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Knock-out makes it even harder for Dubs to win

McCaffrey 'has everything' as a great half-back but Farrell is not shy of defensive options - Curran

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Jack McCaffrey of Dublin celebrates following the All-Ireland SFC Final Replay
win over at Croke Park last September. Photo: SPORTSFILE

Jack McCaffrey of Dublin celebrates following the All-Ireland SFC Final Replay win over at Croke Park last September. Photo: SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Jack McCaffrey of Dublin celebrates following the All-Ireland SFC Final Replay win over at Croke Park last September. Photo: SPORTSFILE

Some will argue that Jack McCaffrey is the very last player Dublin could do without. Others will ponder the lack of like-for-like alternatives in defence.

Paul Curran instead accentuates the positive of the Dublin collective, a quality that has overcome major individual losses in the past - including that of McCaffrey in 2016.

Not that this former Dublin wing-back Footballer of the Year (from 1995) is trying to downplay the inter-county departure of another (from 2015).

"If you look back at any of the great attacking half-backs," says Curran, "all of them had different things but Jack has everything."

But now, for the moment at least, Dessie Farrell must plan without him.

"He has options," The Herald columnist maintains. "It definitely reduces the amount of talent he has in that part of the field - and you don't like losing one of your best attacking defenders.

"But I think the pool of players that he has is strong enough to cope with even losing a fella like McCaffrey at this stage. And I think that will be the line that will come out from the county - that McCaffrey's career is by no means over, he'll be welcome back when or if he decides to come back, but for the moment we'll be okay."

Strangest

Player availability apart, Curran can spy other challenges ahead for Dublin's new manager, and his long-time teammate, in this strangest of seasons. Starting with the revised format precipitated by Covid-19.

True, they need only win five matches - three of those in the killing fields of Leinster. But Curran warns: "I honestly believe that the knockout competition presents more uncertainties than the old format last year.

"The so-called weaker teams have become used to that second chance. So, if they're drawn against one of the strong teams like Dublin, they're nearly resigned to the fact that game is gone, that's a write-off, and hoping for a decent (qualifier) draw then.

"Whereas pure knockout - I mean, it really focusses the mind."

In this new scenario, he reckons certain counties possessing a hard core of talent, who may have previously done well in the qualifiers and were happy to go that route, could be a danger to some of the main contenders. He namechecks Armagh, Kildare under Jack O'Connor and also Meath, "who have three or four years under (Andy) McEntee and have shown glimpses, without actually taking out a big gun.

"I think it's made it harder for Dublin, there's no doubt about that," he continues. "All going well, they'll win Leinster again. They'll have a very difficult match a couple of weeks later against the Ulster champions, and that's going to be a challenge.

"Having said all that, I still think that it'll be a Dublin-Kerry final again, a repeat of last year, barring a shock or two.

"And if you look at Kerry's route - Kerry have three games really to win an All-Ireland again, and you're going back to '70s/80s where they beat Cork, they beat the Connacht champions, and they win the All-Ireland after that.

"I think for a team like Kerry, this is probably their best chance as well - provided they get over that first one (against Cork)."

Delving into how Dessie might reconfigure his defence, in the absence of McCaffrey, Curran is quick to identify at least nine experienced names in the shake-up.

In no particular order you have Mick Fitzsimons and David Byrne (heading the queue for a place in the full-back line), Jonny Cooper (who could play in either line), Eoin Murchan, John Small, Brian Howard, James McCarthy, Philly McMahon and Cian O'Sullivan.

He has heard speculation that Farrell might fancy restoring McCarthy to old wing-back haunts and wouldn't be surprised if this now materialises. Howard's versatility makes him an option not just for half-forward or midfield but also half-back.

Engine-room

But might this leave Dublin shy of options to partner Brian Fenton in the engine-room? Curran counters that the new format could facilitate a big role, yet, for Michael Darragh Macauley, notwithstanding concerns about his age (34 in August) or recent injury issues (early-season groin surgery).

"The dynamic has changed a bit in terms of the competition," he reasons. "There's probably half the games to play, so a fella like Macauley may well come back into it.

"With due respect to Westmeath, I think Dublin will win the first round so a fella like Macauley might only be needed for four games for the rest of the year. So, I think that is manageable whereas if you were looking at a run of eight or nine games, you might be trying to get him in at certain times and use him maybe off the bench."

Likewise, on the proviso that McMahon stays fit and O'Sullivan's notorious hamstrings allow, this decorated duo can push for recalls.

"There's no reason whatsoever why Philly can't play again," says his former Ballymum boss. "Which, again, would maybe release someone like Cooper to fill a half-back spot as well.

"Just because Jack has stepped away, it doesn't mean there's a hole there. There's plenty of good options - maybe not as dynamic as Jack, or as explosive as Jack going forward, but I think all the options there are just as good in many respects."