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Thursday 14 December 2017

Blues run will end on Leeside

ALLIANZ NFL DIVISION 1
CORK v DUBLIN
Páirc Uí Rinn, Tonight, 7.30, Live Setanta Ireland

AMID the new faces and unfamiliar names on the Dublin team to face Cork tonight, Michael Fitzsimons is probably the least recognisable of all.

For a man who wasn't deemed good enough to get on the Dublin U21 panel last year, Fitzsimon's rise to the ranks of senior starter has been alarmingly swift.

But then, having played 'B' level club football as a minor, maybe it's not surprising that his improvement has been so accelerated.

Given a first competitive inter- county start against Derry, the Cuala man has impressed greatly at corner-back, particularly against Mayo and Monaghan when he was tasked with muting the influence of their respective danger men, Aidan O'Shea and Tommy Freeman.

"I was shocked to be on it in the first place," says Fitzsimons of his invitation into Pat Gilroy's pre-season training panel. "I was more worried about being cut from the panel rather than starting league games.



bricking

"I didn't feature for the U21s last year. I got dropped from the panel so I think it has been a bit of a surprise to me and a few other people as well."

An All-Ireland junior title with Mick Deegan's Dubs in 2008 led to Sigerson football with UCD, and now he's the man firmly in possession of one or other of Dublin's corner-back spots.

"Each game has been a bit of a step up," he admits. "The first game, I was bricking it. I was shaking at the start. But I've grown in confidence and I've been calmer on the ball as well."

Which is just as well, because Cork have been in unforgiving mood so far this year -- last Saturday's loss to Tyrone besides.

Yes, there are Rebel absentees but all the players that come in are experienced, strong and familiar with Conor Counihan's system.

In short, tonight represents the sternest test of the year so far for this high-achieving young Dublin team.

In keeping with policy, Gilroy has stuck mostly with his winning team. James McCarthy and Rory O'Carroll are rested after their U21 exploits, while the trend of rotating the keeper's jersey between Stephen Cluxton and Michael Savage continues now that the Vincent's netminder is back from injury.

Paul Conlon's selection was an automatic choice once he returned from injuries sustained in Castlebar two weeks back, while Hugh Gill certainly has the pace to mount a challenge for the No5 shirt now that Paul Griffin is out for the season.

"The most pleasing thing is that we've now gone four games without having this dramatic fall," says Gilroy about the Dubs performances so far. "That's what the league has been about for us."

Case in point: last Saturday in Parnell Park. Tommy Freeman's goal put Monaghan level early in the second half and Rory Woods was doing untold damage after his introduction. Yet Monaghan's period of dominance only lasted a few minutes and the introduction of Darren Magee played a large part in that.

Dublin grinded out another win, with Bernard Brogan to the fore and, if he gets going early and gets enough ball without being isolated with three or four Cork backs, he has the ability to at least match last Saturday's 1-5 tally.

For their part, the Rebels took up this year much the same way they steamrolled through 2009 (All-Ireland final besides) and have cause to take plenty of heart even in defeat by Tyrone last Saturday.

"They conceded three goals but they played most of the good football in that match," surmised Gilroy. "They're a big, strong team. They seem to have a lot of confidence. Even though they were conceding goals last week, they kept coming back. It didn't knock them out of their stride. It caught up with them in the end but they are one of the strongest teams out there."

The return of Nicholas Murphy, in the albeit less familiar surrounds of the half-forward line, will undoubtedly make them even stronger, as will Eoin Cadogan's return from suspension and small-ball duties, though there's no denying that Donncha O'Connor's ban and Colm O'Neill's injury have blunted their attack.

Which, in turn, leaves a greater onus on Daniel Goulding for scores and it is likely to be Fitzsimons' job to curtail his treat.

A Dublin win isn't beyond the bounds of possibility but their record away to Cork is abysmal and, even if the new breed of Dubs haven't been fed the same diet of Leeside defeat as the older members of the panel, Cork's greater cohesion and strength will ensure a taste of it tonight.

ODDS: Cork 4/9, Draw 15/2, Dublin 9/4

VERDICT: Cork

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