Dublin still in holiday mood as new football season begins

Jim Gavin opts for team holiday again, leaving rookies to compete for O’Byrne Cup

You know what they say about one man’s loss. The natural preference might be a holiday in the warm climes of South Africa, but for any Dublin footballer not yet afforded that luxury, there’s still something to gain.

Because for the second year running, All-Ireland winning manager Jim Gavin has opted out of the O’Byrne Cup in preference for that team holiday – leaving the Dublin development squad, who last year actually won the competition outright, to fly the sky blue flag instead.

Gavin’s team, meanwhile, flew out to South Africa last Wednesday, part of the reward for winning a third successive All-Ireland last September: it means no preseason matches before Dublin’s opening Allianz Football League game against Kildare in Croke Park on January 27th, and far beyond that, the quest to win a fourth successive football All-Ireland, unprecedented for the county.

For that Dublin development squad, again under the management of 1995 All-Ireland winner and former Dublin selector Paul Clarke, the O’Byrne Cup therefore offers ample opportunity, beginning with this evening’s opening game against Offaly at Parnell Park (8pm). Last year Clarke fielded 28 players over the course of the competition, which saw Dublin beat Wexford in their last group game, before defeating Kildare in the semi-final, then Louth in the final.


Of those 28, seven went on to feature for Dublin in the league or championship, most notably Niall Scully, the Templeogue Synge Street player who went on to start in four of Dublin’s championship games, including the All-Ireland final win over Mayo.

Ciarán Reddin, Colm Basquel, Conor McHugh and Jason Whelan also moved on from the O’Byrne campaign to feature for Dublin during the league, although only McHugh made a brief championship cameo.

Three prospects

Clarke has already had a chance to trial some players during the course of the annual Dubs Stars challenge last Saturday, where last year’s All-Ireland under-21 winner Aaron Byrne of Na Fianna helped himself to 2-1; Basquel again featured prominently, as did Killian O’Gara, all three of whom are likely to feature this evening.

“Aaron [Byrne] is a very fine footballer,” Clarke said in the aftermath of that challenge. “It’s again a great plus to have him on board. His skill levels are really high, he’s very comfortable on the ball, he travels at pace. He doesn’t look like he’s moving well, but he’s flying by guys.

“Colm [Basquel] is a great footballer. Great to have him around. Killian [O’Gara], we would have looked at him at the latter part of last year’s competition. He even came on in the final. It’d be nice to have him around, because he gives you a great dimension. He’s a very physical sort of player with nice skill levels.”

Offaly will provide a stern test, having cruised past Wexford by 16 points in their opening game last Saturday. The new manager, Kerry native Stephen Wallace, will be keen to continue that promising start.

Dublin then take on Wexford on Sunday, and given the fact the O’Byrne Cup allows for unlimited substitutions, every Dublin fringe player will feel like they’ll get their chance to shine. Evan Comerford, Dublin’s goalkeeper in the 2017 O’Byrne Cup, was also number two to Stephen Cluxton last summer.

Hurling holiday

New Dublin hurling manager Pat Gilroy will also get his 2018 season under way this evening with the Walsh Cup fixture against Meath at Abbotstown (8pm). All-Ireland hurling champions Galway have opted out of that competition entirely, as they’re currently on their team holiday, which began in New York over the new year and has since moved on to Cancún, Mexico.

Also currently on team holiday, and therefore missing out on the first two rounds of the Connacht FBD league, are beaten All-Ireland finalists Mayo, who have travelled to Kuala Lumpur.

Tyrone, meanwhile, will begin their quest for a seventh successive Dr McKenna Cup title when they face Antrim this evening, that game moved from Healy Park to the Armagh Athletic Grounds.

It also marks the start of the 16th season for Mickey Harte, football’s longest-serving manager, who was last year given an extension through to 2020: Harte has confirmed that his captain for 2018 will be Mattie Donnelly, who takes over from the retired Sean Cavanagh. Donnelly, only the sixth Tyrone captain since 2002, will be assisted by vice-captain Peter Harte, nephew of the manager.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics