| 7.9°C Dublin

Dublin rule Royals

ANOTHER year, another Leinster senior football title. And at different periods of yesterday's oscillating final, it looked as if Dublin's latest Delaney Cup coronation would be of the oh-so-routine variety.

But it didn't finish up that way, as Meath laid late siege on the Hill 16 goal and Stephen Cluxton had to get his ultra-safe hands on a Brian Farrell piledriver in the dying seconds to seal the deal.

And so Dublin have won their 51st Leinster title. Incredibly, they have now won nine of the last 11, dating back to the last time these storied rivals collided at the provincial final state at a time when Sean Boylan appeared to have the hex on whichever 'bainisteoir' in blue he met.

Times have changed radically since 2001, however, and now it's a case of Dublin viewing Leinster finals as a means to a greater All-Ireland end while Meath battle manfully to try and rejoin the elite.

The Royals have a distance to travel yet, even if their resolve here was admirable.

The manner in which they transformed a 10-point deficit into a mere goal at the death may also explain the post-match bullishness of manager Seamus McEnaney.

While "wild disappointed" at the outcome, the Monaghan man was adamant that they will make light of the infamous six-day turnaround and show Meath's legendary fighting spirit against Laois in their fourth-round qualifier next weekend.

Notwithstanding the dire record of provincial final losers asked to resume battle the following week, they will start as favourites against the O'Moore men. And doubtless too, notwithstanding the vagaries of the last-eight draw, Dublin will start as quarter-final favourites when the real business of August begins.

That said, their is plentiful scope for improvement -- and that, you suspect, is exactly how Pat Gilroy would want it.

Dublin's performance was considerably better than their patchy semi-final display against Wexford. The headline areas of improvement were in defence (which was more like its old suffocating self), in the midfield heroics of Denis Bastick and in the reincarnation of Bernard Brogan, Sky Blue scoring machine, after his erratic display against Wexford.

Less impressive were the number of possession turnovers and, more especially, the sloppiness or wavering concentration (call it what you will) that allowed Meath back into the contest.

When the dynamic James McCarthy ventured forward from wing-back to kick an eye-catching point with the outside of his right boot, there were 53 minutes on the clock and Dublin were seemingly out of sight, leading 2-11 to 0-7.

But Meath refused to buckle and outscored the All-Ireland champions by 1-6 to 0-2 over the remainder.

Afterwards, Gilroy speculated that a rush of Dublin substitutions (four in 16 minutes) might have contributed to his team losing its rhythm - although he stressed that "lads were out on their feet, physios were coming back saying these guys needed to be changed".

The net result is that Meath, having run into a brick wall for much of the first 50 minutes, started to pick holes in Dublin's defence. Graham Reilly had a half-chance for goal but blazed over. Substitute Jamie Queeney had more success, goaling inside Cluxton's near post in the 68th minute.

Suddenly, a previously yawning chasm had been whittled down to a single score. Cometh the hour, cometh the man - Bernard Brogan soothed Dublin nerves with a 40-metre pressure point that bespoke true leadership from a player back in form.

Still, there was time for a few more frissons of alarm as Reilly landed his third point, then the same player was dispossessed as he bore down on goal, and finally we had Farrell trying his luck from a placed ball pot-shot. But Cluxton was in the right place to banish the spectre of another Dublin/Meath replay saga.

If Meath have reason to rue this result, they will inevitably hark back to a calamitous 60 seconds that saw them leak two goals in first-half injury time.

Both goals were finished with a poacher's instinct, even if only one of the scorers (Bernard Brogan as opposed to our Man of the Match, Denis Bastick) could claim such credentials.

But they were clearly avoidable in that the first goal stemmed directly from a misplaced pass by Meath midfielder Conor Gillespie, which was pounced on by Eoghan O'Gara. Several rapid-fire passes later, O'Gara was cleverly teeing up Brogan to sneak the ball under David Gallagher.

It's a perfectly reasonable assumption that, but for the above turnover, Dublin would never have been afforded the opportunity to win the resultant kickout through Paul Flynn, who played a one-two with Brogan before finding the roaming Bastick in canyons of space.

The low, angled finish was perfection and so - instead of enjoying an interval cushion of just two points - Dublin now led by eight, 2-7 to 0-5. On such small but errant margins are matches won and lost.

What made this scoreboard transformation so infuriating for the Royals is that they had already edged their way back into the contest, having found themselves 0-6 to 0-1 adrift after 15 minutes.

As the half drew to a close, Dublin had already lost their reigning Footballer of the Year, Alan Brogan having started promisingly with a brace of points before his day was cut short by a groin strain.

By this stage, too, the recently electrifying Kevin McManamon had been short-circuited by the brilliance of Donal Keogan ... even though McManamon had kicked one wonderful point and forced another converted free, his young marker grew into the contest in tandem with his team.

But having trimmed the margin back to two, Meath's standout performer of 2012 - Graham Reilly - missed the simplest of point chances into the Canal End. The significance of that miss was amplified by the goal brace that quickly followed.

For much of the third quarter, even as Joe Sheridan's influence grew after his switch to midfield, Dublin exuded a level of calm-headed control in the act of shutting out their rivals.

The defensive blanket was in place, most of its components in fine working order, no one more so than the recalled Cian O'Sullivan. The closest they came to being breached was when Cluxton's cat-like reflexes brilliantly denied Farrell a 43rd-minute goal.

What happened in the fourth quarter, however, should give Dublin pause to realise that they have only reached base camp in defence of Sam.

Now for the serious ascent, with all safety nets removed.