Conor McKeon New Dubs' boss Dessie Farrell ready to put his own stamp on reigning All-Ireland champions
After disjointed start, boss can now piece together his squad after luxury of watching Dublin SFC
Dessie Farrell didn't know the half of it back in January when he said: "I think 2020 is going to be a very, very interesting season.
"If there's areas for growth and improvement," Farrell observed, "we need to identify what those areas are and get on with it."
From then, until the GAA announced its nationwide shutdown on Thursday, March 12, Farrell had about eight weeks working with the squad, followed by a six-month hiatus that only finished just two weeks back.
What areas of growth he managed to identify in that time is anyone's guess.
But he was conspicuous in Parnell Park and the other venues where Dublin SFC games were played in that time, hawkishly watching squad members, evaluating potential additions.
It stands to reason that Farrell needs new players.
On a basic numerical level, the squad places vacated by Bernard Brogan, Eoghan O'Gara, Darren Daly and Jack McCaffrey must be filled.
But similarly, it would be a surprise if the Dublin team that starts their bid to win six All-Ireland titles in a row against Westmeath on November 7 didn't have some personal stamp of Farrell's on it.
His window for experimentation is limited now to two League matches, against Meath and Galway, before the commencement of his first All-Ireland SFC campaign.
And only this week, when those who contested last Sunday's 'A' and 'B' county finals join the rest of the group, can Farrell run a full diagnostic over his 2020 Championship squad for the first time.
IN his recently-published autobiography, The Hill, Bernard Brogan describes a meeting with Jim Gavin in 'The Bunker' in DCU before last year's Championship.
Half expecting to receive 'The News' that his Dublin career is over, Brogan is equal parts relieved to hear that Gavin is keeping around for the looming five-in-a-row bid and exasperated to discover he is in 'Tier 4' of the squad's pecking order -players ranked thirty-one to thirty-six.
Gavin explains that Tier 1 has "twelve players." "All fit and well," writes Brogan, "they're automatic starters."
At a guess, that dozen comprised Stephen Cluxton, Jonny Cooper, Mick Fitzsimons, Jack McCaffrey, James McCarthy, John Small, Brian Fenton, Brian Howard, Ciarán Kilkenny, Paul Mannion, Con O'Callaghan and Dean Rock - with Niall Scully and Davy Byrne only marginally outside.
The good news for Farrell is that all 14 - bar one - are fit, available and more or less, in form.
McCarthy, Small and Rock were all pivotal to Ballymun's Dublin SFC 1 title win last Sunday, as were O'Callaghan and Fitzsimons to Cuala's SFC 2 victory earlier in the day.
Mannion led the line for Crokes into a semi-final while Fenton and Howard were, unsurprisingly, key to Raheny's emergence from a shark-infested group and near toppling of Ballyboden in the quarter-finals.
The bad news is the gaping, Jack McCaffrey-shaped hole left in Farrell's squad.
There is, Farrell needs little reminding, no replacing his unique skill set.
THE INJURY ISSUES
OF Farrell's League squad, only Eoin Murchan missed all of the club championship.
Murchan, many people's tip to replace McCaffrey, is understood to have resumed some training in recent weeks but hasn't played since spring.
O'Callaghan meanwhile, missed four successive championship matches with a knee injury, but even if he didn't look fully recovered on the last two Sundays of the club window, probably isn't far off.
Jonny Cooper (foot) and Cormac Costello (hamstring) are both back to full fitness. Diarmuid Connolly, who missed all but the final minutes of St. Vincent's quarter-final loss to Kilmacud Crokes, should be nearing the same status now after his hamstring difficulties.
Technically, Colm Basquel (hamstring) and Michael Darragh Macauley (quad) are in the same bracket having played last Sunday's Dublin SFC final, but it's more likely that both will report for county duty this week still nursing their respective knocks.
WE'LL discard those thirty-somethings at either end of the age-bracket.
Rock, Cooper, McCarthy and Rory O'Carroll are all 30 and whatever factors colour Farrell's thinking on their respective claims, age isn't one.
And despite turning 39 in a couple of months, Cluxton warrants little further mention in this section - the shoulder injury that kept him out of the League sufficiently healed that he played outfield for Parnell's in the Dublin SFC 2.
Sandwiched between those extremities are a cabal of players, many of whom's direct influence on the team have been waning, but who Farrell will be eager to keep around.
Cian O'Sullivan (32) played more games for Kilmacud this year than any in the past decade and particularly against St. Vincent's in the quarter-final, manned the central channel of their defence with his customary stealth and comfort.
Similarly, Diarmuid (33) Connolly had his best run of club matches/form for three years before injury struck.
Paddy Andrews (32) meanwhile, kicked 0-5 (2f) against Cuala in last Sunday's SFC 2 decider.
Philly McMahon, Kevin McManamon (both 33) and Michael Darragh Macauley (34) remain key figures within the group, particularly McManamon, who had taken responsibility for some of the squad's mental preparations by the last years of Gavin's reign.
In a championship where injuries will be more frequent and have far graver consequences, backup of that quality and experience could be priceless.
FOR what it's worth now, Farrell used 30 players in the pre-Covid part of the League - second only to Pádraic Joyce (31) for experimentation among the Division 1 managers.
He gave senior debuts to Kilmacud Crokes forward Dan O'Brien, Castleknock defender Eoin O'Brien and Na Fianna's Aaron Byrne.
Otherwise, selections were notable for the surprise return of Craig Dias after eight years away and the continued development of Seán Bugler.
How relevant any of that is now, at seven months' remove, is open to interpretation.
Club championship form may be a better gauge of Farrell's thinking.
Robbie McDaid was arguably the best player in the competition until the final and has previous experience of the Dublin setup.
Ballymun's Cameron McCormack has the physical profile of a senior inter-county footballer and was consistent in an area where Farrell needs a greater variety of options.
At best, they will be squad additions. Fodder for A versus B games.
As regards players trying to break into Dublin's starting XV, the outstanding form candidates are Paddy Small and Seán Bugler.
Small, excellent for Ballymun all autumn, faces a struggle to dislodge O'Callaghan, Mannion or Rock from the team.
The angle of Bugler's trajectory is undeniable, however, tracking straight into the Dublin starting 15. The only question is whether he gets there this year or next.