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Friday 14 December 2018

Do-or-die turns into a damp squib cruise for Dublin

Dublin 2-24 Offaly 0-13

IN CONTROL: Dublin’s Fergal Whitely gets away from Offaly’s Tom Spain during yesterday’s Leinster SHC tie at Parnell Park. Pics: Sportsfile
IN CONTROL: Dublin’s Fergal Whitely gets away from Offaly’s Tom Spain during yesterday’s Leinster SHC tie at Parnell Park. Pics: Sportsfile
Dublin's Paul Ryan
MY BALL: Dublin's Eoghan O’Donnell and Cian O’Callaghan battle for possession with Offaly’s Conor Mahon

Pat Gilroy insisted the 'R' word hadn't been mentioned once by the Dublin management in the build-up to yesterday's Leinster SHC round-robin showdown with Offaly.

That is not to say his Sky Blue hurlers didn't know the significance of the booby prize that awaited the losers in Parnell Park.

The dreaded scent of relegation wafted in the warm summer air above Donnycarney and, for maybe 35 minutes, on the pitch below.

Dublin were the dominant force but it wasn't showing on the scoreboard and, despite playing with the wind, they only led by 0-8 to 0-5 entering first half injury-time.

But in those three additional minutes, the hosts plundered Offaly for 1-2 without reply.

Paul Ryan's 38th minute goal put eight-point daylight between the sides; a Dublin team that had accumulated 13 nervy wides could suddenly breathe more easily.

Meanwhile, Offaly were now in oxygen deficit. Playing for the fourth week running, there was always a suspicion that their thinly-resourced squad would not sustain resistance for the full 70 minutes here.

So it transpired, as a team lacking energy or any attacking ingenuity fell further and further adrift. The final margin settled at 17 points. Cruel but a fair reflection of the mismatch, nonetheless.

The bigger picture is whether Offaly deserve what comes next - demotion to the Joe McDonagh Cup.

There's a certain cruelty in the timing of it all: 20 years on from their last Lazarus-like charge to the Liam MacCarthy summit, there is no 'back door' reprieve or premature referee's whistle to save them now.

Manager Kevin Martin, one of their on-field heroes in '98, described the outcome as "heartbreaking" and his conclusion that his players "just weren't able for four weeks in-a-row" was borne out by their body language as the game petered out tamely.

Do-or-die fireworks had fizzled out into a damp squib.

You might well argue that Dublin face the very same thing in Salthill next Saturday evening when they conclude their round-robin campaign with a visit to the All-Ireland champions. Galway are already through to the Leinster final (against Kilkenny or Wexford) while Dublin are guaranteed to finish fourth and no higher.

ANTI-CLIMACTIC

It threatens to be a very anti-climactic end to what has been a frenetic and (up to now) ferociously contested provincial race.

Gilroy insisted it was still "a great opportunity for us to test ourselves against the best team in the country" ... but will it be? How many regulars will Micheál Donoghue rest ahead of the Leinster final, coming three weeks later? And how cut-throat can it be?

Reading between the lines of Gilroy's post-match answers, you got the clear sense of a frustrated manager hankering for more.

His first summer in the hurling hotseat will be over at a time when his erstwhile comrades in the Dublin football camp are only limbering up.

Worse again is the nagging question of what might have been. What if Dublin had preserved at least one of their stoppage-time leads against Kilkenny or Wexford?

Whatever about Wexford Park a fortnight ago, Parnell Park on May 13 is the one that got away. Dublin's bravura performance, for the first hour, warranted the victory that would have completely opened up this Leinster group.

Even a draw that day would have sustained dreams of reaching the All-Ireland series, whatever about a provincial final, all the way to Pearse Stadium. Now they will travel with mere pride and two meaningless points at stake.

Still, far better to be in their boots than those of Offaly.

Until Saturday night, when Galway ran amok in Wexford, Gilroy still believed they had a chance of finishing in the top-three.

"We never mentioned relegation. That would have been a crazy thing to do for us," he stressed.

But for much of the first half, they played like a team sensing the Sword of Damocles hovering above their heads.

It wasn't that Dublin were inhibited in their play; they were stronger in the air, more voracious in the trenches and simply sharper all round.

But after Fionntán Mac Gib was hooked in pursuit of an early goal, they spent the next half-hour struggling to establish the type of lead their territorial and possession dominance warranted.

The lead never extended beyond three points, and it would have been tighter still if Joe Bergin's freetaking had matched the metronomic efficiency one usually expects from the curiously omitted Shane Dooley.

But whereas Bergin landed just three of his six deadball attempts in that first half, Dublin's squandermania (13 wides from myriad sources) was even more pervasive.

Thankfully, a brace of wing-backs were in the zone.

By the midpoint, Shane Barrett (0-3) and Chris Crummey (0-2) had registered as many points from play as Offaly had hit in total, frees included.

FRITTERED

Their accuracy from distance kept Dublin in the ascendant even as other chances, from closer range, were frittered away. Barrett's second point, especially, was a thing of beauty, his exquisite touch near the left sideline giving him a yard of space to break free and nail a monster score.

Further back, a rock-solid Dublin full-back line was coping admirably with Offaly's occasional and often forlorn route-one forays. The visitors lacked pace and movement in the scoring zone, so maybe it was no surprise that their starting front six didn't register a solitary point from play - even their subs managed four, but by then the intensity had long since left the contest.

And yet, despite their lack of attacking thrust, Offaly only trailed by two points when their shouts for a penalty, when 'keeper Alan Nolan darted out to meet the inrushing Seán Ryan, were waved away.

Crummey quickly added to Offaly's angst with a point; then in stoppage time came points from Fergal Whitely and Barrett, followed by Ryan's bullet finish after Crummey's menacing delivery was broken down by Liam Rushe.

On the restart, Bergin's fourth free proved a misleading portent as Rushe twisted and turned provider for Whitely to arrow home Dublin's second goal in the 39th minute.

Four more points followed in double-quick time; Conal Keaney and Rushe were now flourishing as space opened up and even a 50th minute penalty couldn't staunch the Offaly bleeding, as Nolan dived right to repel a Bergin piledriver.

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