Dublin’s 32-year-old warrior returns for another year with the same fire in his belly
Even in his long list of heroic Croke Park performances, McCarthy had a standout day for Dublin on his last visit to the big house.
His display against Kerry had all the old McCarthy trademarks that has set him apart for the last decade and more. An incredible athleticism mixed with an indomitable spirit, McCarthy raged against the dying of the light for Dublin as Kerry eventually found a way.
By his own admission, he missed much of the veneration over his performance. He was off mourning the end of another summer knowing only that Seán O’Shea made Kerry stand tallest.
He’ll tell you now that he was, to some extent, playing off muscle memory in that game. McCarthy’s endurance and rock-solid constitution deserted him last year. An unfamiliar pattern of groin and hamstring injuries pockmarked his season – and, by extension, unsettled Dublin’s year.
“I had a fairly messy year with injuries, which is something I need to reflect and look back on, because you are no good to anybody if you are on the sidelines and not playing,” McCarthy said at the launch of AIG’s new Injury Cash product, aimed at sports people of all levels to help provide some financial support in the event of injury.
“I don’t know if it’s getting older or possibly doing some silly stuff training-wise, I don’t know. I’ll reflect on that when the club campaign is over.
“I’d be diligent in my training. I got some hamstring injuries this year, which I would be annoyed about, because I always think you can prevent them. It’s the contact ones you can’t do anything about.
“So, it was annoying getting muscles injuries, with all the modern tech we have now at training and how closely everything is monitored you shouldn’t be picking up muscle injuries like that.”
When the big day came he was right. At least some of that performance was from the hard-wiring installed after years of high-wire games at HQ.
“I always say those games take on a life of their own, particularly in the second half. You are playing in front of 80,000 – and at that stage, in my mind, you are throwing caution to the wind and going for the jugular. That was my attitude – and I always think it serves you well, playing off your instincts and not over-thinking things.”
There’s no clear explanation for Dublin’s slow start to the season and relegation. McCarthy reckons that defeat to Mayo the previous year, their first in championship in an age, left a trail.
“I definitely think there was a hangover after the semi-final loss against Mayo, we probably didn’t address it quickly enough.
“The league campaign was a poor campaign by us, a lot of players had to have a hard look at ourselves because we just weren’t performing, end of.
“It was a very poor league campaign, we got relegated and we deserved to. We sat down after that and had a strong discussion amongst ourselves, and reset the sights for the summer.”
McCarthy is 32 now and, with eight All-Ireland medals, sits amongst the greats of Gaelic football. One more would set him out all on his own (alongside team-mate Mick Fitzsimons).
That they ran Kerry so close without Con O’Callaghan leaves McCarthy in no doubt that an incredible ninth medal is within reach.
“The loss of Con was obviously a massive loss to us. You take Shane Walsh, Damien Comer, David Clifford or Seán O’Shea out of their teams, then they would be different teams.
“It is no different for us. Con is a massive player for us, a massive big-game player – and he was playing unbelievable football before he got hurt.
“He’s a big leader among the group as well, which people probably don’t understand, so he was a big loss for us. But, even on that, I still think we could have won the game.
“But it’s in the history books now, that’s the way it is. On a positive, we probably had 20 new players in the squad the last two or three years as well.
“You seen the likes of Lee Gannon this year, Lorcan O’Dell, Tom Lahiff, and they are really shaping up well.
“The challenge now for them is to build on it and I’ll definitely be trying to drive them to do that, and not fall on their laurels but get better every year.”
As for his own form, he’s not ready to accept that his levels simply have to drop off as he moves deeper into the autumn of his career.
“Oh yeah there’s plenty of opinions when you get over 30 but if you are still doing it, you still enjoy it and have the time and the hunger for it, there’s no reason you can’t compete.
“The way I look at it is I have 12 or 13 years of high-level training and playing over a fella who is 20.
“So that’s an advantage for me as well. I don’t see it as a limitation. It’s more in your mind – if you still think you can do it and compete at that level, there’s no reason why you can’t.
“Obviously eventually physical limitations will come at you and the evidence shows you do slow down and I picked up more injuries that I would have liked last year.
“But the training is so advanced now and you can improve in loads of different ways, and you can hold your form anyway. Maybe you can’t get huge jumps, but you can still play to a good level.”
And as the years change, the goals remain the same.
“I still think we can win an All-Ireland title, that’s the truth of it – and that’s the goal for next season. We’ll be really going hard for it. Look, we haven’t been good enough the last two seasons, that’s a fact, we lost two semi-finals and we’ve been relegated from Division 1.
“But do I still think the group is good enough to compete for the highest honours? Absolutely. And we’d be hoping to drive that on for next season.
“I still really enjoy playing football, still really enjoy playing at that level and competing – and that’s what drives me on more. I still really enjoy playing on the team and I have a lot of close friends there. We are a close group, and they are all factors. But you will be finished playing long enough, that’s how I see it, so why not try play as long as I can, I suppose, until someone gives me a right clipping in Croke Park that’d be the time – I’d probably walk away then!”