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Dubs can lay down summer marker

IN the immediate aftermath of Kerry's demolition of Dublin in the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final, manager Jack O'Connor and captain Darran O'Sullivan made revealing comments about the Kingdom's mindset in a given situation.

The road to Croke Park had been strewn with potholes but, having survived the bumpy ride without a broken axle, they were ready to power on once they reached the motorway.

From O'Connor's perspective, that involved playing in Croke Park, complete with its space and sense of liberation.

"Somewhere along the line, we felt we'd click and no better place than here where we had the space to play our natural game," O'Connor said.

"It's a footballer's pitch. You kick a ball here that normally would go over the sidelines and fellas run on to it. We moved the ball well; there was no soloing out the field. It was quick ball into space and we thrived on it."

There was no disguising the Kerry message -- Killarney may be their natural home but Croke Park is their theatre.

O'Sullivan threw another interesting element into the mix, revealing how the prospect of playing Dublin had energised them in a way that the qualifier ties hadn't.


"Once we heard it was Dublin, there was no messing. Everyone was very excited. If we couldn't tune ourselves in for this game, we might as well have hung up out boots," he said.

An Allianz League game in February will never match a championship encounter but there will still be an edge to tonight's clash that wouldn't normally apply at this time of year.

Nor will it be confined to Kerry and Dublin alone. Others will be keeping a watching brief, principally to assess whether Dublin's steady improvement since defeat by Meath in last year's Leinster semi-final is developing into something really significant.

A win in Armagh, followed by a six-point success over Cork in Croke Park last Saturday, has left Dublin out front in Division 1. And, with three of their remaining five games in Croke Park, their prospects of reaching the league final for the first time since 1999 look promising.

With that would come another opportunity to spread their wings across new frontiers. After all, winning the league -- or at least doing consistently well -- underpinned each of the All-Ireland winners for well over a decade. And back in the 'Heffo' days, and again in the early 1990s, Dublin almost always put down serious markers in the spring campaign.

They need to win this league more than any of their main championship rivals in order to prove that they have developed a tough strain of consistency, and to establish that playing in Croke Park is of major benefit to them.

The move from Parnell Park to Croke Park for this year's league games is important for Dublin. Croke Park may be everybody's stadium but if a team play all their home games there, it becomes like their ground.

That's why tonight's game with Kerry carries far more relevance than would be case if were played in Donnycarney. Dublin are back in Croke Park and have already made an early statement of intent by beating Cork. If they were to follow up with a win over Kerry, the essential Croke Park specialists, it would raise the voltage through their supply lines.

It has always been fashionable to claim that Dublin v Kerry is a rivalry of equals who have shared the honours over the years but, in reality, it's anything but. Of 25 championship clashes, Kerry lead 17-6 with two draws. Kerry have won eight and drawn one of the last nine games between them That's a pretty comprehensive dominance, one which Kerry like to downplay while privately always fancying themselves to beat Dublin.

That will apply again tonight. If there's one thing that football history proves, it's that Kerry like nothing better than checking Dublin's reins just when it looks as if the Sky Blues are heading for a full gallop.

Dublin's promising start to the league, coming off the momentum generated in July-August last year, has raised hopes in the capital that, at long last, the real deal is about to be signed. Tonight's game won't prove conclusively whether that's the case, but it will give some decent pointers.

Dublin know just how much it would delight Kerry to get back inside their heads and twiddle the confidence controls. Kerry have done it down through the years and, with Dublin taking shape in an impressive manner right now, they want to do it again, just in case a power is emerging which might prove difficult to control later on.

For Dublin, the test is to stand up to that. If they do, it will be worth a whole lot more than the two points that would keep them on top of the table.

Irish Independent