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Monday 26 September 2016

Kingdom to test Dubs to stress limit

Croker's Battle of titans has a summer feel to it

Dublin manager Jim Gavin and captain Stephen Cluxton Photo: Sportsfile
Dublin manager Jim Gavin and captain Stephen Cluxton Photo: Sportsfile
Dublin’s Philip McMahon battles with Kerry’s Donnchadh Walsh in last September’s All-Ireland SFC Final Photo: Sportsfile

I feel like I have been in a time warp this week. The phone has been hopping. People looking for tickets all week. All of a sudden it feels like it should be September. But it is only April; it is the Allianz Football League finals weekend.

Where were all these people of the cold winter nights of January and February? Now everybody wants a piece of the action. Why? It's Dublin versus Kerry, it's Tyrone back with a new team on an upward curve, it's Cavan folk trying to scam an oul free ticket!

Throw in the 1916 celebrations and we are heading for a crowd of probably close to 70,000 in Croke Park this Sunday.

The Allianz League in the past has been seen as the calm before the summer storm but in its present state it is becoming the cart before the horse. It is now much more than that!

There was a time when the league was used to ease established players back into action after taking a winter break. Some players would have wintered well whilst others waited for the smell of the freshly cut grass before they raised a gallop. Not any more, times have changed.

Quality

The quality of games and entertainment over the last few months will out-do anything that we will see through the first three months of the provincial championships.

Why is that I wonder? It is simply because it is now the one GAA competition that is balanced correctly. It is the best teams playing each other week in, week out. It is the weaker teams playing at the right level trying to achieve progress.

It is the barometer for progress in most counties and for their respective managers. It is proper entertainment.

Would it be a fairytale to think that maybe at some point, we might get the top teams all playing each other during the summer's months?

Yes, I know all too well it is a fairytale considering how conservative the GAA leadership has become.

It is no coincidence that the top two teams have made the final which is a huge statement of intent by rival managers Jim Gavin and Eamon Fitzmaurice.

All the pressure points lie with Fitzmaurice coming into this game. Dublin lose and the focus will turn to the championship. Kerry lose and it was another twist of the psychological knife that is currently embedded in their backs when it comes to Dublin. And rest assured that knife is hurting.

For years a cloud hung over Dublin when they faced Kerry. Defeat after defeat for 34 years of championship football, Kerry brought an aura to Dublin games and Dublin could not cope with their core skills and ability.

They used to throw the Dubs the odd league win just to keep us interested. The shoe is now on the other foot. The foot is firmly on Kerry in recent years and it is slowly becoming a burden.

Kerry currently have a core group of players that can see the curtain coming down in the distance.

A group of great players who delivered everything they have been asked of in their county jersey.

In recent weeks it has been clearly evident that the hunger is still within this Kerry team for one last dance.

Marc ó Sé, Kieran Donaghy, Aidan O'Mahony, Darran O'Sullivan and Colm Cooper have been regulars throughout the league. They look fit, hungry, sharp and they are all making a massive contribution to their team's positive performances.

That edge could prove decisive this Sunday. Do they want to finish their careers been part of the group who succumbed to the Dubs for the last five years?

Kerry usually only prepare to peak the first weekend in July for a Munster Final when they have sucked Cork into a false of security.

But Fitzmaurice has taken a different strategy this year and whilst Sunday is only a league final, it is about Kerry making a statement.

Hunger

Of course the hunger that presently drives this Kerry team will keep the Dubs focused.

Last year Dublin were in cruise control up to the league final against Cork and when they decided to hit full throttle in the final they blew Cork out of the water.

Whilst Dublin have broken all sorts of footballing records in recent weeks, their performances have been patchy at times with their mental resolve and belief getting them over the line.

Having watched both teams throughout this year's league campaign, there are lots of similarities to their play. Both have similar effective defensive systems with an extra player dropping into the space to protect the full-back line.

Kerry have a preference for the long kickout but the biggest change in approach has been their entire forward line dropping deeper to get a full press across their half-forward line. This allows them to get extra bodies back quicker into their defensive zone once the opposition have breached the halfway line.

It is an effective system that allows them protect their goal but also enables them to make the transition into attack very easily.

A Dublin v Kerry final has brought an extra dimension to this year's Allianz Finals weekend and will bring the best out of in both teams.

Dublin will be asked to go up through the gears on Sunday. Kerry will ask the first real questions of this Dublin team in 2016 and will stress test the Dublin defence in the absence of Rory O'Caroll and Jack McCaffrey.

Dublin will need to find answers; if not the Kerry old guard will have taken one small step on the road to redemption.

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