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hot shot 'He's so good it's hard to know where to play him' Conal Keaney on Dubs' sensation Robbie McDaid

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Dublin's Robbie  McDaid has been in great form in the championship and is odds-on to win an All-Star

Dublin's Robbie McDaid has been in great form in the championship and is odds-on to win an All-Star

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Dublin legend Conal Keaney, in action for Ballyboden St Enda's, is shouldered by John Small of Ballymun Kickhams

Dublin legend Conal Keaney, in action for Ballyboden St Enda's, is shouldered by John Small of Ballymun Kickhams

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Robbie McDaid has played in a variety of positions for his club Ballyboden St Enda's

Robbie McDaid has played in a variety of positions for his club Ballyboden St Enda's

SPORTSFILE

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Dublin's Robbie McDaid has been in great form in the championship and is odds-on to win an All-Star

IN Dublin’s last two matches alone, their marauding wing-back has teed up a point-blank goal for Seán Bugler against Meath; and then, against Cavan, he has pounced on defensive dithering to create another (unconverted) goal chance for Niall Scully, scored a point in either half and ghosted into attack for his team’s only goal.

On a day of peak Brian Fenton, RTÉ named Dublin’s No 7 as their Man of the Match. There is life after Jack McCaffrey, after all.

Meet Robbie McDaid, Dublin’s overnight sensation at the age of 27. “Robbie who?” the naysayers were asking a few months ago. Now they are just as likely to utter: “Jack who?”

This is not to say that any player can replicate the unique brand of explosive wizardry that McCaffrey in his pomp brought to Jim Gavin’s Dublin.

But this is now Dessie Farrell’s Dublin, and maybe it’s no surprise that he has chosen a familiar face to fill the void after one of his most famous underage prodigies hopped off the inter-county treadmill.

After all, back in 2011, when Farrell’s minor Galácticos were stunned by Tipperary in the All-Ireland final, the armband was worn not by McCaffrey or Ciarán Kilkenny or John Small or Paul Mannion, but by McDaid.

Essentially, it has taken nine years for Dublin’s minor full-back captain of 2011 to graduate into a senior regular. Where McCaffrey was the shoo-in No 7 on last year’s All Star team, McDaid is now a prohibitive 1/5 to follow suit ahead of Sunday’s All-Ireland SFC final against Mayo.

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Dublin legend Conal Keaney, in action for Ballyboden St Enda's, is shouldered by John Small of Ballymun Kickhams

Dublin legend Conal Keaney, in action for Ballyboden St Enda's, is shouldered by John Small of Ballymun Kickhams

SPORTSFILE

Dublin legend Conal Keaney, in action for Ballyboden St Enda's, is shouldered by John Small of Ballymun Kickhams

Both players were born in October 1993; McDaid is seven days older and yet it took him seven years longer to establish his place on the team.

And if McCaffrey hadn’t quit? It’s conceivable that the Ballyboden St Enda’s man would still be waiting.

Conal Keaney, his clubmate on the Firhouse Road, has no doubt that McDaid long possessed the tools to succeed at inter-county. All he needed was the opportunity.

“I’ve seen that form for up to five years now,” says Keaney of McDaid’s outings this winter. “He has been our leading defender for a long time. He’s actually so good that it’s very hard to know where to play him. With Ballyboden he’s played centre-forward, wing-forward, midfield, centre-back, full-back … but I’d say in the last two years he has really pushed on, when he’s settled into wing-back or centre-back with us.

“And, like, his levels of fitness are just incredible. It’s getting him more scores than a lot of the lads up front. That goal he got against Cavan the last day, I’d say he gets nearly a dozen of them a season for us with the club. He’s always there at the end of a move, to finish it off or to pass it to someone to finish it off.

“So, it’s not a surprise to see him attacking. He’s not afraid to shoot; he’s not afraid to go forward. He’s a very confident fella, but a very quiet lad. He’s been super patient with this Dublin team, especially under Jim.

“He was in and out of the ‘26’. The easiest thing to do was probably (say), ‘Ah look, I’m not going to get a go, I’ll just come back to the club.’ But he stuck at it and worked really hard. He fits into the personality of that Dublin team very, very well. Unassuming. Nothing’s too big for him. If he plays, great; if he doesn’t, ‘I’m still part of the squad, the squad is the most important thing.’”

Why, then, did it take so long to make the breakthrough? You can’t ignore the stellar competition, especially in a half-back line that has included three out of James McCarthy, Cian O’Sullivan, John Small and McCaffrey for much of the Gavin era.

Nor can you ignore some rotten luck.

Back in March 2016, as McDaid was preparing for Ballyboden’s All-Ireland club final against Castlebar Mitchels, he reflected on what had been a traumatic 2015 before the club came to his rescue. He suffered two concussions – playing for UCD in January and then training with Dublin in March, the latter leading to headaches and a two-and-a-half month lay-off. “I wouldn’t have said it was scary,” he said. “It just wasn’t pleasant.”

McDaid recovered to make Dublin’s championship panel, only to rupture ankle ligaments before the Leinster final. He was out for 17 weeks, only returning for the county semi-final.

Fresh from helping ’Boden to the All-Ireland summit – alongside his first cousin Paul Durcan, of Donegal fame –McDaid was part of Dublin’s successful 2016 squad but then was dropped after the 2017 league.

Last year’s recall by Gavin was the start of a long road back. He enjoyed league minutes off the bench in Clones and Hyde Park. Then came his long-awaited SFC debut, against Tyrone in the Super 8s, albeit starting dead-rubbers in Omagh didn’t quite signify that he had made it.

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Robbie McDaid has played in a variety of positions for his club Ballyboden St Enda's

Robbie McDaid has played in a variety of positions for his club Ballyboden St Enda's

SPORTSFILE

Robbie McDaid has played in a variety of positions for his club Ballyboden St Enda's

Even six months ago, as we all wondered if there would even be a championship in 2020, McDaid still appeared to be on the periphery. With ’Boden’s latest club marathon running into early January, he didn’t appear in any of Farrell’s first five league outings before the first lockdown.

But once GAA activity resumed, McDaid was back up and running too, excelling for his club as they reached another county final, starting Dublin’s last two league games against Meath and Galway, then raising the bar with every SFC outing.

“Okay, he mightn’t be a Jack McCaffrey where he flashes down the wing and he gets a brilliant score – but he’s always there,” Keaney stresses. “ He’ll always do the right thing at the right time. And I’ve never seen him have a really bad game or he gets roasted .”

His teammate concludes: “He’s not a Mé Féiner, nothing like that whatsoever. He trains equally as hard as everyone else if not harder. Full credit to him, the hardest thing for him was maybe to get into the ‘26’. I suppose with a change of management, maybe a change of a few personnel, and with Jack going, it was his chance to take it and he saw that.”

And grabbed it. Making up for lost time makes it all the sweeter.

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