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Saturday 21 April 2018

Dub pillars still vital

Here are 'six of the best' now central to Jim's quest for clean sweep in 2018

NUMBER ONE: Stephen Cluxton has been a vital cog in the Dublin machine for a decade. Pics: Sportsfile
NUMBER ONE: Stephen Cluxton has been a vital cog in the Dublin machine for a decade. Pics: Sportsfile

Much has been made of Dublin's renowned strength in depth; the power of their bench press; the capacity of their buzzing 'Bs' to deliver a waspish sting to the so-called A-team in training.

All of which is true - up to a point. But there comes a point before every important game when Jim Gavin will assess his options and, fitness permitting, select a line-up built around his team pillars.

Men he can rely on. Fo otballers he would much rather never be without. And that includes for Sunday's Allianz Football League final against Galway.

The identity of these pillars - our indispensable Dubs - has slightly altered in recent seasons, even while Gavin's crew have kept on winning All-Irelands. Chances are, it might well modify even further once the 2018 championship starts to unfold.

But, for now, we reckon there are six players more pivotal than anyone else to Dublin's continued health and success. And maybe it's no surprise that three of them were rested against Monaghan last Sunday, for Dublin's first league or championship defeat in almost 12 months.

STEPHEN CLUXTON

What more is there left to say? Shot-stopper supreme. Kickout king. Authoritative in the air and agile as ever on the ground. Even all of that, however, doesn't encapsulate the importance of Dublin's skipper, who reached his century of NFL starts in late February.

He's a leader who controls the tactical agenda with his restarts while constantly demanding sky-high standards from his colleagues. No slippage with Stephen around.

MIDFIELD MAESTRO: Dublin’s Brian Fenton in action against Monaghan’s Niall Kearns at Croke Park last weekend
MIDFIELD MAESTRO: Dublin’s Brian Fenton in action against Monaghan’s Niall Kearns at Croke Park last weekend

2018 STATS: Started first five league games, leaking three goals as a precursor to three clean sheets. Rested for last two outings - and Dublin didn't win either.

JONNY COOPER

Back in December, Cooper had this confession to make: "It didn't really - as a season as a whole - work out too gre at for me. I was probably chasing my tail." Injuries were at the root of his 2017 travails: Cooper sat out all bar one league game and was again sidelined for the Leinster final. Maybe that explains his driven demeanour and eye-catching consistency this spring. The Na Fianna man was particularly imperious in a sweeping role against Donegal.

2018 STATS: Started first six outings in Division 1 before sitting out their sole defeat to Monaghan. Ventured forward to land points against Kerry and Galway.

JAMES McCARTHY

Nominated for Footballer of the Year last autumn, only to be pipped by Andy Moran, McCarthy has carried on in the same influential vein. Started the first four rounds back in his old half-back haunt before switching to midfield against Galway and Monaghan.

Therein lies a key 2018 decision for Gavin: does he maintain the Fenton-McCarthy axis or will the Ballymun powerhouse be required to mind house in the half-back line?

His deeper role may expla in why this regular scorer has been confined to just 0-1 (against Tyrone) in this campaign; but he has ghosted into goal-threatening positions in his last three appearances against Mayo, Galway and Monaghan.

2018 STATS: Started six out of seven league ties, missing out against Kerry through injury.

BRIAN FENTON

Recently turned 25 and with just three SFC campaigns behind him, Fenton's meteoric rise has shown not a hint of flat-lining.

It tells you almost everything that in a squad populated by so many gifted players with big personalities, Fenton is now probably their most important outfield performer.

He has everything you'd want in an elite midfielder - height, physique, adhesive hands, turf-devouring athlete.

He tends to be a font of calm authority even in stormy waters. Moreover, even though Dublin ultimately lost last weekend, his 68th-minute equaliser was a timely reminder that Fenton is frequently the one to assume responsibility and show leadership when most needed.

2018 STATS: Started six games and appeared as a half-time sub in Galway. Supplemented his primary midfield tasks with an impressive 1-9 from play.

CIARÁN KILKENNY

Perhaps some of us had forgotten that Kilkenny used to be a scoring machine in his underage days, such has been his modified senior job-spec as ever-available possession link-man.

Prior to last Sunday's non-appearance, Kilkenny was Dublin's top-scorer from the first six rounds with 2-16 - all from play. That even placed him ahead of Dean Rock, who has since overhauled him.

The Castleknock man's influence has been such that Mayo detailed Lee Keegan to be his shadow last September. While the Mayo man won that duel, Kilkenny's form has soared to a higher level in 2018, especially against Kerry and Galway. He clipped 0-5 from play in the latter fixture, suggesting that Kevin Walsh must concoct a different plan for Sunday's Croke Park rematch.

2018 STATS: Started six games on the spin, amassing 2-16 fro m play. Given the day off against Monaghan and - guess what? - they lost.

DEAN ROCK

Now 28, Rock has been around the block so it seems surreal that he'd never started a league game until 2015. All changed that season, when he assumed freetaking responsibilities from Bernard Brogan.

But as the seasons have passed and the silver has accumulated, it has become clear that Rock is more than just a placed-ball kicking machine. The second half of last year's All-Ireland final was arguably his finest half-hour in Sky Blue, when Rock showcased his ability to convert point-scoring chances in a fraught battle, all as a precursor to that fateful pressure free to keep Sam in the capital.

Plus there's his considerable goalscoring prowess, underlined once more against Kildare in late January.

2018 STATS: Six starts in Division 1, plus a late cameo off the bench against Donegal. He has now supplanted Kilkenny as Dublin's top-scorer this spring with 1-25 (19f).

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