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Form is on Dubs' side

AS a player, Pat Gilroy had an interesting, if strangely brief career with Dublin. His emergence coincided with the Dubs’ dominance of Leinster between 1992 and the glory season of '95, but he disappeared from view slightly earlier than might have been expected.

Within that period, though, there's little doubt that one of the biggest disappointments was the All-Ireland final defeat of 1994, a match in which he started in midfield and his opposite number on the line in Croke Park tomorrow, James McCartan, also played and, indeed, scored the decisive goal.

Unlike Kerry last season then, Gilroy isn't likely to be caught unawares when a Down team comes to Croke Park to wreck the best-laid plans. It might ‘only' be the league but just how Down-like would it be for the Mournemen to perform their usual Croke Park trick and inflict a first defeat of the season on the presently high-flying Dubs?

On the basis of form, is there any team more likely to do it? And given their style of play, the potency of their attack and their knack for producing their best on the biggest stage, is there an outfit more suited to do it?

Probably not. Which isn't to say Dublin are about to wobble with a league final in sight. It's just that a far more defensively astute performance will be required tonight in Croke Park. Therein lies the big equation. Down have the most talented and varied collection of forwards in Ireland, bar Kerry. Dublin have a tendency to switch off, allow opposition time and space on the ball and then leave their full-back line exposed, thus conceding big scores in small pockets of matches.

So have Dublin seen enough warning signs and have they had sufficient time to cut out that narcoleptic habit? Doubtless, it was top of Pat Gilroy's agenda when they went to Glasgow to train at Celtic's facilities last week but it's also notable that the Dubs boss has made four changes in personnel to his defence.


Philly McMahon was due some game time after recovering from injury. So too Kevin Nolan, but Nicky Devereux's selection at corner-back and Paul Brogan's move to full-back are more noteworthy. The Ballinteer man is the quickest player in the Dublin squad and could have a counter-attacking style built for Croke Park when positioned at half-back, but defending against a Down senior forward in a tight corner is another step up entirely.

Brogan, meanwhile, has been touted as a potential full-back for some time and the continued absence of Rory O'Caroll combined with Seán Murray's rough afternoon againstMayo have conspired to give him that chance.

What they're up against, though, is a serious attacking outfit and not just up front. True to their tradition, Down have a team of players entirely comfortable on the ball, best illustrated by the fact that eight different players scored against Monaghan in their last Division 1 victory two weeks ago. Really though, that match was most remarkable for the sublime exhibition in creativity of Martin Clarke.

He is, in every sense, Down's ‘go to' guy in attack and almost every score they generated went through his hands or off one of his feet at some point. He is not, however, the orthodox centreforward that originally made his name at minor level.

He will roam all over the park, drop deep and pick passes most forwards would need eyes in the sides and backs of their head to see so which ever of Dublin's defenders – most likely Philly McMahon – picks him up will need almost clairvoyant vision. Stop him and there's also Benny Coulter, Danny Hughes and Paul McComiskey to keep quiet so Dublin's under-fire defence really do face their toughest task yet.


For all that, Down struggle at midfield although Dublin's current pairing of Dennis Bastick and Barry Cahill – while productive in possession – don't exactly dominate the aerial exchanges. And while Down's attack has all the verve and class needed to go places at this level, it's unlikely that many managers would have a team capable of scoring 4-15 without the impetus of a current Footballer of the Year and top scorer from the previous season. Bernard Brogan is, of course, on the bench this time and will probably be required to make some impact but all eyes will be on Diarmuid Connolly to see whether his 3-3 against Mayo was less to do with his own talents or more contributable to some pretty horrific defending.

If Dublin score goals – and their form is pretty compelling in that regard – and eradicate any significant lull in possession and work rate, they can ensure a league final spot with a game to spare. All told, that's a decent sized ‘if' but they're in the winning groove just now and don't seem so easily displaced.

ODDS: Dublin 4/9, Draw 15/2, Down 12/5