Thursday 22 March 2018

Dublin turn on the style

Connolly is back to his best as Sky Blues slay Armagh to display title credentials

IT WAS déjà vu all over again for the Dubs - and the irrepressible Diarmuid Connolly - at Croke Park yesterday.

It's almost a year to the day, 51 weeks to be precise, since Connolly led the ransacking of Mayo's defence with a 3-3 haul. Here, in front of 24,886 admiring supporters, he posted an identical scoring return as a depleted and hopelessly out-of-their-depth Armagh were subjected to a scarring 16-point defeat.

Connolly's talent has never been in doubt, but sceptics have questioned an inconsistent streak that can see him held scoreless one day and kick seven from play the next. Manager Pat Gilroy alluded to as much in his post-match comments.

But while it's early days for Dublin as they set about defending their All-Ireland crown, there are positive auguries that the St Vincent's man is starting to deliver on a sustained basis.

True, his latest Allianz League top-flight campaign started on a scattergun note against Kerry. But since then he has produced a dazzling first half in the abandoned game against Mayo, was the closest man of the match rival to Eoghan O'Gara against Laois ... and now this.

His three goals -- after eight, 27 and 60 minutes -- all carried the hallmarks of an ice-cold assassin in total control of the situation, and his nerves, as he dispatched the ball far beyond Philip McEvoy's reach.

And yet Connolly's game yesterday was about far more than finishing. Much of his passing was pinpoint, some of it sublime. True, he was facilitated by an Armagh team which was ransacked at midfield and horribly exposed in defence, time and again ... but it was still some performance.

Afterwards, reflecting on this most easy of wins, Gilroy said one of the challenges for Connolly was "getting consistency" into his game. "To be fair to him, he started the Mayo game particularly well and played well the last day and today," the Dublin boss added.

"That's the challenge -- for him to keep that going. His talent is undoubted -- we can all see that for ourselves. But it's important that he gets that consistency and he's really trying hard at it. His work off the ball is exceptional as well. I think that is what's creating some of the chances for him."

While Connolly will rightly grab the headlines -- he was the shining light in a luminous team performance -- the only negative caveat arriving in the dying minutes when Philly McMahon added to Dublin's recent disciplinary travails with a double- yellow dismissal.

For the most part, this was all about a Dublin team buoyed by the belief that comes with All-Ireland elevation, and literally toying with the opposition.

The marauding Michael Darragh Macauley tormented Armagh with his dynamic bursts from midfield -- he won the kickout that led to Connolly's first goal, and brilliantly set up his second goal too.


Alongside, Eamon Fennell enjoyed one of his most productive hours in a Sky Blue jersey and almost crowned it with a brace of goals, but two piledrivers were saved by McEvoy, the second at the expense of a point.

In the enforced absence of Charlie Vernon, Armagh laboured badly against Dublin's mobility in the middle-third -- to such an extent that their two starting midfielders, James Lavery and John Kingham, were both replaced before the midpoint.

"We were being totally overrun in that area and we couldn't get our hands on the ball, so we had no option," admitted their manager, Paddy O'Rourke.

The gulf in class was clearly exacerbated by the absence of Armagh's Crossmaglen contingent, but the visitors also conspired in their own downfall. Tomás Quinn's ninth-minute goal, barely 60 seconds after Connolly had raised their first green flag, stemmed directly from a suicidal handpass across his defence by Declan McKenna. A similar turnover by Kevin Dyas was duly pounced on by Macauley for Dublin's third goal, killing any vague prospect of an Armagh comeback.

Suffice to say, while there are other statistical similarities with last year's Mayo scorefest, at least the Connacht men made Dublin sweat for their victory with a spectacular comeback.

Armagh had nothing like that to offer.

Perhaps left dazed and confused by Dublin's scoring blitz, O'Rourke made the understandable mistake of thinking they had scored just three goals, but quickly admitted: "No doubt they could have scored more. It was a very difficult night for us.


"I don't believe Dublin are that good and Armagh are that bad," the Down man added, "but they are definitely a much better side than what Armagh are at the moment."

Just how good is the question. While a rampant Cork and Kerry underlined over the weekend that they haven't gone away, other rivals are bound to fret at Dublin's expansive and expanding scoring threat.

Here, they ran up 4-14 from play -- while holding Bernard Brogan in reserve and his Footballer of the Year sibling, Alan, contributing a mere point to that prodigious tally. We even had the sight of 'defender' Johnny Cooper -- skipper on the All-Ireland U21 team of 2010 and newly promoted to the senior panel -- marking his inter-county debut by scoring a point with his first touch, and then another. All during a 10-minute cameo!

Watching yesterday's rout unfold, it was hard to believe that Armagh had earlier drawn with Cork and beaten Kerry away. While they ran into the All-Ireland champions at a more advanced league stage, O'Rourke concluded: "Dublin, without a doubt, have been miles ahead of anything we have met, miles ahead."

The challenge for Dublin is to keep it that way, but it won't get much easier than this.

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