James McCarthy is Dublin's Roy Keane...a selfless gladiator without the demons or darkness
HE is a fortress of flesh and bone, a vast storehouse of natural-born power, Dublin’s extinguisher of doubt.
Indestructible, relentless James McCarthy has long been a figure of reverence on Hill 16.
The only outfield player to have started all 10 of Dublin’s All-Ireland finals (eight wins, two draws) since 2011; alone in being All-Star nominated in each of the past eight seasons.
And now on the cusp of a ninth Celtic cross, a milestone that would leave even Kerry’s immortal boys of summer – Spillane, Sheehy, Páidí, Power, Ogie – trailing behind the 31-year-old on the high road of football history.
McCarthy is the Ballymun tower whose skyscraping sporting life will endure beyond all his birthdays.
He is Roy Keane without the demons or darkness: a gladiator footballer with that special quality of being able to find the best of himself when the hard questions are asked. A treasure in the trenches.
A figure at his most authoritative and influential in times of crisis.
His engulfing athleticism cohabits with an unbroken humility and the grace of both movement and personality that are his signature denominators.
In summer’s bullring, McCarthy is among an elite club who can combine the awesome muscular potency of the snorting beast with the matador’s light-footed, dancing elegance.
As durable as a Land-Rover, as sleek as any high-end machine gliding onto Enzo Ferrari’s Maranello forecourt.
Seemingly immune to the grind of the unforgiving years, he will begin his 12th season uniformed in Sky Blue with the warrior glow in his eyes burning like a freshly-kindled fire.
Though the numbers are off the charts (dad John’s three 1970s All-Ireland wins bring the family tally to 11), McCarthy’s legacy runs deeper than any statistical trawl.
His huge competitive courage has so often enabled him to find the best of himself in Dublin’s hour of need.
Whether dousing the flames of an unlikely Wexford uprising all those years ago or facing down the very best that Kerry or Mayo had to offer on afternoons of epic theatre, McCarthy has, so often, been Dublin’s unflappable Red Adair.
Answering emergency calls, putting out fires. The reassuring voice on the other end of the line when Pat Gilroy or Jim Gavin or Dessie Farrell felt the need to dial 999.
It was surely significant that, even after measuring the monumental contributions of Stephen Cluxton, Brian Fenton and Ciaran Kilkenny, Kerry’s old shaper of destiny, Darragh Ó Sé, identified McCarthy as Dublin’s most influential figure.
Colm O’Rourke describes him as a Rolls-Royce.
When Peter Keane, James Horan or any of the managers seek a way to take down the awesome Sky Blue machine, it is certain their analysis does not skip quickly past a player who has helped Dublin become an insatiable monster of success.
The kind of qualities McCarthy brings to the party – selflessness, reliability, prizefighter spirit, no-frills authority – are the kind that players place on top of their wanted list.
In his autobiography, Bernard Brogan affectionately dubbed McCarthy “Dublin’s great silverback gorilla.”
And if, unlike that great ape, McCarthy has never been remotely inclined towards attention-seeking chest-thumping, it is true that from the start, the often savage championship jungle terrain felt like his natural habitat.
McCarthy won his first All-Ireland a decade ago as a wing-back; he has been an All-Star at midfield and centre-back.
No matter the battle zone to which he is stationed, he continues to embroider a career that has been a tapestry of high achievement.
A ferocious physical specimen, he seems to float over the turf when he surges forward, devouring the yards with a balletic thoroughbred gallop.
And even after all the glory he has banked, the hunger to stake out new terrain and constantly re-prime the pump of his ambition endures.
Whether it is an All-Ireland final or a low-key league outing behind closed doors in Roscommon this afternoon, McCarthy automatically dials into an intensity that is his calling card.
As he has explained, it is about seeing how far he can push out the boundaries.
“I just love playing football and I love competing,” he said.
“I love seeing as the years go by, can I still play at a high level?
“Can I still take on everyone I play against and play with?
“I’m a very competitive person, so that keeps me going, really.
“We’ve obviously been successful.
“Just the competitive nature in myself, probably kicking on a bit as well, can I still play at the high level?
“Scratch that itch, and see if I can perform at a high level. That’s what keeps me going.”
An abbreviated league will catapult Dublin into a championship to which they have taken full custody.
Before September comes, McCarthy and Cluxton might brush against another piece of history, the first men to start and triumph in nine All-Ireland winning finals.
Even then, McCarthy, like Forrest Gump, will not think to stop.
He will simply keep on running, a footballer bewitched by the game, savouring the summer breeze brushing against his face, forever stretching for fresh horizons.
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