Dublin hold all the aces
NO matter how you approach tonight's Donnycarney duel of the finest young footballers from Dublin and Laois, it's hard to conjure up a script that leaves the hotly fancied Sky Blues on the U21 scrapheap.
Even Pat Roe, manager of the 4/1 underdogs, isn't preaching from the Portlaoise rooftops about a shock-in-the-making. Instead the Laois boss admits: "I'm a pragmatist and a realist. For us to win, a lot of things need to go our way - a Dublin off-day and us at our best."
Stranger things have happened, especially in straight knockout combat. Likewise there is always the possibility, however slim, that Jim Gavin's men will fall prey to complacency having already completed the seemingly harder task of dethroning Leinster holders Wexford in their own backyard.
Those caveats aside, there are several reasons for Dublin optimism here. Firstly, they're at home. Secondly, they aren't coming in 'cold' -- unlike Laois who received a bye to the Leinster last-eight.
And thirdly? Well, to put in bluntly, Dublin have a far greater array of talented footballers possessed of a winning underage pedigree.
They still have Gary Sweeney - renowned speed merchant and sole survivor from Gavin's 2010 All-Ireland winners - leading the attack from centre-forward. At the other end of the age spectrum, they have a handful of Dessie Farrell's minor graduates who came so agonisingly close to All-Ireland glory last September.
Several of these 'under-19s' have already made an impressive adjustment to the U21 grade. Wing-back Jack McCaffrey was the Herald's 'Man of the Match' in Enniscorthy seven nights ago.
Ciaran Kilkenny delivered three points from play in the second half, including two priceless late efforts to stall Wexford's compelling comeback in its tracks. Meanwhile, Patrick O'Higgins, introduced with barely 10 minutes remaining, swung the kickout battle at a time when Dublin were labouring badly in the middle-third.
Despite his late heroics O'Higgins has to be content with a place on the bench as Dublin named an unchanged team last night.
Pat Roe was an interested 'spy' as the Dubs surrendered a five-point half-time cushion, only to regroup in the home straight and run out 1-12 to 1-9 winners.
"I thought Dublin were very, very strong - and they showed great spirit when Wexford got back level with them," he said.
Stopping Dublin may only be half the battle for Laois, however, given how underage standards have dipped in the county from those late nineties and occasional noughties high points.
Last year the U21s fell at the first hurdle to Westmeath, 1-15 to 1-5. Local pessimism about this year's prospects were scarcely helped by January reports of an horrendous challenge match outcome away to Cork -- according to posters on the www.laoistalk.com forum, a heavily depleted Laois lost by 2-18 to 0-0.
It's fair to surmise that a team skippered by goalkeeper Dermot Kelly (brother of Tom and Stephen) and including current senior Damien O'Connor at wing-forward should be a lot more competitive tonight.
But they are still facing a mammoth task, especially if Dublin utilise their lightning pace and strength to maximum effect.
"We have fallen on lean times in Laois in terms of our underage teams," admitted Roe. "We don't have the rich pickings we had eight or nine years ago. So we are trying to restructure things in Laois, but it will be a long, drawn-out affair.
"I think we took our eye off the ball a small bit," he added. "When you get a degree of success, you automatically assume there is a natural follow-on. That is maybe how we slipped up. We have to go back to the drawing board."
ODDS: Dublin 1/5, Draw 10/1, Laois 4/1 (Boylesports)
DUBLIN: JB Carty; J Smith, K O'Brien, M Concarr; J Small, L Fletcher, J McCaffrey; E ó Conghaile, D Byrne; G Seaver, G Sweeney, M Schutte; C Kilkenny, H Dawson, P Ryan. Subs: D Downey, A Carr, S George, J Kelly, P O'Higgins, E Keogh, M Gibbs, B Quinn, A Caffrey.
LAOIS: D Kelly; S Murphy, C Booth, S Murphy-Kerry; D Seale, P McEvoy, A Ryan; S Nerney, J Finn; D O'Connor, K Delaney, B Kelly; R O'Connor, D Hayden, E Costello.