McConnell aims to be central to Dublin plans
THE first NFL campaign of a new decade and a chance arises for two young men to stake their claim to the No 8 and 9 jerseys in the Dublin team.
Step forward Eamonn Fennell, he of the much-publicised dispute with O'Toole's GAA club, and Ross McConnell from Oliver Plunkett's/Eoghan Ruadh.
These are the players selected in the Dubs' engine room for their visit to Killarney tomorrow in their opening round of the Allianz National Football League.
During the week, former Dublin great of the 1970s, Jimmy Keaveney, highlighted midfield as a crucial area for Pat Gilroy's team as the manager embarks on his second year in charge.
Keaveney's view is that if the side can get a settled and effective midfield for the season, it will go a long way to providing stability and improving performances.
The centre-field area takes on a greater significance as there is no experienced 'Plan B' combination to call on if there's a problem.
Last year, in his rookie season as manager, Gilroy could launch Ciaran Whelan and/or Shane Ryan from the bench, but this pair's problem was that they were getting the proverbial splinters from sitting on their backsides.
Now they have gone -- Whelan to retirement, Ryan to the Dublin hurlers.
One door closes, another opens, and it's up to Fennell, McConnell and currently injured Darren Magee to step through and announce themselves as the heirs apparent to the mantle of Whelan and Ryan.
It won't be easy and it will take time. McConnell - prior to Gilroy's accession to the throne - was often used as a defender, most notably at full-back.
Fennell has worked hard in training and also in the couple of games he has played to get fit. He has also had to cope with the issues regarding O'Toole's and the recent murder of his friend Warren O'Connor.
Let us remember that these are amateur players, and nobody should have hyper-inflated expectations with regard to tomorrow's match.
The season is too young and the training regimes too restricted by regulation and bad weather for either Dublin or Kerry to be in top form.
In saying that, there aren't too many options at centre-field out there, so opportunity knocks for both players.
The first priority for Gilroy was to establish that Fennell would be part of his plans and his selection of the player put the onus on O'Toole's and the Dublin County Board to thrash out a solution to the three-year-old saga over his wish to transfer out.
That has been sorted to a degree, with the O'Toole's club raising no objection to Fennell playing for the county side, while saying they hope he will stay with them.
Gilroy just wants to see the player in the blue jersey.
"Eamonn and Ross were playing well last year. Eamonn has done particularly well in the O'Byrne Cup, so it's great that we have him available to us.
"I'm sure all the talk probably is a weight on his shoulders, but doesn't have an effect on what he's doing with us.
"It's probably a distraction to him outside, but it has had no effect on his playing and it has had no effect on his training. So, it's not something that has come up or been a problem for him around us. He's been fine.
"If he wasn't available to me, it would be frustrating. But he is available. It hasn't interrupted our plans at all, so there's no issue about Eamonn from our perspective at the moment," says Gilroy.
McConnell, who made his Dublin debut against Limerick in the 2007 NFL, has the height and strength to make an impact at midfield and has shown he can take good scores from out the field.
The infamous All-Ireland quarter-final last August was a devastating day for all the Dubs, as they were beaten all over the pitch.
Fennell could probably be glad he missed that one, while McConnell has to look beyond it.
The Oliver Plunkett's/ER player is well aware that the gauntlet has been thrown down to the likes of himself and Fennell to take over from Whelan and Ryan. "The experience those lads brought to the table means it will be difficult for anyone to fill their shoes, but there's guys, hopefully, who can step up to the mark," reflects McConnell.
"They would always be hard to replace, but there's a team sheet there and a lot of new names on it.
"It's the same for every county. New guys have to come in each year and try to step up to the plate.
"I don't know if we'll know any better by Sunday, but I suppose down the line, if you ask me at the end of the year, we'll probably find out."
Therein lies the crux of the matter. Many new players are being tried out, the team changes from match to match, and bedding down players is not easy in those circumstances.
One thing's for sure -- the Dubs and McConnell are not looking too far ahead.
"There's no talk of winning All-Irelands or winning leagues.
"Going by what's happened in previous years, you have to be realistic, but we're in a new year now.
"The only challenge we're looking at is playing Kerry.
"We know we've a huge task ahead. Kerry are the All-Ireland champions.
"They're experts at clawing out results from games when they're under pressure and at winning games.
"It's a difficult task, but we'll go down and do our best to enjoy it," he asserts.