Kieran Donaghy Former Kerry great says empty Hill 16 and the loss of boss Jim Gavin could leave Dubs at risk
Donaghy hails 'best decision-makers ever' - but loss of Gavin and fans offer a ray of hope for rest
Let's be straight from the get-go: Kieran Donaghy insists Dublin remain the team to beat in this year's delayed and still virus-haunted All-Ireland SFC race.
But the Kerry legend cites two imponderables that conceivably could loosen their vice-grip on Sam: how critical is the loss of Jim Gavin, and will they miss the audible lift of Hill 16?
In recent years, Donaghy points out, the Super 8s provided ideal preparation ground for Gavin to fine-tune Dublin after another provincial cakewalk. But now there is no Super 8s, no Gavin and, almost certainly, no spectators.
"The Super 8s suited Dublin more than anybody," said Donaghy at the launch of Sky Sports' championship coverage. "They were guaranteed these three games, they were always going to win two of them, they were able to try a few fellas, were able to finetune some tactical stuff - and always knew that they were going to come into a semi-final on the back of three solid games against good-quality opposition.
"This year, they're going to be coming cold out of Leinster and if someone can catch them in an All-Ireland semi-final on a wet day in an empty Croke Park, that's probably the only way you see this Dublin team being beaten."
A packed HQ, he expanded, has "always been one of the factors in their success, along with them being the best team of decision-makers that we've ever witnessed; probably the best managed team that we've ever witnessed; probably the most athletic team that we've ever witnessed in the game.
"But I've said this before, you look at any of the American sports, you look at the 'game sevens' that people play in their own stadium, in front of most of their own fans … they don't lose too many of them in the history of whether it's baseball, whether it's basketball. You know, game seven victories on the road are as rare as hen's teeth.
"So, I do think that's a factor. I've been out there; I've been in it when Dublin are coming at you late on, and the momentum and the drive and the noise … maybe it mightn't even have that much effect on the Dublin guys, maybe it's the other team that get rattled by it, I'm not really sure.
"But I definitely think it will be a small factor in it, that the 50 or 60,000 generally supporting the Dubs in big games won't be there.
"You know, these guys have done everything that's asked of them," he continued. "When their five-in-a-row was about to be taken off them by Kerry last year, they had the answer.
"(Stephen) Cluxton came out and marked somebody, pushed James McCarthy up the pitch, they got somebody up on the spare man and they got a big turnover and went down and Dean Rock kicked the equaliser."
Alluding to the recent "winter football" successes enjoyed by Tyrone and Monaghan against Dublin, Donaghy cautioned: "You look at December, All-Ireland semi-final time, the conditions could be wild, the ball could be like a bar of soap - and Dublin's skill execution and decision-making should still have them out on top in that."
As to whether Dublin will have the same level of hunger, he demurred: "We're not allowed doubt it because they've won five-in-a-row." Yet the fact they "won't have that 60,000 roaring and driving them on" may offer a slight advantage to the opposition.
As for absent heroes, the Kerry icon-turned-pundit believes Dublin can overcome the loss of Bernard Brogan and Diarmuid Connolly and perhaps even Jack McCaffrey - but the big imponderable will be how they cope without Jim Gavin, who has handed over the reins of management to Dessie Farrell.
"In player terms, I think Jack is a loss but I think they have guys to come in and fill the role, like they did the year he went away," he surmised.
Connolly and Brogan, he added, "haven't started many games for Dublin in the last few years. Even the likes of Eoghan O'Gara and (Darren) Daly retiring, they were great squad players … but I still think they have the squad.
"The answer to the question is how good they are without Jim Gavin.
"It's been obviously very tough on Dessie, because your season is cancelled after two months and then you're probably zooming and chatting in meetings over the last four or five months.
"And then you only have a short period to try and get your team ready ... but look, they still have the players and they're still the favourites in my eyes until somebody goes along and beats them in a big game."