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blue fury Dublin’s band of high achievers are entitled to feel a little angry this morning, as they read their own obituary

Rumours over weaknesses in Dublin set up may just be myth

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Brian Howard continues to play with such intelligence.

Brian Howard continues to play with such intelligence.

Brian Howard continues to play with such intelligence.

Brian Howard will stand upright and poised in Croke Park today, a firewall against flames of decline some believe are poised to consume Dublin’s skyscraper of high achievement.

Howard, in that all-seeing, unruffled Tom Brady quarter-back role he plays as impressively as any man alive, is an ever more vital presence in a team which, after years of imperium, is suddenly deemed wobbling and vulnerable.

Dublin have not lost a championship match in 2,527 days; they have accumulated a cargo of Celtic crosses that would strain the capacity of JFK’s most sprawling aircraft hangar.

In times of crisis, they can summon a special forces unit led by James McCarthy, Brian Fenton, Ciaran Kilkenny, Con O’Callaghan and Dean Rock, a quintet that rank among the greatest to ever pull a county uniform over their shoulders.

Niall Scully, Cormac Costello, Davy Byrne and John Small – the latter poised for a timely return – are superior talents at the very peak of their football lives. Battle ribbons weigh down the lapels of Michael Fitzsimons and Johnny Cooper.

Yet the Sunday Game panel hold their nose as if Dessie Farrell is steering some putrid, past its sell-bydate carcass.

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Fergal Conway of Kildare in action against Cormac Costello of Dublin in 2019

Fergal Conway of Kildare in action against Cormac Costello of Dublin in 2019

Fergal Conway of Kildare in action against Cormac Costello of Dublin in 2019

The world is suddenly fixated by a rumour that mighty Achilles is concealing a weakness at his heel, a soft spot that Kerry’s cold-eyed snipers have fixed in their crosshairs.

And the opinion-formers are giddy with that new-found knowledge.

Dublin’s band of high achievers are entitled to feel a little angry this morning, as they read their own obituary, one co-authored by a flotilla of ex-All-Stars.

Scarcely seven months have passed since they advanced into virgin terrain, six-in-a-row invincibles. Yet the word is out that they are yesterday’s men.

Here’s how the football world spun from its familiar axis.

Kerry knocked over Tipperary and Cork by a combined 33 points, the Kingdom advancing again, it seems, with the old Micko-era green and gold swagger.

Dublin haemorrhaged titans – Cluxton, Mannion, Macauley, O’Sullivan and, before that, McCaffrey, Connolly, Brogan, Flynn, O’Gara – and are besieged by defensive injuries. They eased past Meath and Wexford, but the aggregate 14-point margin – last year the same two rounds yielded a 33-point advantage, in 2019 the Sky Blue steamroller was 41 points to the good – was taken as a signpost of decline.

In the vacuum of authentic knowledge, entirely uncorroborated rumours of internal disharmony swirl.

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Are Dublin slipping? Unquestionably they lack the depth of the peak Jim Gavin years, their terrifying capacity to introduce shock and awe fourth quarter gamechangers largely decommissioned.

Injuries to Small, Eoin Murchan and Robbie McDaid along with the departure of Eric Lowndes have rendered their defensive options more threadbare than at any time in recent memory.

Allowing Kerry to stage a second-half comeback and seize an NFL draw was atypical. Ordinarily when Dublin take their prey in their jaws, they are as pitiless as jungle cats.

Wexford declined to buckle a month ago; just a fortnight back, Meath were the better team for a wild 20-minute spell. But the sample size is too tiny to speak with any cer- tainty of a diminished empire.

Dublin remain the standard setters, the team to beat, a group with an unrivalled vault of self-assurance and with a PhD in big-game know-how.

Still, it is fair to say that after holding summer in an eternal chokehold, their omnipotence is no longer a given.

Even the oddsmakers – slaves of cold analytics rather than sentiment – believe the times they are a-changin’.

For the first time in a decade, the Sky Blues awake on Leinster final morning to find a rival installed as All-Ireland favourite (Kerry are 11/10, Dublin 11/8).

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Niall Scully has four All-Ireland winners medals.

Niall Scully has four All-Ireland winners medals.

Niall Scully has four All-Ireland winners medals.

If they are seeking a competitive edge, there it is right there. A six in a row champion seeded below an opponent that has not taken them down in summer combat for 12 years.

Which brings us to secback to Howard. A back-to-back All-Star in 2018 and 2019, Howard – like Paul Mannion – was bizarrely shunted to the margins last winter.

His seismic impact off the bench in the All-Ireland final – arriving like a fighter pilot to seize control of the skies – spoke of a talent too accomplished for a cameo role.

This summer Howard has been Dublin’s stand-out performer. Deployed in a deep sitting role, he is a brilliantly effective playmaker, the offensive launchpad.

Howard’s high-fielding is eye-catching, his predictable, but uncontainable, you-knowits-coming-but-are-impotent-todefend-it right-to-left feint is his trademark.

But it is the range of his foot-passing, the intelligence of his distribution that is most valuable to Dublin.

Together with Kilkenny and Scully, he joins the Sky Blue dots, allows the pattern to form.

For all that Dublin have lost to retirement, opt outs and injury, Howard starting arms them with a high-grade weapon largely left in storage through 2020.

Remarkably, today’s Leinster final meeting with Kildare is the first time the greatest team football has known will be granted live television status this summer.

All five of Mayo and Kerry’s games – with an 83-point cumulative margin of victory – have been shown on national TV. Dublin have laboured in the shadows.

The argument that Leinster is uncompetitive and unworthy of coverage falls down when Mayo’s eviscerations of Leitrim (24-point winning margin) and Sligo (20 points) are deemed legitimate prime time fare.

In no other sport would television executives draw the blinds as the champions took the stage. If they were looking for an extra edge, there is one more reason for Dublin to feel a little aggrieved. It has been a decade since the Leinster final felt so weighty.

Kildare are stacked with potential, an All-Ireland winning manager with a history of taking the city boys down (Jack O’Connor) and, in Daniel Flynn, a potential X-factor gamechanger.

Meanwhile some commentators are already measuring Dublin for their coffin. Might an emphatic response from a group of proud, unbending athletes be brewing? Or is decline Dublin’s new truth?

Perhaps they have slipped several rungs from their peak days of imperium.

Or maybe Achilles will put on his Sky Blue battledress today and remind the nation that he remains the most formidable warrior on summer’s battlefield.

  • Dublin v Kildare, Leinster SFC Final, today, 4.0pm, LIVE RTÉ 2

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