Thursday 22 March 2018

Dubs leave West' in wake

IT was, if you'll pardon the mathematical misnomer, a game of three halves in Portlaoise last night.

The Dublin U21 footballers subjected their shellshocked Westmeath counterparts to an early 2-2 blitzkrieg in this strange, see-sawing Cadbury's Leinster semi-final.

Then Westmeath, facing humiliation, launched an improbable comeback brimful of tackling vigour, attacking vim and burgeoning belief.

As the interval approached, John Heslin's 45-metre free drew them level.

And though a Ciarán Kilkenny brace restored a modicum of half-time comfort for the discomfited Dubs (who led 2-5 to 1-6), Westmeath subsequently reduced the gap to one and were pressing for an equaliser when an attack broke down.

There endeth the comeback -- and the contest. Almost as quickly as it takes for you to say "the Dubs might actually lose this", the underdogs imploded. All it required was one raking delivery from Ciarán Reddin, soaring beyond an exposed full-back line and into the waiting arms of Paul Hudson, to transform this captivating contest into a rout.

Hudson's clinically taken goal, after 38 minutes, set off a chain reaction of Sky Blues scores against a suddenly wilting Westmeath.

In the space of 20 minutes, they ran up 2-8 without reply. By the end, the scoreboard read 4-15 to 1-9 and you'd never have guessed the oscillations involved in getting there.

Kilkenny, whose underage omnipotence seems to grow with every game, had been relatively subdued for much of the opening period. And yet by the 48th minute, he had brought his tally to 1-6 -- all bar one point from play. His 43rd-minute goal -- a brilliant first-time finish to a sublime through pass from Philly Ryan -- wouldn't have looked out of place on the Beeb's midweek 'Match of the Day' last night.

So Dublin march on to another Leinster U21 final -- their third on Jim Gavin's watch. And, for all the eye-catching progress made by Colm Kelly's Louth this spring, the Dubs will start as the warmest of favourites on April 4 (in Páirc Tailteann, Navan).

True, they've been prone to bouts of going walkabout -- against Wexford in the first round and again last night in front of an estimated 1,000. But when they click, this team can steamroll you with their lethal mix of athleticism and accuracy.

As Westmeath boss Pat Flanagan admitted: "When they got the (Hudson) goal, it just knocked the stuffing out of us and they went to a different level.

"The power and the pace was very, very difficult to deal with.

"They were going at the same pace at the end of the game as they were at the beginning, and it just goes to show the standard that the (other) counties have to get to. Dublin are at a different level."

Gavin, for his part, insisted Westmeath were "a lot better" than the final 15-point margin suggests.

He also praised his own players for displaying a "great attitude in the second half" instead of letting Westmeath's comeback and their own injury woes cloud their thoughts.

Injuries could make it a fraught fortnight for Gavin, who lost his 'keeper, John Brian Carty, to a back problem in the warm-up.

That set the stricken tone, as influential midfielder Emmet ó Conghaile (ankle) had to be helped off after 17 minutes, his partner Conor Walsh (groin) failed to resurface for the second half, and Philly Ryan (back) departed on the three-quarter mark.

"My pressing concern would be the casualty ward, and to see how that progresses over the next 48 hours," the Dubs boss admitted.


He had no concerns early on as Mark Schutte (inside 25 seconds) and marauding wing-back Jack McCaffrey (three minutes) cut in from opposite wings to give Dublin a two-goal dream start. More like a nightmare for Flanagan, who justifiably dubbed them "very, very soft".

But two Callum McCormack points steadied Westmeath while ó Conghaile's enforced exit left Dublin labouring around the middle.

They were duly breached for an 18th-minute goal when stand-in 'keeper Ryan O'Flaherty failed to deal safely with a dropping ball; Kelvin Reilly gratefully fisted home the rebound.

Westmeath's unanswered 1-5 salvo left observers wondering if Dublin had switched off.

Not so, insisted Gavin: "This bunch of players, from my observation and working with them, are not a complacent bunch. I think we've shown that in all of our games."

Either way, they weren't complacent when it mattered. More like ruthless.

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