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Short route to Sam looms for the Blues

Semi-final against Ulster champions promises to be first serious litmus test for Dessie's Dubs

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Dublin manager Dessie Farrell now knows what lies in store for the All-Ireland champions later this year

Dublin manager Dessie Farrell now knows what lies in store for the All-Ireland champions later this year

SPORTSFILE

Dublin manager Dessie Farrell now knows what lies in store for the All-Ireland champions later this year

Now it's official, in black-and-white, as widely foretold in recent weeks: this year's condensed race for Sam Maguire will be straight knockout, following the traditional provincial route.

Depending on your mindset, that format is either gloriously time-honoured or more old hat than a forties flat cap.

But what it also means, in theory at least, is that Dessie Farrell's Dublin will have an easier road to All-Ireland success than either of his two predecessors, Pat Gilroy (who ended the famine in 2011) or Jim Gavin (who amassed six Sams in the last seven seasons).

It will certainly be shorter: Dublin need to win just five games to successfully complete the Search for Six.

Contrast this with last year's Drive for Five, a relative marathon embracing nine matches - three in Leinster, three in the Super 8s, an All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo and a two-game saga against Kerry in the decider.

Calender

Given this year's understandable rush for a calendar year finish - Saturday, December 19, to be precise - all ties including the All-Ireland SFC final will go to extra-time and penalties if required to ensure a winner-on-the-day.

It's almost impossible to conceive either addendum being required by Dublin in their province. The nine-in-a-row Leinster champions will open their Delaney Cup defence on the weekend of November 7/8 against Westmeath - that game was originally pencilled in for Tullamore before the curse of Covid struck, but now all bets are off as to where it will proceed.

It all depends on what Government protocols then apply regarding social distancing, but it's fair to surmise (even over four months out) that Croke Park is liable to host more Leinster matches this year than originally envisaged.

Whatever about venue imponderables, it's hard to conceive how Dublin can possibly be stretched within their own provincial fiefdom.

For all the difficulties encountered by Farrell in his staccato maiden campaign - his late appointment in the first place, all the scrutiny that goes with replacing a living legend, the huge disruption of lockdown - the bare facts are that Dublin's average winning margin in Leinster during the five-in-a-row stood at 17.6 points.

As former Dub Barry Cahill admitted in these pages yesterday, before the CCCC confirmed what had become an open secret: "If there's a Leinster championship this year, I'll be a little bit demoralised, to be honest. It just won't excite me at all on any level."

Many observers have asked why, in these drastic circumstances, the GAA didn't go for a more radical format - more specifically, an All-Ireland open draw.

The official explanation is that, while this was considered, a decision to stick with the provincial championships was taken because it offered counties more opportunities to win a final.

It's a moot point what the various pretenders in Munster, never mind Leinster, make of that argument.

At least there's a plausible case to be made that Kerry, chasing eight-in-a-row down south, could be vulnerable in a do-or-die semi-final against an improving Cork, who ran the Kingdom to three points last summer. There is no such case to be made in Leinster.

Bloody Sunday

So, presuming the seemingly inevitable comes to pass on Saturday, November 21 - another provincial triumph coinciding with the Bloody Sunday Commemoration in Croke Park - Dublin will advance directly to an All-Ireland semi-final against the Ulster champions.

Now, you could argue that the three-game Super 8s format provided another safety net for Dublin in recent years - except they never needed one.

With the round-robin quarter-finals now parked, the semi-final draw reverts to the one that applied in 2017 - Leinster v Ulster and Munster v Connacht.

At this remove, Donegal or Tyrone look the most semi-final rival for the Dubs - but one of those will fall early as they meet in an Ulster quarter-final.

In theory, this semi-final could provide the first serious litmus test for Dessie's Dubs - a scenario that Cahill described as "not ideal either, even for players to prove themselves. There's no doubt that some of the Dublin 'A' versus 'B' training games are tougher than the Leinster championship matches. That's just the situation we're in."

Given all the uncertainty of this surreal year, maybe it's wise not to make too many blithe assumptions about a team we haven't seen since they lost in a Tyrone tempest at the end of February.

One slip, after all, is all it will take ... but even at this remove, the prospect of another Dublin v Kerry All-Ireland, six days before Christmas, looms as the most plausible scenario of all.