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Dessie's start like no other

Dublin face two chief enemies in their pursuit of six-in-a-row - Kerry and Covid

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Brian Fenton in action against Meath during the Allianz Football League match at Parnell Park

Brian Fenton in action against Meath during the Allianz Football League match at Parnell Park

SPORTSFILE

Brian Fenton in action against Meath during the Allianz Football League match at Parnell Park

In theory, this should be the easiest All-Ireland of the many Dublin have won over the past decade of outrageous success. Five games spaced out over seven weekends. Just two that look any way problematic.

Yet it doesn't seem quite like that on the cusp of a senior football championship like no other. It's the first straight knockout race in 20 years; and the first one ever to be played entirely through the darkening days of winter.

This altered structure and revised calendar amplify the uncertainty for a team already in a state of relative flux, purely because they have lost their all-conquering man in the cockpit.

The turbulence doesn't end there for Dessie Farrell as he seeks to extend the incredible unbeaten streak of Jim Gavin, stretching back 37 SFC outings to the last day of August, 2014.

But is there another Donegal out there? Are Kerry the only rival truly capable of downing the Dubs, in a pre-Christmas All-Ireland? Or could they unravel even earlier?

There are numerous rock-solid reasons why Dublin can retain Sam Maguire for a sixth consecutive year. There are several more why, in this strangest of seasons, their number could finally be up. Here's a probe into the pros and cons …

THE PROS

1 Notwithstanding a number of high-profile defections and retirements, the make-up of Dublin's frontline '15' hasn't altered to a significant degree since the five-in-a-row.

The only regular definitely out of the picture is Jack McCaffrey. And Dublin's starting team, bolstered by several top-of-the-range replacements, is on a level that only one other county can hope to match: Kerry.

2 What has made this Dublin team truly great is not merely the raw talent at the disposal of Gavin, and now Farrell … it's the mental qualities that come to the surface on those rare occasions when defeat stares them in the face.

They are masters of the one-point All-Ireland win. Their game-management down the home straight, their refusal to panic, the inner-belief that stems from so many previous close-fought victories continues to serve them well, last year's drawn final against Kerry offering the most vivid recent reminder of this.

But they've a different manager now? True. But the relentless drivers of this team - Cluxton, McCarthy, Fenton, Kilkenny, O'Callaghan, Rock - remain.

3 Even when they should be beaten, they aren't. Day 1 against Kerry last year, long reduced to 14 men, a point down in stoppage time, is the most compelling high-pressure example. But even last February against Monaghan, with only league points at stake and trailing by nine points on the hour, their wonderfully cussed streak came to the fore and they forced an improbable draw. That tells you something.

4 Losing the 'back door' safety net is not the problem you might imagine: Dublin remain untouchable in Leinster. Even though Meath ran them to four points a fortnight ago, that was in Parnell Park, first game back, and is not the most reliable of yardsticks.

Last year Dublin had 15 points to spare against Kildare and 16 against Meath. All this without a glut of goals (just one against the Royals) to fatten the margin.  Even if and when they meet one of their putative chief rivals in a Leinster final, that yawning gap will not disappear in one fell swoop.

5 Let's be honest, who can possibly stop them? Less than a handful of rivals. Kerry are, by some distance, the most obvious. Mayo are just about still a maybe; the jury is far less convinced about Galway post-resumption; and while you might have a dark horse fancy for Donegal or Tyrone, one of those will be gone already by Sunday evening.

THE CONS

1 The loss of Gavin - and his management team. This is no slight on Farrell, or his fellow selectors … but the most important element behind Dublin's record-shredding five-in-a-row was the manager. Gavin set the tone; he was also clever enough to surround himself with shrewd coaches like Declan Darcy and Jason Sherlock who drilled home a game plan predicated on patience and precision.

Most of the time, such was Dublin's talent, they would have won regardless. But on those days when Mayo or Kerry pushed his team to the brink, Gavin never betrayed even a flicker of panic. Farrell evinces similar clear-headed traits, but what we have yet to witness is how the player-management dynamic works at the ultimate pressure points.

2 The spectre of Covid. The greatest fear, for every manager, is that even just one positive case has a knock-on effect on several more who are deemed 'close contacts' - and suddenly you are facing an already difficult game without a critical number of key men. This could potentially derail any team - at any time.

The impact of the virus goes far deeper, however. Farrell could never have conceived that his maiden league would be so disrupted, exacerbating the challenge for a new manager as he road-tested 38 players.

In the good old days 'BC', Dublin had the luxury of using that period before and even during Leinster to build fitness levels; then the safety valve of the Super 8s to further finetune - safe in the knowledge that they could lose a game, which they never did. It was all designed towards peaking   for two games. The same theory applies now, but there is far less time.

Will harsher weather conditions level the playing field, even on Croke Park's green baize? How will Dublin adjust to an empty Hill? In the past, they have tapped into the energy of an electrified stadium. Might this change make a small yet perceptible difference?

3 The wavering case for Dublin's defence. McCaffrey is a huge loss because, leaving aside his considerable qualities as a defender, no other Dublin player offers his uniquely explosive counter-attacking menace.

The panel is still blessed with rearguard experience but options are thinning. Of his over-30s cohort, Mick Fitzsimons was the only one to feature regularly during the league with minimal game-time for Philly McMahon (one start, one fleeting cameo), Cian O'Sullivan (one quarter off the bench) and Jonny Cooper (one start ended by an awkward ankle landing).

A fit-again Cooper should return, but he has endured a difficult, injury-disrupted two seasons. It's safe to assume that Farrell will be hugely reliant on Fitzsimons, David Byrne, John Small and Eoin Murchan - especially if James McCarthy is required at midfield.

4 Plan B. Dublin's bench doesn't appear   so formidable, partly because some old reliables are ageing. As for the retirees, for  all his sporadic latter involvement,  Diarmuid Connolly's X-factor could be missed: no one can replicate his ability to open up a defence.

5 And finally … Kerry. It would be foolhardy to over-analyse their dismantling of a depleted Donegal last weekend. And yet their tackling and growing physicality; their counter-attacking punch from half-back; Tony Brosnan's emergence; all this on top of what we already know about David Clifford, Seán O'Shea et al … the sense that Kerry are coming is unmistakable.

Dublin's hit-and-miss league form won't be enough to stop them. But no team has done more to earn our trust that, when it matters, they'll be ready.


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