Transplant the final Division 1 table to this time next year when semi-finals will be a thing of the past and there would be no equivocation — for the first time in 30 years, Dublin and Kerry would contest a Division 1 final.
Of course, knowing in 2017 that a third or fourth place finish would amount to nothing, Roscommon may have upped their game in their last two fixtures and avoided losing their hold of second spot to Kerry.
However, it’s appropriate for a couple of reasons that Dublin and Kerry should finish top of the heap.
Dublin, of course, boast a 100% record after their seven rounds, extending an unbeaten spell that now stands at 20 league and championship games.
Kerry, the last team to beat Dublin in a league or championship game, are on a five-game winning run, a momentum they have not developed in the league since 2009 when they went on to win the competition under Jack O’Connor.
As we are reminded so often, all three of Kerry’s Division 1 titles under O’Connor were followed by All-Ireland crowns five months later, just as the two All-Ireland winning years in Jim Gavin’s reign saw them complete the double. After finally reaching the semi-finals after four seasons of trying, it would be easy — and lazy — to deduce Éamonn Fitzmaurice has finally twigged that what’s good in spring is usually great in September.
A selector under O’Connor seven years ago, as Fitzmaurice has repeated ad nauseam that it’s not as if Kerry didn’t want to qualify for league finals; things just got in the way.
Kerry, though, have learned Dublin’s trick of triumphing while tinkering.
Both outfits have tried 35 players in this campaign; each have started 27. Kerry have alternated their goalkeepers from game to game and Brian Kelly should man the goal-line this Sunday; Stephen Cluxton has featured in four games, Michael Savage in three.
But for giving youth its head in Carrick-on-Shannon last Sunday, Dublin wouldn’t have used nor as started as many players as Kerry. From the throw-in, Kevin O’Brien and Conor McHugh made their first appearances of the year, while from the bench Eoghan O’Gara returned to Dublin colours for the first time since his cruciate injury 12 months ago. Robbie McDaid was introduced at half-time after his All-Ireland club-winning exploits with Ballyboden St Enda’s.
Knowing their semi-final fate was secured, Dublin could afford to relax a little in Leitrim. After their opening two defeats, Kerry had no such luxuries and yet have been able to give bows to the likes of Alan Fitzgerald, Podge O’Connor, Denis Daly, and Aidan Walsh.
Fitzmaurice’s extensive use of his panel is consistent with how he used 26 players in last year’s championship.
Only four players — all defenders including Kealy — started all of Kerry’s six games. Only five of the 26 received less than 100 minutes of game-time.
But with change there are constants too. Paul Murphy has played every minute of all seven games since the end of January. Shane Enright, Mark Griffin, Stephen O’Brien, Darran O’Sullivan, and Donnchadh Walsh have started on each occasion. Since their late returns, the experienced triumvirate of Aidan O’Mahony, Kieran Donaghy, and Marc Ó Sé have begun each game.
For Dublin, David Byrne was an ever-present up to the Roscommon game last Sunday as Gavin looks to give him as much action to fill the boots of Rory O’Carroll. Apart from round one, when he was suspended and round seven, Philly McMahon has been on the pitch from throw-in. Like Byrne, Ciarán Kilkenny, James McCarthy and Dean Rock have started all but one match; Paddy Andrews, Diarmuid Connolly, Johnny Cooper, Mick Fitzsimons, and John Small all but two. Like Kerry, it’s obvious there is less room for manoeuvring in defence. Midfielder Brian Fenton has been a regular starter since his comeback in March.
As there are variables, there are also trends. Although Valentia’s Brendan O’Sullivan has only 68 minutes (excluding injury-time) to his name thus far, he has come on in every game. The two full games given to Brian Ó Beaglaoich at the start of the campaign would indicate Fitzmaurice has plans for him when he returns from U21 duty.
Denis Bastick and Bernard Brogan’s early substitutions will raise an eyebrow too but Gavin’s pool of talent is that deep their exits haven’t been felt on the scoreboard.
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