It is almost a decade now since Dublin and Mayo met for a Saturday night league game in Castlebar when the players literally lost one another in a thickening fog that caused the abandonment of the game. As the new All-Ireland champions prepared to high -tail it back to the bright lights, Michael Darragh Macauley emerged from the Dublin dressing room looking, as ever, as though he had just raided the wardrobe of Jeffrey The Dude Lewbowski. He chatted happily about the ridiculousness of the fog, before replacing his headphones and ambling on to the team bus.
The moment came to mind when watching Macauley reflect on his cloud-busting and unorthodox Dublin years for Wednesday night's TG4 show, Laochra Gael. The long-running series is essentially a tribute show distinguished by the willingness of the participants to reflect in a way they could not have done when the game was a live proposition. The latest episode was splendid because Macauley is such a compelling figure.
From his breakout season in 2009, Macauley was a curiosity in a Dublin football squad containing thoroughbreds. His was not the usual synopsis: a south-side boy, he'd gone to Blackrock College and he was nuts about basketball. The reason for his inclusion in the senior Dublin panel was obvious: a freakish athletic presence with combustible energy and a running game that could scatter organised defences as a bowling ball smashes through skittles. He was tough as nails, had exceptional passing vision, carried the ball with berserk physicality and while he often looked as though he was about to lose control, he never did.
The strange thing was that in frame he didn't so much look like a footballer so much as an unusually tall gymnast. In the decade that passed between Dublin stunning themselves by winning the 2011 All-Ireland final and completing their six-in-a-row in a ghostly Croke Park during a December when the world was in the throes of the pandemic, Macauley was an exuberant presence. The ball skills improved rapidly, the force of his energy could change games and over time, it will surely emerge that he was one of the architects in chief of finessing the back-door cuts with which Dublin forwards have destroyed elite defenders for too many summers.
But who was he? Even people who followed Gaelic games might not have known that he and his siblings have endured the tragedy of losing both of their parents very early, their mum Rosaleen when Macauley was 12 and their father Michael, a doctor, in 2012. That’s a lot of grief to ship, even for such an instinctively bright and cheerful person as Macauley. “Christmas has never been great since,” he tells the programme, a brief observation that contains multitudes.
Naturally, it had a profound impact on the future footballer. For practical reasons, Macauley was enrolled at Blackrock college as a boarder. One of the most vivid descriptions has him shooting a basketball day after day, usually alone, in the cradle of Irish rugby. How did Blackrock miss on a lad who looks genetically composed for contemporary rugby? The likely answer is that they didn’t: that Macauley simply didn’t have any interest in playing the sport despite its exalted role in the school ethos – that he did his own thing.
He always has done and even after he became the Footballer of the Year in 2013, there was a vague sense that Macauley was moonlighting: that he'd been distracted by Gaelic football on his way to the skateboard park and decided to stick about for the lark. That wasn't ever quite true: it's clear that the Ballyboden club has always been a huge source of nourishment and he was a fierce competitor with Dublin for a full decade, an intense commitment.
But he is a free spirit and in Gaelic games, where there has always been a premium on not getting above your station, that’s a tricky thing to be. For decades, there was an unspoken pressure to conform within the GAA: players who expressed themselves through fashion or life choices risked derision if and when things didn’t go well. It was dangerous to be seen to be different. Macauley is one of a handful of players who helped to broaden general perceptions in that he didn’t even seem to notice that he was different to the mainstream Gaelic footballer.
When Dublin were steamrolling all comers and the greatest minds in Kerry football took to the psychoanalyst’s couch or the pub – much the same difference in Kerry – to figure out where it had gone wrong, the Dubs were often referred to as a “machine”. They were imperturbable, operating on a realm of serene efficiency. In Colm Cooper’s memorable phrase, they played “as if you weren’t there”.
The true genius of the Jim Gavin regime – and it may never be fully explained – was how he persuaded so many bloody-minded and highly different individuals to operate on the same wavelength for so long. Dublin panels over the last decade have featured a lot of extremely diverse personalities with radically different attitudes to, and goals in, life. You didn't have to know Diarmuid Connolly or Kevin McManamon or Jack McCaffrey or Rory O'Carroll or Bernard Brogan or James McCarthy or Cian O'Sullivan at all well to figure out that this was a dressing room containing very different world views.
Several walked away at their peak and it became clear that while the GAA was a big thing in their lives, it wasn't the only thing. Stephen Cluxton, the figurehead, didn't so much walk as melt back into the everyday. And there was always that sense that once they achieved what they set out to do as a group, they'd scatter with the wind.
Late on in the documentary, Macauley recounted a showdown with Gavin after he was dropped for the 2016 All-Ireland final replay against Mayo. The player went on the attack, sounding off and hoping to engage the manager. But Gavin, he remembered, just sat opposite him “like an understanding priest, just nodding and taking my verbal abuse”.
It’s a brilliant insight into what was happening at the very time when the other teams were trying to crack the code as the Dubs moved remorselessly towards sporting history. Ordinary stuff, in other words: rows, squabbles, ambition, frustration and the usual messy human concerns, all deflected towards the greater good.
As the new GAA season rumbles into view and the pandemic air is at last beginning to clear, the other county teams are still responding to the havoc caused by Macauley and his former team-mates. The argument about funding died down as soon as the Dubs were finally beaten by Mayo last August. But they are a different proposition now. The city population has been harnessed and the generation of young footballers inspired by those endless summers of the Dubs winning it all will soon begin to announce themselves.
By then, Macauley will have long moved on to other things but what a blast he was: a streak of electric pink through the sky blue – and the fog.