping around [a tackling drill], grinning, gritting his teeth: f***in’ love it!”

The return this year of Paul Mannion and Jack McCaffrey in particular is widely suspected to have a lot to do with wanting to get McCarthy up the steps of the Hogan Stand as an All-Ireland winning captain.

He’s done everything else.


JAMES McCarthy has eight Celtic Crosses, four Allstars, a Footballer of the Year nomination in 2017 and an Allstar nomination in nine of the last ten years, with the sole exception of two summers ago.

John McCarthy was the only member of the Dublin team of the 1970s and early ‘80s not to win an Allstar.

He scored a goal and won the decisive penalty in the ’76 final but still missed out on the gong.

His call-up to a Dublin setup came when he bumped into then-manager Phil Markey in a hotel bar in the middle of the 1973 championship.

Kevin Heffernan would convert him from wing-back to corner-forward. By the time McCarthy finished up in ’84, their relationship had become uneasy.

McCarthy once said that if he met Heffernan walking down the street, “I think I’d cross to the other side. You have to respect what he did with the Dublin team but he lacked the ability to be human.”

The Dublin team of the ‘70s was full of doctors and engineers and solicitors. McCarthy was happy being a Garda.

Football was his competitive outlet. When he pulled on a Dublin jersey, the spirit animal raged within him.

“I never had the ambition that the other lads had. No push. In football it was different. I wanted to win there. But I am as happy as anybody,” he said in that 1989 interview with Walsh.

“All I wanted was a wife and a few kids and enough money to buy food and a jar. I don't want to live in Howth or own a big car."

When James was a boy and John was in his early 40s, still playing club football, the pair of them would run 5ks along the Bull Wall in Clontarf.

The first time John had seen something special in his son was at a cross-country school race in Baldoyle when he was a teenager.

“Coming to the last lap the clown took the wrong route. By the time he got back, there were 100 guys ahead of him. He didn't panic, he worked his way back and at the line, he was beaten by two yards and finished fourth. I thought ‘this guy can do something’,” said the father in an interview in 2017.

Alongside playing for Dublin, John had been captain of Mountjoy Garda’s soccer team back in the day and that was originally the line that James took.

He only really took up Gaelic football as he was finishing up at primary school.

His former DCU coach Niall Moyna said in 2014 that “if James McCarthy had been an athlete and run the 800m, he would have a talent very close to what Mark English currently has.”

For him to have taken any other path than Gaelic football would have been a travesty for the sport and for Dublin.

John McCarthy was a Dublin great.

James McCarthy is Dublin’s greatest.