Dublin to start fast
All-Ireland champions can start league by claiming Kingdom's scalp at Croker
WHEN the fireworks settle in Croke Park tonight and the guard of honour has been observed and the abseilers hand over the match ball to Maurice Deegan, Dublin and Kerry will get down to the reality that another season has begun in earnest and 2011 is consigned permanently to memory.
All has changed though, at football's top table and after spending the last three years awaiting the All-Ireland champions on the first weekend of the league season and clapping them through gritted teeth, Dublin will be afforded the honour of a hearty round of applause from their old nemesis.
After that, the doffing of caps ends for good. What has changed then, for Dublin?
As All-Ireland champions their scalp is more prized but then, none of football's aristocracy or pretenders ever needed much motivation to put one over Dublin anyway.
Really, their league performances should be analysed in the context of their most recent spring form rather than summer endeavours and, in that, Pat Gilroy's team have lofty standards to live up to.
Gilroy has used the league in both of his last two years wisely. The primary benefit of both the 2010 and 2011 campaigns was the stringing together of consistent performances and results against football's hierarchy, a fact he acknowledged in his press conference yesterday.
"For confidence it was probably very good because we had a couple of one-point wins in those games," he explained. "That does no harm for confidence.
"Especially for the younger players. And playing in Croke Park meant it was no big deal when we came back to play there during the summer."
Those younger players have a whole lot more experience behind them now after coming through an epic season of fightbacks to lift Sam Maguire, so it's perhaps no surprise that the Dublin team contains just one debutant tonight, Craig Dias.
There are, however, notable experimentations. Paul Brogan at wing-forward is one, while the spine of the Dublin attack -- Kevin McManamon and Eoghan O'Gara -- is another area of interest. Both have made impacts in patches (in McManamon's case, two of the biggest of Dublin's season against Donegal and Kerry) but if either were to combine their innate explosiveness with 70-minute consistency, the Dublin attack would have an entirely new and unpredictable dimension.
Outside of that, the Dublin line-up is fairly settled and there is a far greater level of early-season toe- tipping from Jack O'Connor than there is from Gilroy.
Brian Maguire, Peter Crowley and James O'Donogue are names relatively unknown outside the Kingdom and in the absence of their Dr Crokes contingent and a couple of veteran defenders, all have the perfect stage on which to leave immediate calling card.
For all that, Kerry have players with the ability, wherewithal and now motivation to take tonight's match as the ultimate early-season marker.
Donaghy, Galvin, Darran O'Sullivan, Sheehan and both Ó Sés have lit up Croke Park in the not-too-distant past and could very well do so again.
"I wouldn't be surprised," said Gilroy on the strength of Kerry's selection. "I think we'd be doing the same, we're playing as strong a team as we can play. They played a strong team against us last year and they have done over the last while."
The re-emergence of Seán O'Sullivan is another interesting sideshow for Kerry. In his pomp, he helped make Donaghy the unmarkable full-forward who won Footballer Of The Year in 2006 and his exit coincided with a relative drop in form from 'Star', who captains Kerry tonight.
With that in mind, Rory O'Carroll will need to be mindful of those long, accurate, diagonal balls coming from O'Sullivan into Donaghy's flightpath.
For all that, Dublin will field 11 players who played some part in last year's All-Ireland final and if Kildare showed them a couple of weeks back what winter fitness they lacked, Gilroy surely won't have been slow about making up the shortfall. On that basis, our vote tentatively goes to Dublin.
ODDS: Dublin EVS, Draw 15/2, Kerry 11/10