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EXCLUSIVE Cluxton question casts shadow and Dubs no longer have impact from bench as Mayo and Kerry squads get stronger

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The Stephen Cluxton issue has hopefully been dealt with inside the Dublin camp. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The Stephen Cluxton issue has hopefully been dealt with inside the Dublin camp. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

It would be foolish to rush back John Small from injury. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

It would be foolish to rush back John Small from injury. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

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The Stephen Cluxton issue has hopefully been dealt with inside the Dublin camp. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The Dubs take their first steps on a familiar championship road this weekend but the background music sounds somewhat different this year.

If the content of WhatsApp messages of Dublin GAA fans could be mined, then some data-analyst hipster would surely produce a colourful infographic to illustrate how the question, ‘What’s the story with Cluxton?’, has been trending consistently in recent weeks.

Speculation and rumour go hand in hand with the Dublin senior footballers. Remember back in February 2019, when it was reported that Jason Sherlock’s days were over as a Dublin selector? Later the same day, he was the first person off the team bus at Austin Stack Park, Tralee for their league encounter against Kerry. Speculation over.

So what the real facts are over Cluxton’s status as a Dublin footballer are known by only a select crew, we presume.

However, from the outside there is a fog of uncertainty over the future plans of the record-breaking team captain – matters will surely be clarified by Sunday afternoon, when Dessie Farrell’s men face Wexford away.

What matters most is this – is there certainty within the Dublin panel with regard to one of their primary leaders, one of their core players? That’s the most important thing, not whether fans of the team or fans of the game in general have the inside information.

Dublin will welcome Farrell back on the sideline this Sunday following his suspension and I’d be of the belief that there needs to be some clarity on the ‘Cluxton question’ this weekend also.

So where are the Dubs as they head for Wexford Park in terms of their championship credentials? Well, to state the obvious, they are the team to beat as they chase an incredible seventh Sam Maguire on the spin. However, for me, they could be more vulnerable this summer than they have been in recent years.

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It would be foolish to rush back John Small from injury. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

It would be foolish to rush back John Small from injury. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

It would be foolish to rush back John Small from injury. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

As the strength in depth of some of Dublin’s chief challengers, Kerry and Mayo, has deepened, I’m not sure the same can be said for the boys in blue.

No team in history has ever utilised the impact-sub role and strength of panel more brilliantly than Dublin have over the past decade

In no particular order, players such as Kevin McManamon, Cormac Costello, Diarmuid Connolly, Philly McMahon, Darren Daly, Eoghan O’Gara and even last year Brian Howard and Paul Mannion have played key roles off the bench in big championship games in Croke Park. But this year I think their resources will be tested to the limit.

Between retirements and a slowing of the conveyor belt I don’t think the current Dublin squad is as strong as some others of recent times.

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That is understandable, as what Dublin have achieved in the past decade is far beyond the wildest dreams of even the capital’s greatest optimists.

The decision of top-quality players such as Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion to step away inside the last year or so robs the team of major X-factor quality and replacing players of their calibre is near impossible.

Okay, Dublin won in McCaffrey’s absence last year while Mannion played the role of impact sub, but that was a winter championship – both are at their best when the mercury is rising. Their absence could be felt more strongly over the coming weeks.

There is also the fitness concern over their defensive fulcrum, John Small, following his hamstring injury against Kerry in the league. The fact that he remained sidelined for the rest of the league, even in its condensed format, suggests it was of the serious variety.

You only have to look back to the experience of Donegal’s Michael Murphy last weekend to realise how tricky the latter stages of a hamstring recovery are.

Looking ahead more immediately to Dublin’s clash with Wexford, the Dubs, as always, will have their homework done on their opponents.

Dublin’s video analysis of opposition players, and their systems and styles of play, is always top of the class - and they’ll have noted the highly-influential role of Martin O’Connor in Wexford’s victory over Wicklow.

Last weekend the much-maligned Leinster Championship provided two of the more evenly-balanced contests (Wexford v Wicklow; Offaly v Louth) and I reckon that will continue this weekend in the three other quarter-finals outside of the Dublin/Wexford encounter.

Meath will be hoping that home advantage in Navan will strengthen them for their clash against Longford. There has been rancour in the county with regard to the resignation of their U-20 management as well as Andy McEntee’s apres match interview after the Kildare game at the end of the league.

The Royals concluded the league on a bum note with that Division 2 semi-final defeat to the Lilywhites. Kildare didn’t just beat McEntee’s men, they bullied them, and could have won by a more clear-cut margin as Meath staged a late revival to cut into the deficit.

It was a defeat that came at a greater cost too, with Conor McGill and Brian Conlon sent off, while the championship preparation of two of their key players – Donal Keogan and Bryan Menton – has been negatively impacted by injuries sustained against Kildare.

Longford played some excellent football against Carlow last weekend, with forwards Rian Brady and Robbie Smyth leading the way as 11 different players registered scores.

Meath are under pressure heading into this weekend but will still be strongly fancied to win. For Longford, it’s something of a ‘free shot’ - and that potentially makes them dangerous opponents.

Offaly bounced back from their disappointing display in the Division 3 league final defeat to Derry, when overcoming Louth after extra time last weekend. Next up for them is Kildare, who look to have jumped over Meath in the provincial rankings.

The Lilywhites, too, have had their injury concerns – Kevin Feely, Paul Cribbin, Jimmy Hyland and Daniel Flynn are all on the treatment table after the tailend of the league.

In Darragh Kirwan I think they have a player who could bring greater cohesion to their forward line. He only made his SFC debut in the corresponding clash last year. That was a close encounter and it’s likely to be the same this Sunday.

Finally, back to the Dubs. I don’t think they need, or will, go out purposely to make any real statement of intent this Sunday – this summer could be more of a slow-burner for them.

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