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League games vital for men in middle

Who partners Brian Fenton in midfield yet to be decided

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James McCarthy has filled the midfield berth for Dublin with distinction whenever required

James McCarthy has filled the midfield berth for Dublin with distinction whenever required

Michael Darragh Macauley

Michael Darragh Macauley

Cofaigh Byrne

Cofaigh Byrne

Darren Gavin

Darren Gavin

Shane Carthy

Shane Carthy

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James McCarthy has filled the midfield berth for Dublin with distinction whenever required

It was with at least mild surprise last week when, speaking at a promotional event, Brian Fenton talked down the possibility of establishing a long-term midfield coalition with his Raheny clubmate, close friend and fellow 2018 All Star midfielder, Brian Howard.

"I think it's just needs must at the moment," Fenton explained, referencing the fact that the pair formed Dublin's starting midfield in all three of their league games so far this year.

"He doesn't play midfield for Raheny," he elaborated.

"He hides in the forwards! He rarely plays midfield for Dublin."

That they were All Stars together in midfield less than two years ago is, Fenton admitted: "lovely for us, just to have that for us in the history books."

But it was clear that wherever he saw the eminently versatile Howard's future, it wasn't directly beside him in Dublin's midfield.

"I suppose he can go back up into the forwards when some of the taller lads arrive back," Fenton said, a prediction that comes as a surprise to their predecessor as Raheny All Star midfielder.

"Personally, I'd have thought Howard would be a natural choice for that second midfield sport," says Ciarán Whelan.

"Physically he's developed even further, he's bigger stronger and has a great leap, as we saw last year in the All-Ireland final."

Fenton was inclined to disagree, though. Inviting the question: if not Howard, then who?

The old reliables

At the same event last week, Fenton painted an instructive image of the Dublin dressing-room at half-time in the Monaghan game.

Nine points down and probably lucky at that, Fenton described being "embarrassed," at Dublin's predicament but recalled "James McCarthy staring you down," looking for a reaction.

"You're saying 'right, I better shape up in this half.'

McCarthy as a type of stop-gap partner for Fenton is a curious portrayal.

In 2017, he eclipsed the Raheny man there, won Man of the Match in the All-Ireland final and was unlucky not to be crowned Footballer of the Year, all in a position no-one considers his most natural.

The relevant equation Dessie Farrell must solve is whether McCarthy's worth in midfield is greater than what the team will lose without him as a half-back.

By some distance, he has been Dublin's best player in the League this year from his more familiar environs.

"McCarthy and Howard are very similar in that they have natural defensive instincts," Whelan points out.

"That can allow Fenton to play a bit more of an attacking game.

"You've seen it a lot in some recent games, where he has played almost in an attacking position or has come from the centre-forward position to pick up the ball."

McCarthy began last year's All-Ireland final replay in midfield, although from the beginning of the Super 8s (discounting the Omagh dead-rubber) until the drawn decider, Michael Darragh Macauley started every game.

He scored three goals last summer and was nominated for an All Star, a run of form and involvement he attributed to having "a fully functioning body," having played injured over previous seasons.

Currently, he's inching back to fitness from a groin problem and it's difficult to see Macauley reclaiming an axis with Fenton if he doesn't play in the remainder of the league.

And as Whelan points out, Farrell may be inclined to choose someone who works more naturally as a counterpoint to Fenton.

"Because he's so effective going forward, you don't want him becoming that holding midfielder. You want to give him as much freedom as possible," he stressed.

The young contenders

"Peadar Ó Cofaigh Byrne is an animal," said Fenton last September of the Cuala midfielder who had impressed Jim Gavin after joining the squad following the end of the Dublin Under 20's season to the extent that he was selected on the bench for the drawn All-Ireland final.

"I was getting slagged for weeks that I couldn't win a throw-up over him because he's almost 100 kilos, he's 99.9 kilos, I think, which I slag him about.

"But he's heavier than me. He's tall, he's 6'6'', and he's broader than me."

Were it not for a hamstring injury, Ó Cofaigh Byrne would almost certainly have started league games for Dublin this year, such is his promise.

Fitness-depending, the expectation is that he will do so between now and the end of spring.

Another significant factor in the Dublin equation is last year's major midfield prospect, Darren Gavin.

He made his first appearance as a senior against Galway in Croke Park, his first start on a hot and heavy night in Tralee and began the Championship as Fenton's partner against Louth in Portlaoise before a hamstring injury ruled him out for the rest of the summer.

For what it's worth, Farrell doesn't need any introduction to Gavin's athletic charms - the Lucan Sarsfields man was Man of the Match in the 2017 All-Ireland Under 21 final, having come on as a substitute against Galway.

And then there's Shane Carthy.

Fenton described last week how Carthy's struggles with depression in 2014 led to him being given his chance in the All-Ireland Under 21 semi-final.

Carthy is now 25 and back on the senior panel, having impressed in Naomh Mearnóg's recent promotion to Division 1 and DCU's Sigerson Cup win.

Despite having made his senior inter-county debut as a Leaving Cert student in 2013, two years before Fenton was even a panellist, Carthy - like Ó Ciofadh Byrne and Gavin - will require significant exposure over the coming weeks to be considered a live contender for the role of Fenton's summer partner.

"The risk attached to that is that if Fenton takes a rookie on board this year, whether he likes it or not, his natural instinct will be to be protective of that guy," says Whelan.

"To make sure he is in the right positions. To be conscious of his movement. To be mindful of if he's leaving gaps in defence.

"It's probably a thing Dessie has to look at. If Howard isn't the long term solution, as Fenton alluded to, Dessie needs to utilise these games to see if they're ready to play there."


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