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Thursday 15 November 2018

Dublin needn't be in a league of their own ...

Mystery over Blues line-up ahead of Lilywhite opener

Kildare manager Cian O’Neill and Dublin’s Jim Gavin shake hands following last year’s Leinster SFC final. Photo: Sportsfile
Kildare manager Cian O’Neill and Dublin’s Jim Gavin shake hands following last year’s Leinster SFC final. Photo: Sportsfile

The end of January looms; the start of another Allianz Football League. Whither the Dubs?

No one is quite sure because, well, we haven't seen them this month; we haven't heard from their stars and nor have we heard from Jim Gavin.

That will all change this coming Saturday night in Croke Park (7.0) when the three-in-a-row All-Ireland champions open their Division 1 campaign against newly-promoted Kildare.

You probably know what to expect from the visitors: Cian O'Neill will have his Lilywhite troops full of buzzing intent, because they need to hit the ground running on their return to the top-flight.

Even if they lose, they crave a positive statement in HQ, a venue that has been something of a house of horrors, a theatre of screams, for too long.

What would that positive statement be?

At the bare minimum, they must build on the curate's egg that was last year's Leinster final display and keep the Dubs to within single digits.

In truth, they need to run them a lot closer than the nine points that separated them last July ... because, in all likelihood, they won't face Dublin in a more vulnerable condition any time soon.

Vulnerable? It's all relative.

By that we mean don't expect to see them physically flying so soon after their team holiday in South Africa and their return to collective training.

But that doesn't mean Dublin won't be up for it.

Dublin’s Stephen Cluxton denies Kildare’s Daniel Flynn early in the second half of last July’s Leinster SFC final. Photo: Sportsfile
Dublin’s Stephen Cluxton denies Kildare’s Daniel Flynn early in the second half of last July’s Leinster SFC final. Photo: Sportsfile

Last year's NFL opener in Kingspan Breffni is the best starting point when trying to unravel the mystery of Dublin's likely line-up next Saturday and also their readiness for battle.

Then, as now, Dublin weren't long back from foreign climes - Jamaica on that occasion. They had an extra week to prepare, however: last year's league opener was on February 5.

Strength

A different 'Dublin', close enough to a third-string entity, had spent January underlying the strength of football in the capital by winning the Bord na Móna O'Byrne Cup.

It was intriguing, though, that on return to league combat, Gavin restored the vast majority of his championship troops to the first team fold.

The team against Cavan included ten players who had started the 2016 All-Ireland final replay against Mayo: Stephen Cluxton, Mick Fitzsimons, Philly McMahon, James McCarthy, John Small, Brian Fenton, Ciarán Kilkenny, Kevin McManamon, Paul Mannion and Dean Rock.

Of the remaining five, two were former Footballers of the Year - Jack McCaffrey, just back from his year's sabbatical, and Michael Darragh Macauley, who had started the Mayo replay on the bench.

Eric Lowndes (another sub against Mayo) also started in Breffni and that left just two starters who had featured in the pre-season cup campaign - Niall Scully and Jason Whelan.

Three more O'Byrne Cup 'veterans' - Colm Basquel, Ciarán Reddin and Conor McHugh - were among the subs called on by Gavin as Dublin recovered from a pedestrian first quarter to run out 0-18 to 0-11 winners.

So how many fringe panellists will get their opportunity this Saturday night?

Truth is, we're only guessing - and not just because the Dublin manager has never been in the business of making team announcements (genuine or otherwise) days in advance of the game. Gavin hasn't appeared at any media conferences this month and likewise his players. All is quiet on the eastern front.

Yet it's safe to infer that wholesale experimentation is unlikely. It didn't happen 12 months ago when far more Sky Blue wannabes had put their hands up for a league audition. Whereas this year, Dublin's O'Byrne Cup defence was limited to two group games that yielded a draw with Offaly and injury-time defeat to Wexford.

"It's unfortunate it's only two games because we played five last year," admitted stand-in manager Paul Clarke after the loss in Enniscorthy.

"You have to really impress and show something special to break into that squad ... there's an incredible hunger in that camp at the moment. Trying to get fellas into that is a big step."

Still, last year's standout example - Scully - underlines the importance of leaving a January calling card. His league debut against Cavan was crowned by 0-2 and selection as TG4 'Man of the Match'. It was the start of a sustained run in the team, up to and including four of Dublin's six championship outings.

Based on what transpired against Offaly and Wexford, the most likely candidates for early league opportunities are Colm Basquel, Brian Howard and Emmett Ó Conghaile.

Then again, Basquel has spent two seasons on the SFC panel; two Januarys running he has foregone team holiday sunshine for the O'Byrne Cup grime.

Fresh from helping Dublin to the All-Ireland U21 summit, Howard was also promoted last summer - whereas Ó Conghaile lost his place on last year's championship panel.

It remains to be seen whether a second chance beckons; Ó Conghaile's second half performance against Wexford suggests he craves one badly.

Whatever players features next weekend, and no matter how undercooked they might appear, this much is clear: Dublin won't succumb easily.

Last spring they could have lost to Tyrone, Donegal and Kerry, battling back from behind to draw all three. Then they trailed Monaghan by six and won it at the death. Their record unbeaten run only expired in the league final against Kerry.

At this stage in Dublin's evolution, being in a league of their own doesn't have to be a priority ... but don't expect them to roll over either.

NFL ROUND 1 FIXTURES

SATURDAY

Div 1: Dublin v Kildare, Croke Park.

Div 2: Cork v Tipperary, Páirc Uí Chaoimh; Clare v Cavan, Cusack Park.

Div 4: Laois v Limerick, O'Moore Park; London v Carlow, McGovern Park, Ruislip.

SUNDAY

Div 1: Galway v Tyrone, Pearse Stadium; Kerry v Donegal, Fitzgerald Stadium; Monaghan v Mayo, Clones.

Div 2: Louth v Down, Drogheda; Roscommon v Meath, Dr Hyde Park.

Div 3: Armagh v Sligo, Athletic Grounds; Derry v Westmeath, Celtic Park; Fermanagh v Wexford, Enniskillen; Offaly v Longford, Bord na Móna O'Connor Park.

Div 4: Antrim v Leitrim, Corrigan Park; Wicklow v Waterford, Joule Park, Aughrim.

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