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kerry threat After a six-year heatwave of high achievement, a cloud of uncertainty has settled over Dublin

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Dublin stalwarts like James McCarthy will not give up their All-Ireland title without a fight

Dublin stalwarts like James McCarthy will not give up their All-Ireland title without a fight

Dublin stalwarts like James McCarthy will not give up their All-Ireland title without a fight

ANY Jedi Knights attuned to GAA affairs last weekend might have experienced a great disturbance in The Force.

Almost unnoticed, something momentous unfolded in the football universe on Sunday evening: For the first time in almost a decade, Dublin were unseated from their familiar perch as midseason All-Ireland favourites.

In the afterglow of Kerry’s 22-point dismantling of Cork, the oddsmakers – their detached realm of analytics a cold house for sentiment or reputation – spun the championship world onto an unfamiliar axis.

By elevating Peter Keane’s team to the highest rung of the betting ladder, 11/10 favourites, with Dublin eased to 11/8, the markets were making a bold statement.

It was one that announced their conviction that a change in the football horizon was imminent, that time’s bell was tolling for the six-in-a-row champions, that Kerry can go anywhere they wish from here.

Or to translate it into the language of the Jedi Knight: That the Green and Gold empire was ready to strike back.

After a scorching, relentless and historic six-year heatwave of high achievement, a cloud of uncertainty has settled over Dublin. The outlook, argue a rush of commentators, is no longer as sky blue as their shirts.

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Paul Geaney of Kerry celebrates with team-mate David Clifford after their victory over Cork

Paul Geaney of Kerry celebrates with team-mate David Clifford after their victory over Cork

Paul Geaney of Kerry celebrates with team-mate David Clifford after their victory over Cork

It is against this unfamiliar backdrop of doubt and whispers of decline that Dublin return to a familiar stage on Sunday. And a more intense searchlight than in any recent year will shine on Leinster final day in Croke Park.

Of course, there are many notes of caution to slip in here.

Eminence is determined not by bookish actuaries in a betting firm's headquarters, but by the athletes who drive the plotline in football’s storied summer theatres.

The battle ribbons on their uniforms are a reminder that James McCarthy, Brian Fenton, Ciaran Kilkenny and Con O’Callaghan will not quietly slide into irrelevance.

These are not just superior footballers, among the greatest the old game has known, but setters of the highest standards; the certainty is that they will rail against any notion of a breakdown of cohesion or conviction within their ranks.

If the swatting aside of Wexford and Meath was not accompanied by the familiar fluency and swagger that has become Dublin’s brilliant trademark, only a fool would believe that the talent in their blood has run entirely dry.

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Kerry have looked devastating in recent weeks, the overhaul in their tactical priorities after their cataclysmic winter exit from championship 2020 setting free a rampant and thrilling whirlwind.

Perhaps the most impressive feature in their ripping out of Cork’s entrails – even better than the ambition or the pace or the relentless invention – was that it was achieved with David Clifford as a virtual bystander.

Any notion of Kerry as a team whose fortunes are exclusively wedded to the form of their Fossa superstar was as much a casualty of Sunday's tour de force as the broken Rebel shields.

The form of Sean O'Shea and Clifford's elder brother, Paudie (a cerebral, energetic presence somehow ignored by Kerry for several years), in particular, has seen green shoots of hope flower across The Kingdom.

Kerry, though, will still require the younger Clifford at the intoxicating peak of his powers as July turns to August.

The 37-times champions, propelled by an urgency to scratch a seven year All-Ireland itch and visibly growing in self-belief, look the real deal.

A hyper cautious, yerra-tossing Kerryman, might point to how the huge promise of their impressive 2020 NFL title-winning campaign dwindled to nothing when it truly mattered last winter.

But the blame for that can be laid at a self-defeating tactical conservatism that has since been interred in the graveyard of terrible masterplans.

What is unspooling now is no mirage. Kerry, with the shackles off, are a team brimming with potential.

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Stephen Cluxton's absence continues to trouble Dessie Farrell's side

Stephen Cluxton's absence continues to trouble Dessie Farrell's side

Stephen Cluxton's absence continues to trouble Dessie Farrell's side

Mayo, too, in their second-half dismantling of Galway, posted an impressive reminder that their eternal quest to climb those Hogan Stand steps on All-Ireland day endures.

And so, to Dublin’s response.

Can a group that has shed a battalion of superstars – Cluxton, Connolly, Brogan, McCaffrey, Mannion, Macauley, Flynn, O’Sullivan, McManamon and O’Gara among the hall of famers lost in recent times – again find the best of themselves?

Kildare, led by another Kerryman, Jack O’Connor, will eagerly road test all theories that Dublin are slipping back toward the chasing pack.

The likely return of John Small, an unsung titan in the Dublin story, will add adhesive-marking and a spiky edge to defensive fortifications that – denuded by injury and retirement – have looked more vulnerable to invasion than before.

Kildare, fresh from the absurdly gifted former AFL recruit Daniel Flynn’s confidence-building masterclass against Westmeath, will have noted how Meath ruffled the Dubs in a dominant, gung-ho 20-minute spell a fortnight ago.

The suspicion lurks that the loss of Cluxton’s leadership and quarterback skills off the tee will be felt more acutely as the quality of opponent improves.

Ditto the tackle-breaking pace and electrifying surges that McCaffrey and Mannion brought to the long days.

Dublin’s route to a seventh straight All-Ireland stretches out before them: They must first take down a growing Kildare; if that is achieved a familiar foe, Mayo, await in the semi-final; should Farrell’s team still be standing, summer’s last dance will be in the company of one from Kerry, Tyrone and Monaghan.

Most expect it will be the strengthening Munster giants.

Some of the more caustic dismissals of Dublin are a tad unmoored from reality, dredged as much from a desire for change as from hard evidence

But there is little doubt that the finest tapestry of players the game has known have looked a little careworn and threadbare recently and will need to urgently improve to withstand the heavy fire that looms on the horizon.

The oddsmakers, forensic in their analysis of all available information, understand this; they work like pathologists over the corpses of recent fixtures.

And right now, their verdict is that Kerry are the most likely All-Ireland champions of 2021.

All of this while Dublin, with an unrivalled vault of big-game know-how and a still distinguished cast of proven winners, remain standing and, it is probably fair to suspect, a little angry.

How else could this team of a lifetime, one that has not lost a championship match in 2,522 days, feel as they read a thickening file of their own obituaries?

Sunday offers them an opportunity to show that, far from flatlining, their pulse remains strong.

And it gifts a national audience an intriguing insight into how a great champion responds to the most brutal rumours of their imminent demise.

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