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EXCLUSIVE Cluxton's return a huge boost for Dublin's Invincibles but if Cillian O'Connor is out it's a disaster for Mayo

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 Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton lifts the Sam Maguire Cup. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton lifts the Sam Maguire Cup. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Cillian O'Connor could be missing for Mayo for the entire season. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Cillian O'Connor could be missing for Mayo for the entire season. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

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Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton lifts the Sam Maguire Cup. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

A neon sign is turned on this weekend to say the championship season is open, but almost as quickly it will be turned off for seven counties.

That’s the harsh reality of this year’s competition once again, and it’s wrong – by Sunday evening the inter-county year is over for three Leinster counties, two in Munster, and one each of Connacht and Ulster.

Earlier this season I mentioned that the country’s inter-county footballers were being short-changed in comparison to their hurling counterparts, and the loss of the ‘elite’ status has come at a great cost.

In hindsight, its loss should have been challenged by inter-county players and managers earlier in the year, when many other sports at senior adult level returned to action.

Call me biased, but if some of those sports are more elite than the nation’s county hurlers and footballers, then they do a fair job of concealing that more elevated status.

For the footballers the absence of a backdoor qualifier system robs the upcoming championship of a lot of potential energy and colour. It also can hamper the development of teams and players – younger players especially.

Many counties who will have considered that they enjoyed a growth spurt during the recent league could fall at the first hurdle, and that upturn could then wither on the vine until next year.

As we head into the championship the week began with a shadow over two players – with questions over would they, or wouldn’t they, lace their boots this summer – namely Dublin’s Stephen Cluxton and Mayo’s Cillian O’Connor.

After weeks of very strong speculation that Cluxton was not training with the squad, which led to fears that he had played his last game for the Dubs, there looks to be more clarity now on the matter.

I hope it is the case that it’s ‘one more year’ for the Parnell’s clubman, and that nothing has been lost in translation! If he had quietly stepped away, it would have stripped back another layer of Dublin’s so-called ‘invincibility’.

We can list off his achievements as a player in numbers – eight All-Irelands (seven as captain), 16 Leinsters, six All-Stars, Footballer of the Year – but that doesn’t tell the full story of Cluxton the footballer, Cluxton the influencer.

Of all the big-game players in the Dublin team over the past decade he is the biggest – so his presence, especially in a condensed season, is huge from Dublin’s perspective.

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Evan Comerford is an excellent goalkeeper, and no doubt he will have a long career as Dublin’s first-choice No 1, but I think experience in these odd, surreal Covid championships is vital – and no player has more experience and know-how than Cluxton.

In clutch moments of games it was often his contributions which were either the catalyst for improvement, or provided some of the more critical inputs.

Obviously his free-kick to win the 2011 All-Ireland final was the most iconic, but in several other semi-finals, or finals, he was key for Dublin.

Mayo look to have lost their talisman Cillian O’Connor to an Achilles injury. They begin their Connacht campaign on Saturday against Sligo, a team that owing to Covid did not feature in last year’s winter championship. They will do so without the championship’s top-scorer of all-time.

Mayo manager James Horan has undertaken an ambitious rebuilding of his team over the last two years and so far it has gone well, despite their relegation from Division 1 last year.

If they’re to lose O’Connor for the summer, then their hopes of finally ending the famine are severely dented.

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Cillian O'Connor could be missing for Mayo for the entire season. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Cillian O'Connor could be missing for Mayo for the entire season. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Cillian O'Connor could be missing for Mayo for the entire season. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Apart from his free-taking contributions and general scoring, talented young forwards, such as the promising Tommy Conroy, need the more experienced voice of O’Connor beside them to improve their game.

I don’t think Sligo will fully extend Mayo on Saturday but looking further down the road if O’Connor is out, then I think Horan’s men will find defending the Nestor Cup a whole lot more difficult.

Kerry finished off their impressive league campaign in clinical, ruthless fashion against Tyrone. If Clare play like they did in the opening half of their Division 2 semi-final against Mayo then the Kingdom will make short shrift of the Banner men in the Munster quarter-final.

However, Clare improved on their kick-outs in the second half – and when they moved Darren O’Neill to full-forward, it caused problems for Mayo. The Kingdom don’t need reminding of unorthodox players around their goal area following Mark Keane’s late, late heroics in last year’s Munster championship.

But Clare won’t be afforded until half-time to get the show going on Saturday in Killarney, if they are slow out of the blocks, there will be no way back.

In Leinster, Offaly will be hoping they can bounce back immediately from their under-performance last Saturday in the Division 3 final against Derry, when they were outclassed. Louth have had an extra week’s rest and Mickey Harte could sit back and study John Maughan’s side – that could make a difference.

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