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Tuesday 24 October 2017

Perfect Dubs day has unwelcome twist

Meath capitulate as ravenous holders lay down marker

Bernard Brogan celebrates. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Bernard Brogan celebrates. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Diarmuid Connolly, Dublin, in action against Brian McMahon, left, and Donncha Tobin, Meath. Leinster GAA Senior Football Championship Final, Dublin v Meath, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn

BY now we are well accustomed to seeing Dublin footballers lay waste to their provincial rivals, but still there was something ominously different about yesterday's Leinster final at Croke Park.

A crowd of 62,660, by far the biggest of summer thus far, had come to see a humdinger and ended up being witness to a demolition derby. The majority exulted in a massacre against the old enemy; the minority in green could scarcely believe it.

And that's why yesterday was different. Sixteen-point victories may be two-a-penny for Jim Gavin's Leinster trailblazers (who inflicted identical margins of defeat on Westmeath and Kildare last summer, and Wexford last month) but they don't do it to Meath. Or at least, they didn't until yesterday.

This was the perfect day for the All-Ireland champions ... or rather, it would have been until a bizarre postscript when Meath manager Mick O'Dowd re-entered the press auditorium to make the jaw-dropping allegation that his substitute defender, Mickey Burke, had been bitten on the finger.

Groundhog

Thus, it became Groundhog Day for a Dublin management team now facing its third such controversy in the space of 15 months.

This dramatic sub-plot, stemming from a 63rd minute melee involving many players from both sides, is covered in greater detail elsewhere. Suffice to say, this is the last distraction that Gavin will have wanted as he spends the next three weeks focussing on Dublin's All-Ireland quarter-final, back in HQ on Saturday, August 9.

Back to the match. By our estimation, this was the most complete Dublin performance of the Gavin era but the only problem is ... how do you place it in context? Was it a Sky Blue masterclass or a Royal meltdown? Were Dublin an unstoppable force or Meath a surprisingly movable object?

The classic fence-sitting answer is all of the above. The biggest surprise was that Meath never got close to the ultra-competitive level they achieved for most of last year's Leinster final or, for that matter, this year's semi-final.

Then again, they weren't facing Kildare yesterday and Dublin - in this rapacious mood - can make decent footballers quickly mutate into panic-stricken wrecks. That's what Meath became here, especially once Dublin pressed the accelerator during the second quarter and - time and again - opened up massive holes in their beleaguered defence.

It wasn't merely that Dublin maintained their recent sky-high scoring rate (2-21 against Laois, 2-25 against Wexford) but rather how dominant they were all over the pitch.

Gone, completely, was the recent worrying penchant for first half lethargy. Instead, we are struggling to remember an occasion when their forwards - not merely midfielders and defenders - hounded the man in possession with such remorseless conviction.

This attitude spread from the full-forward line (where the recalled Bernard Brogan tackled like a dervish, not the marquee forward he is), through the human wrecking ball that is Michael Darragh Macauley (his first half was a classic of the MDMA genre) and all the way back to full-back Rory O'Carroll who, even with Meath a beaten second half docket, kept chasing down every ball like it was his last.

The bare facts make painful reading for the Royals: they lost by 3-20 to 1-10, constituting their heaviest defeat in a Leinster final since 1955 when the margin (also against Dublin) stretched to 20 points, 5-12 to 0-7.

Yesterday, in fact, they were lucky it didn't extend beyond that number. On the hour, when Eoghan O'Gara accelerated away from Eoghan Harrington before driving an inch-perfect shot to the bottom left corner of Paddy O'Rourke's net, the gap was already out to 20 - 3-19 to 0-8.

Given Dublin's recent tendency for driving on until the final whistle, there was even the grim spectre of a new Leinster final record, to eclipse the 23-point pasting inflicted by Paul Caffrey's Dubs on Wexford six years ago.

As it transpired, Mickey Newman's 62nd minute goal followed by a couple of points from the Bray brothers, David and Stephen, took some of the haunted look off the scoreboard before O'Gara completed the scoring.

Thus, a 16-point humiliation that could have been far, far worse if the 1/7 favourites had converted all of their goal chances. In the end they had to settle for three - Bernard Brogan getting to a loose ball a nanosecond before his brother Alan after 18 minutes; Kevin McManamon crowning his Man of the Match performance with a spectacular roofed finish after 39 minutes; followed by O'Gara's coup de grace.

How many could it have been? Nine, at a conservative estimate. McManamon brilliantly engineered his own chance on 17 minutes (leaving Pádraic Harnan for dust, not for the last time) only to fire over; the same player crashed a shot against the crossbar on 32 minutes, eventually settling for the compensation of a point; almost immediately, Alan Brogan pulled the trigger only to be denied by O'Rourke.

Jugular

Onto the second half where O'Gara, just on the pitch, immediately went for the jugular but shot wide; then another sub, Cormac Costello, sprinted onto O'Gara's pop pass only for his miscued shot to be blocked by Donal Keogan (one of Meath's few fonts of defensive defiance); and finally a third sub, the inrushing Dean Rock, conspired to flick McManamon's inviting assist against an upright.

There reads the full post-mortem of Meath's desecration. Moreover, even the most blinkered Royal would struggle to cite in mitigation Stephen Bray's 'goal' in the 25th minute - scratched from the record because referee Padraig Hughes had whistled for an earlier free-in instead of playing the advantage rule that he had judiciously applied on several other occasions.

A bad call by Hughes? Definitely. But a goal-preventing one? Far less clearcut because Michael Fitzsimons had obviously stopped in response to the referee's shrill blast.

The routed Royals have bigger issues to contend with right now, starting with a resurgent Armagh in a fortnight.

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