All-Ireland SFC final: Holders Kerry face Dublin at Croke Park

Croke Park is once again the glorious setting for what could be an enthralling All-Ireland Senior Football Championship final, as defending champions and record holders Kerry prepare to tackle home favourites Dublin, who are aiming to lift Sam Maguire for a third time in five years.

Jim Gavin had to guide his Dubs through a gruelling semi-final replay against the defiant five-in-a-row Connacht champions Mayo, having drawn their initial encounter 2-12 to 1-15, and it took three goals in the final 15 minutes to secure a thrilling comeback.

In their quest for a record 39th Championship crown to bring back to the kingdom, Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s holders thrashed a helpless Kildare 7-16 to 0-10 in a one-sided quarter-final affair, before overcoming Tyrone by four points and are 23/20 with Coral to triumph in the capital.

For the much-awaited Dublin encounter, a replay of the 2011 final in which the home county triumphed by a single point, Fitzmaurice has made some surprising changes to his revealed starting line-up.

The biggest shock comes from the omission of captain Kieran Donaghy, with last year’s trophy-lifting skipper being replaced by Paul Geaney at full forward, while Fionn Fitzgerald and Aidan O’Mahony come into the full back line in place of Paul Murphy and veteran Marc O Se.

With long-serving defensive stalwart O Se being left out, it means that for the first time since 1972 a member of this esteemed footballing family won’t be in the Kerry starting line-up for an All-Ireland final.

Midfielder David Moran will wear the captain’s armband on Sunday in front of a rapturous 80k-plus Croke Park crowd, having been nominated as vice-captain earlier this season, assuming this is ultimately the way Kerry line out.

County legend Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper takes his rightful place at right corner forward, while 2014 footballer of the year James O’Donoghue is named on the opposite side.

In total it means that Kerry’s line-up has only four changes from the team that started against Donegal in last year’s final, with ‘the Gooch’ having been injured at that time and Brendan Kelly taking the number one jersey from Brian Kelly on this occasion.

Dublin are the marginally odds-on 20/23 favourites to lift Sam Maguire for a 25th time in their history, with only Kerry having ever won more, and will be confident as they have triumphed in their previous two meetings.

Gavin’s men blitzed through the Leinster Championship, winning all of their games with ease, though the All-Ireland semi-final clashes with Mayo could potentially prove to be either ideal preparation for Sunday or an eventual hindrance.

Dublin boast the top scorer from open play in the Championship this year, with St Oliver Plunketts clubman Bernard Brogan having struck a stunning 6-19 this term, and he could prove to be the deciding factor once again in their own backyard.

Ciaran Kilkenny is another who has been in sublime form during Dublin’s rampant road to the final, with his ability to link play up and score off either foot set to cause Kerry plenty of problems in front of an expectant home crowd.

Dubs goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton holds fond memories of his last final clash with Kerry, having confidently stepped up and sent over the 2011 Championship-winning point from a long-range free-kick, shattering his opponent’s hopes in the dying moments of that closely contested thriller.

Croke Park Stadium

There is a huge personal accolade on the table for Kerry boss Fitzmaurice, as he sets his kingdom side up for a potential attacking onslaught, with victory in the final meaning he will become the first coach to manage a county to successive Championships wins since Cork’s Billy Morgan in 1990.

All-Ireland football final stalemates are rare but, with Dublin having come through a semi-final replay already and these two finalists looking seemingly inseparable, a draw at Croke Park is 8/1.