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Thursday 12 December 2019

All eyes on Dubs bench as Gavin devises sub plot

Who makes the '26' for Mayo will generate most intrigue

Starter: James McCarthy is one of only two from the team in Omagh who will line up against Mayo on Saturday
Starter: James McCarthy is one of only two from the team in Omagh who will line up against Mayo on Saturday

How many of the Dublin team that started in Omagh will be on the field for Amhrán na bhFiann at one minute to five on Saturday evening?

Answer: two, namely Jonny Cooper and James McCarthy. Or maybe, just maybe, three - if David Byrne gets the nod.

Next question … how many of that Sky Blue 15 in Healy Park will make the match-day 26 against Mayo?

Now that's an altogether different question, rendered more difficult by the fact that on Sunday evening, Jim Gavin was in even less of a mood than usual for regaling the media with nuggets of news.

The Dublin boss did intimate that he'll have a clean bill of health for their All-Ireland semi-final. That being the case, it's fair to surmise that there is more uncertainty about the make-up of Gavin's bench than there is intrigue about the composition of his starting 15.

"Will Diarmuid Connolly make the 26?" is the question on most lips after his much-hyped comeback against Tyrone.

Our suspicion is that he will, despite the doubts expressed by Oisín McConville on RTÉ Radio yesterday when he offered the opinion that Connolly "looked like a player who had missed a lot of football" and "didn't do enough to get into the 26."

This observer, however, spied enough glimpses that Connolly still retains that gliding extra gear, the versatility and even the X-factor to be a viable option this weekend ... but then, how could you make any definitive judgement in such a vacuum of intensity?

There are multiple other 'sub' plots after Sunday's phoney warfare in Omagh. Will Rory O'Carroll get another chance? Eoin Murchan surely will, but must he be satisfied (for now) with a bench role given his injury travails this season and relative lack of game-time up until Sunday?

Must Cormac Costello now console himself with the status of Dublin's first Plan B forward, now that Dean Rock has reinstalled himself as premier freetaker?

On the subject of attacking options, has Paddy Small leapfrogged the venerable trio of Kevin McManamon, Paddy Andrews and Eoghan O'Gara? We suspect so.

Bernard Brogan must hope that Sunday's comeback cameo convinced Gavin that he's worth his spot on the bench. And what of his younger clubmate? Seán Bugler's 'man of the match' display against Tyrone's second string would suggest he has earned his place in the 26 that matter ... but then you wonder if Sunday has given a false reading?

These are the questions that will consume the Dublin brains trust this week.

For what it's worth, we can see minimal deviation from the team that started Dublin's second Super 8s fixture against Roscommon. There may be one or two changes - at most.

Barring a switch from leftfield, Gavin will stick with a front six of Niall Scully, Ciarán Kilkenny and Brian Howard in the half-forward division, Paul Mannion, Con O'Callaghan and Rock in the inside line.

Midfield will comprise Brian Fenton and either McCarthy or Michael Darragh Macauley. Directly linked to that centrefield conundrum is the issue of who to play alongside Jack McCaffrey and John Small in the half-back line. McCarthy will definitely start somewhere; the question is whether that is at half-back (at happened against the Rossies) or at centrefield, thus freeing up a space for the recall of Cian O'Sullivan.

O'Sullivan didn't enjoy his finest hour against Cork, but he has always been a mainstay of Gavin's defence: the sweeper who glues it all together.

Countering that, his hamstrings have been notoriously troublesome - forcing his first half exit in last year's semi-final against Galway and final against Tyrone.

Cooper is guaranteed to start, almost certainly in the full-back line, but who will join him? Mick Fitzsimons and Philly McMahon were the players in possession against Roscommon; but Byrne had been starting prior to Cooper's return from injury and resumed against Tyrone. Don't rule him out of the equation.

As for Dublin's other back-up defenders, O'Carroll's surprisingly fraught first half against Tyrone would suggest he is miles off the stellar Rory standard of 2010-'15 ... and quite a distance off the benchmark required to be called into the second half of a semi-final maelstrom.

Maybe it won't come to that; maybe Dublin's first-choice crew will keep winning at their double-digit ease. But this is Mayo, the one team that has consistently pushed this Dublin side to the brink at the business end of the All-Ireland series.

For Gavin, getting his first 15 right might be only half the battle.

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