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Dubs bid to tackle Wee issue


Dublin defender Kevin Nolan.

Dublin defender Kevin Nolan.

Dublin defender Kevin Nolan.

PADDY CARR was the manager who handed an 18-year-old Paddy Keenan his Louth SFC debut in 2003. He was the manager who led Rory O'Carroll, Cian O'Sullivan and Kevin Nolan, among others, to the All-Ireland club summit with Kilmacud Crokes in 2009.

The above quartet have something else in common: they all subsequently achieved All Star recognition.

Keenan became Louth's first and only All Star in 2010; Nolan was similarly honoured in the wake of his man of the match performance in the 2011 All-Ireland final; while O'Carroll and O'Sullivan joined the 'team of the year' pantheon last November.

All Stars will be the last thing on Dublin and Louth minds when the two counties collide in tonight's second round of the O'Byrne Cup. There won't even be too many All Stars on parade, given Jim Gavin's commitment to road-testing as much fringe talent as possible this January.

Nolan may feature, having made a welcome return to starting duty during their one-point win over Westmeath, but don't expect to see his aforementioned clubmates, O'Carroll and O'Sullivan, yet. Keenan, meanwhile, is still Louth's perennial talisman and kicked three points from midfield last Saturday night, as a makeshift team succumbed by nine points to DCU.

The cumulative effect of those opening Group D outcomes is that Dublin are well positioned to push on towards semi-final qualification whereas their neighbours are playing catch-up.

Then again, Dublin are defending All-Ireland champions and Louth remain well back in the chasing pack. That's the big picture reality, one that Paddy Carr (with his knowledge of both camps) knows only too well.

"I have no doubt the challenge for Dublin is to get back into the football mindset quicker than maybe Donegal did the year previous," he says.

"It's a very realistic challenge for Dublin because there is no question, the talent pool is there to win a back-to-back All-Ireland. The technical ability, the back-up, is there. It is going to come down, ultimately I would imagine, to the mindset of the players. What tends to get teams across the line at the cutting edge of championship football is a ferocious hunger.

"In Dublin's case that won't necessarily be answered until the summer, but that hunger can be created by constantly refreshing the team.

"That is probably the challenge before the Dublin management at the moment – how do they ensure that players keep stepping forward in their performance rather than getting comfortable in their achievements?"

In theory, it should help 'Team Gavin' that many of his players already know the pitfalls of trying (and failing) to defend Sam Maguire.

Another obvious positive is Dublin's options: their manager was actually conservative when it came to changing a winning team last summer but he never shied away from emptying his bench each time.

This spring, not to mention summer, it will be intriguing to see if he mirrors that old Brian Cody penchant (when Kilkenny were in their pomp) of shaking up his All-Ireland '15' and relegating some team pillars to the periphery.

On that score, Carr reckons the GAA's latest disciplinary panacea – the black card – will help guard against complacency in the Sky Blue ranks. "Your numbers 16 to 22 on any team now, realistically, can be thrown into a game outside of management's decision.


"Decisions out on the field, by the referees, can throw players in and I think the black card scenario is going to create a real positive hunger in players," he predicts. "The internal competition in the Dublin squad is something that will work very strongly in their favour."

That is why the O'Byrne Cup is such an important audition, not alone for wannabes like Seán George, Eric Lowndes, Shane Carthy and Paul Hudson (to name four) but for erstwhile defensive mainstays such as Michael Fitzsimons and Kevin Nolan. All-Ireland starters in 2011, this duo saw minimal game-time last year after battling back from hip surgery (in Fitzsimons' case) and from a diabetes diagnosis (in Nolan's).

As Gavin himself noted: "Both those players and a lot more have shown great attitude last year and again over the last week. They're very determined to push on and stake claims for league and championship, and there are no guarantees for any player that played last year. For us, 2013 is definitely in the past."

His former club boss reserves special praise for Nolan. "Kevin is still a very young footballer and has huge character, and I certainly believe it shows the correct mindset in terms of propelling Dublin forward," says Carr. "Other guys may have got disillusioned but not Kevin, and that's a testament to him."

Keenan finds himself in a different quandary: the main man in a team battling against the odds to reach the next level. "The player who has driven on Louth for the last decade," says Carr. "He is certainly the benchmark for other players in Louth."

Now managing Burren in Co Down, Carr spies signs for cautious optimism in Louth, citing a "huge amount of underage football" now being played since their Darver centre of excellence opened. "There are some good young lads coming through – they are not coming through with anything like the quantity of quality players you would have in Dublin, but there are very good steps being made in Louth."

Tonight in Parnell Park may not be the ultimate litmus test of that progress, but a pretty good barometer all the same.