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Can Kerry land early blow, will Comerford step from shadows and how will captaincy affect Clifford?
5 questions ahead of tonight’s Dublin-Kerry clash at Croke Park.

131 DAYS HAVE passed since Dublin landed a historic fifth successive All-Ireland title after a replay win over the Kingdom.

A new era awaits as Kerry arrive in town for tonight’s Division 1 opener. It’s the first clash between the counties this decade and plenty of changes have taken place in both camps since last September.

Most notably, Dessie Farrell replaces Jim Gavin on the Dublin sideline, while David Clifford has assumed the Kerry captaincy. There have been retirements, new faces and injuries to boot, giving us plenty of questions to ponder as the great rivals meet again. 

kerrys-david-clifford-scores-a-point-past-dublins-david-byrne Inpho David Clifford scores a point past Dublin's David Byrne in last year's All-Ireland final replay. Inpho

1. Can Kerry land an early blow?

Both these sides enjoyed post-Christmas team holidays, though Dublin arrived back from their sojourn to Bali a week or so after Kerry returned from Thailand.

“It was good craic,” remarked Stephen O’Brien. “It was a nice reward at the end of the year. Nice bit of team bonding and stuff like that.”

It means Peter Keane’s side have enjoyed a head-start on the physical preparations, while Dessie Farrell is still playing catch-up after his late appointment. Farrell has worked with his new players for less than two weeks, though he’s familiar with a large portion of the squad from previous roles. 

Dublin are a well-oiled machine and formidable opponents, even when operating on half a tank of gas. But it’s a golden opportunity for Kerry to lay down an early marker and start the decade with a bang.

“It definitely won’t make up for last year if we beat them on the 25th, but it’s the start of a New Year and we’re looking forward to it,” added O’Brien.

“Croke Park is where you want to play. And under lights as well is class, there will be a good atmosphere and stuff like that. And a chance to test yourselves against the Dubs again.”

2. Will Comerford step from the shadows?

Taking over from the reigning Footballer of the Year is a daunting task for any understudy, but Evan Comerford has been preparing for this opportunity. 

The Ballymun Kickhams youngster has regularly deputised for Stephen Cluxton since 2018 and now looks set for his most sustained run in the Dublin senior team as the number one recovers from shoulder surgery.

At 38, injuries have started to catch up with Cluxton. Comerford was 20 when he came on for the injured Parnells stopper in the 2018 Leinster semi-final and subsequently started the final.

He started the first four games of last year’s league as Cluxton rehabbed a back injury and now looks for a longer run to begin 2020. Comerford was Farrell’s netminder for their All-Ireland U21 success in 2017 and will be hoping to shine in this window of opportunity. 

evan-comerford Tommy Dickson / INPHO Dublin goalkeeper Evan Comerford. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

3. How will Clifford handle the captaincy?

Kerry’s long-standing tradition which sees the senior county champions select the captain might be in its final year, depending on the outcome of a county board meeting on Monday night, but David Clifford assumes the captaincy for 2020.

Any fears around adding extra pressure on Clifford’s broad shoulders should be eased by the fact that the Fossa ace thrives when the temperature is dialed up.

“I think he’ll be very good,” said team-mate Tommy Walsh this week.

“Obviously the system down there is if you win the county championship you can be nominated for captain but I think he’d probably be in the mix anyway.

“He’s young obviously but he has a good head on his shoulders, he has a good football brain, he’s well able to articulate his points of view, he’s a strong voice in the dressing room and he handles pressure very, very well.

“There’s obviously a lot of expectation being such a talented player but he seems to just go with the flow and I think it will be no different with the captaincy.”

4. How are the squads shaping up?

Aside from Cluxton, Dublin are set to be without Con O’Callaghan for the opening few rounds at least – also due to a shoulder injury.

Farrell may decide to hold back some of the older guard at this stage of the year and it’s likely a number of fringe panelists will be given a chance to shine here.

Keane’s hand has been bolstered by Templenoe’s All-Ireland intermediate semi-final loss and UCC’s surprise exit in the Sigerson Cup semi-finals midweek, freeing up Tadhg Morley, Gavin Crowley, Adrian Spillane, Killian Spillane and Sean O’Shea to face Dublin.

However, they will be without Jack Barry and Diarmuid O’Connor who are on club duty with Na Gaeil. David Moran and Peter Crowley are also sidelined with knee injuries, while Paudie Clifford is not expected to return until next month.

5. Will Kerry target the league?

The strength of the starting team Keane named last night hints that Kerry will bid to hit the ground running in the spring.

Landing the Division 1 title in April would be a decent way to head into the summer and give their young cohort valuable experience of winning a national title at Croke Park.

The Kingdom have won the league just once since 2009. Dublin’s string of five titles between 2013 and 2018 proved that winning league honours can be a useful precursor to All-Ireland success.

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