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Monday 23 October 2017

Race for Leinster is now a capital contest

Kilmacud Crokes’ Paul Mannion scores his wonder-goal against Castleknock in their Dublin SFC quarter-final. Pic: Sportsfile
Kilmacud Crokes’ Paul Mannion scores his wonder-goal against Castleknock in their Dublin SFC quarter-final. Pic: Sportsfile

In case you missed the news, the race for this year's AIB Leinster club senior football championship kicks off in earnest on Saturday - a full fortnight before the competition officially starts.

Confused? Don't be.

We will all be much the wiser about the likely identity of our provincial kingpins once we know the two winners of Saturday's Dublin SFC semi-final double-header in Donnycarney.

Sad to say, for the rest of Leinster, but this is where it's at. Dublin's domination of the provincial landscape is no longer merely an inter-county phenomenon.

The margins might be tighter at club level, but the trend is relentlessly similar.

Metropolitan

Dublin clubs have won the last five Leinster SFC titles. And eight of the last ten. Garrycastle were the last to break the metropolitan mould, edging out St Brigid's of Blanchardstown in 2011.

Brigid's have subsequently slipped down the pecking order in Dublin, losing their recent quarter-final to Ballymun Kickhams by eight points ... but likewise Garrycastle in Westmeath. The men from the Athlone suburbs finished bottom of Group A this summer, garnering just one point from five games.

St Loman's are now undisputed top dogs in the Lake County - they are 1/4 in the betting to make it three-in-a-row, even ahead of the semi-finals.

But even with John Heslin in his prolific pomp, the Mullingar crew would face a massive challenge to transform maroon rule into provincial coronation.

Why? Because Dublin's elite show no evidence, just yet, of relenting. And that's why BoyleSports are currently offering three Dublin clubs as the most likely winners of Leinster (Ballymun at 15/8, St Vincent's at 9/4 and Kilmacud Crokes at 5/1), followed by Portlaoise (7/1) and Loman's (8/1). Even the outsiders for capital glory - St Jude's - are considered a serious 9/1 shot for Leinster.

True, to describe the Dublin SFC as the ultimate sporting minefield is stretching credulity: there are far too many clubs in the senior grade, several of whom are so patently out of their depth as to make reform a blinding necessity for their own future well-being.

Thus, Ballymun coasted through the first two rounds - back in April and May - by a cumulative 60 points, having plundererd St Pat's of Palmerstown by 5-17 to 2-6 and then massacred St Mary's of Saggart by 8-18 to 0-2.

But once you get down to the business end, the standards are such that whoever survives Halloween is virtually guaranteed to thrive in November and probably beyond.

They are too battle-hardened - not to mention talented - for what comes next: in this year's case, Dublin's finest will open with a quarter-final trek to either the champions of Louth or Wicklow on November 12.

Cameras

All of which explains why the eir Sport cameras are coming back to Parnell Park this Saturday, having already covered a quarter-final double-header at the venue last Friday night week.

Kickhams versus Crokes (5pm) followed by Vincent's against Jude's (6.45) is box-office on the double. And while the Dublin diehards will be there in numbers, the armchair followers won't be confined to the city boundaries.

At this time of year, with the county scene in hibernation, GAA fans are an ecumenical congregation. They don't confine worship to the one church; they love watching quality players from other counties in evenly-matched combat.

That's why TG4 - and now eir - represent a godsend as winter closes in.

It meant that viewers starved of Diarmuid Connolly cameos this summer (for reasons not worth rehashing) could watch him for Vincent's against Sylvester's 11 days ago. Then they could stay watching Crokes and Castleknock, if only for the opportunity to see how Cian O'Sullivan and Paul Mannion might fare against Ciarán Kilkenny.

They were in for a bonus treat in the guise of Mannion's quite stunning first half solo goal as the former All-Ireland champions held firm in the face of last year's first-time Dublin finalists.

As the focus turns to Saturday, you can be sure that none of the four survivors will be thinking about Leinster - or beyond. Such is the competition, in the here and now, that they cannot afford to.

But you could understand why a team of Ballymun's individual talents (including four current Dublin starters in Philly McMahon, John Small, James McCarthy and Dean Rock) would harbour even loftier ambitions.

Next St Patrick's Day, it will be five years since they lost an All-Ireland final they seemed destined to win, having led St Brigid's of Kiltoom by eight points after ten minutes. They haven't even emerged from Dublin since: surely that's an itch in need of scratching?

But, likewise, Vincent's might reflect that having won three of the last four Leinster titles, a return of one All-Ireland in that period could and maybe should have been more?

This vaunted duo are favourites to reach the final … but would it be such an outrageous shock if Kilmacud (who have been down this road before) or Jude's (such persistent pretenders in pursuit of their maiden title) tore up this year's Dublin script?

And if either of them do that, of course, you know who'll be odds-on favourites for Leinster ...

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