Thursday 22 March 2018

Dubs fit for the fight

Sweeney says fitness was the key to winning tense U21 opener

THE Cadbury's Leinster U21 football championship, with its midweek setting under lights, has the potential to thrill. And the capacity to leave you utterly desolate too.

Dublin were the heartbroken ones 12 months ago, coming to Navan as defending All-Ireland champions and leaving the place empty-handed and bereft after extra-time. Now it is Wexford's turn to see a Leinster crown, so hard won the previous year, slip from their grasp after just an hour.

Given their own experience in 2011, Dublin will have sympathy for their vanquished opponents in Enniscorthy last night, but not that much.

As manager Jim Gavin surmised afterwards: "First round games are games just to be won. The performance, and nice things like that, we'll worry about another day."


So Dublin advance to a quarter-final date with Laois under the Parnell Park lights next Wednesday. And Wexford bow out nursing several 'what if?' regrets after this 1-12 to 1-9 defeat.

Last night's contest was a suitably intense advert for straight knockout football. The pace was electric at times, especially when the jet-heeled likes of Jack McCaffrey and Gary Sweeney took flight, while the ebb and flow left you wondering at different stages if either team had blown it.

Dublin went from trailing by two points (1-2 to 0-3) after 11 minutes to leading by five (1-7 to 1-2) at half-time. Cue a sustained period of Wexford dominance, bringing the home side level after 50 minutes.

Now they had all the momentum while Dublin appeared on the ropes. But lively replacement Ciarán Reddin kicked a stress-relieving point; McCaffrey advanced from his wing-back berth to double their lead; and then another of last year's much-touted minor crop, Ciarán Kilkenny, landed a decisive brace, sandwiching a solitary Wexford reply from their best player, midfield powerhouse Matthew O'Hanlon.

When it was all over, and Dublin had survived a late penalty scare, Sweeney admitted it was a "big relief" to achieve what they had failed to do against Meath the previous year.

The sole playing survivor from Dublin's All-Ireland odyssey in 2010 expanded: "After last year, it was absolute heartbreak to train for whatever amount of months and go out in the first game. Fair play to Wexford, they put up a great fight.

"We're just delighted to get Laois next week in Parnell Park, and we'll build from there."

But how, with Wexford in the ascendant, had they turned the tide? "Our fitness paid off in the end," Sweeney suggested. "After what happened last year, when we fell away in extra-time against Meath, there was a big emphasis this year on fitness and getting over the line."

Gavin, for his part, saluted Dublin's "great character" in adversity. But he knows, too, that there is scope for improvement. Reflecting on Wexford's third-quarter comeback, he admitted: "They got dominance in midfield really. They put the pressure on us there, and we fouled quite a lot in their scoring zone."

Between the 40th and 50th minute, they reeled off five points on the spin, including three frees from the influential Michael O'Regan.


Gavin replaced both midfielders and the introduction of Patrick O'Higgins proved particularly inspired: last year's minor colossus re-established some badly needed kickout traction.

Much earlier, the game had started at a blinding pace and Wexford briefly rattled the visitors with a stunning 11th-minute goal. The flowing move was initiated by a soaring kickout catch from O'Hanlon (who doubles as a Wexford senior hurler) and finished with a thunderous right-footed swoosh by O'Regan.

Shaken and stirred, the Dubs hit back with an unanswered 1-4 before the break. The goal came in first half injury-time, Harry Dawson playing a slick one-two with Philly Ryan before being dragged down by Michael Furlong. Ryan dispatched the resultant penalty with aplomb.

"No way were we five points a worse team in the first half," insisted Wexford manager Kevin Kehoe, who blamed some poor execution of their final pass coupled with Dublin's "deadly" counter-attacking: "In the second half we showed great spirit for the first 20 minutes and it could have gone either way. There was a very dubious penalty (decision) not awarded to us at the end. A man went through and he was pulled down, exactly like the (Dublin) fella in the first half," added Kehoe.

However, the man who led Wexford to a maiden Leinster title finished on an upbeat note.

"The best of luck to Dublin now and I think they'll take beating," said Kehoe. "We just proved we had a good team last year, it wasn't a freakish result. The U21 is a brilliant championship, and I think maybe there's room for a 'back door' system in the first round. But then maybe that's what makes it a little bit more exciting, that winner-takes-all."

SCORERS - Dublin: C Kilkenny 0-5 (2f), P Ryan 1-2 (1-0 pen, 1f), J Small, J McCaffrey, E ó Conghaile, H Dawson, C Reddin 0-1 each. Wexford: M O'Regan 1-4 (0-4f), D Murphy 0-2 (1f), M O'Hanlon, B O'Gorman, G Cullen 0-1 each.

Dublin: JB Carthy; J Smith, K O'Brien, M Concarr; J Small, L Fletcher, J McCaffrey; E ó Conghaile, D Byrne; G Seaver, G Sweeney, M Schutte; P Ryan, H Dawson, C Kilkenny. Subs: A Carr for Smith (35), E Keogh for Byrne (40), C Reddin for Seaver (40), P O'Higgins for ó Conghaile (51), S George for Concarr (inj 54).

Wexford: B Redmond; W Devereux, D Gardiner, M Furlong; L Chin, J Leacy, S Sinnott; M O'Hanlon, A Cash; B O'Gorman, G Cullen, L óg McGovern; D Murphy, M O'Regan, K Rowe. Subs: D McDonald for Cullen (37), B Halpin for Rowe (46), C Kehoe for Cash (54).

REF: F Kelly (Longford).

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