Sunday 27 May 2018

Dublin cruise after a long snooze

Blues bury Westmeath with points and brace of goals ... but from here on they can't afford a first half repeat

Dublin’s Bernard Brogan celebrates after scoring his side’s first goal during the Leinster SFC final at Croke Park yesterday. Pic: Sportsfile
Dublin’s Bernard Brogan celebrates after scoring his side’s first goal during the Leinster SFC final at Croke Park yesterday. Pic: Sportsfile
The Dublin players celebrate in front of Hill 16 after another Leinster final success at Croke Park.

Dublin by 15 - it was inevitable really? Well, yes and no.

Before a ball had been thrown in, or even after Paul Flynn had bisected the Hill uprights inside 20 seconds, you could have said the stage was set for another Leinster final cakewalk from this unstoppable machine in sky blue.

But after a first half elongated by eight extra minutes, you might have started to doubt such presumption.

At that uncertain juncture the 1/100 holders led by just 0-7 to 0-6. Westmeath's latest rendition of their bespoke blanket defence, designed for Dublin and Dublin only, was working almost to perfection ... albeit largely facilitated by one of, if not the, worst 35 minutes of championship football on Jim Gavin's watch.

What followed in the second half was better, so infinitely better, as the Dubs awoke from their collective slumber and eased through the gears en route to a record-equalling Leinster SFC six-in-a-row.

First they demoralised a wilting Westmeath with points - ten alone in the first 20 minutes after the restart.


Then they twisted the knife with a long overdue brace of goals - the first fisted home by Bernard Brogan in the 58th minute after a pitch-length move initiated by Callum McCormack's fatal error of dropping a shot into Stephen Cluxton's hands.

What was noticeable about that goal, long before Brian Fenton played the final assist for the loitering Brogan, was how a handful of Westmeath forwards stopped in their tracks as Dublin countered in quickfire fashion.

Maybe they had nothing left after that Herculean, and impressively disciplined, first half defensive effort. Maybe they simply don't have the fitness to survive at this rarefied level. But, just as likely, the psychology of looming defeat had drained all life from their legs.

This was again evident, in the 69th minute, when Kevin McManamon pressed on the after-burners after playing a pass to sub Paul Mannion; upon taking the return ball, he took one hop, one solo and then placed an exquisite high shot beyond Darren Quinn's despairing reach.

Six injury-time minutes were announced soon after; cue an audible groan. Why extend the agony of another Leinster mismatch?

When the final audit on that second half was complete, Dublin had won it by 2-12 to 0-4 - a whopping 14 points.

Fatigue apart, Westmeath weren't helped by some woefully scattergun shooting while the contribution of their marquee stars (Paul Sharry, Heslin apart from the frees, and especially Kieran Martin) was fitful at best.

By the same token, Dublin fans shouldn't be blinded by that final chasm-like margin. In three weeks' time they will enter the last-eight arena, the safety net removed, and there they will face one from Donegal, Mayo or Cork. In other words, a county that was playing Division 1 football this spring.

And then, any repeat of that first half could lead them into very uncomfortable territory.

Here they looked short on ideas to break down Westmeath's double-sweeper system, Frank Boyle and McCormack blocking off the route to Quinn's goal with notable success.

Several of their main men weren't exactly brimming with energy or positive intent. The entire half-forward line (Flynn, Ciarán Kilkenny and Diarmuid Connolly) was labouring. The error count, forced and unforced, was far higher than we've come to expect off such a well coached outfit.

Meanwhile, Westmeath's counter-attacking system was working more fluidly than 12 months ago, with the result that they caused more defensive headaches for Dublin than might have been reflected in the underdog's six-point haul.


In the countdown to yesterday's Croke Park decider, Tom Cribbin had claimed his Westmeath charges needed to score three goals - and concede none - to have a chance of slaying Goliath.

His players failed on both counts ... but they did engineer two half-chances in the first 12 minutes alone.

In the very first minute, straight after Flynn's opener, Martin muscled away from David Byrne and Jonny Cooper but his pressurised shot skewed wide. Then, with the holders two ahead, Ger Egan had a fleeting chance to pull the trigger as he fed off a Ray Connellan knock-down; but the Westmeath skipper was bottled up and had to settle for a point instead.

Several times during that first half, the men in maroon tried to target a perceived aerial weakness in that Dublin full-back line. One such occasion led to a tap-over equalising free from Heslin, in the 22nd minute, after Heslin himself had soared above a couple of defenders, drawing the foul on his return to terra firma.

The injury-enforced absence of James McCarthy was another source of concern: we counted three fouls by his replacement, Eric Lowndes, leading to scores before his replacement at the break.

Much of Westmeath's best attacking work was coming down that right flank.

On the other wing, meanwhile, Connellan was proving a valuable source of kickout possession ... until he landed awkwardly after winning a free from one of Quinn's restarts.

Along with the impressive Egan, Connellan had been Westmeath's top performer on the front foot.

Once he had to be ferried off on a motorised stretcher, and Gavin started to empty his bench to introduce All-Ireland winners such as the lively Paddy Andrews, Denis Bastick and Paul Mannion, the gulf between these two squads became ever more apparent.

From here on, that gap won't be so obvious and Dublin must rise to meet the challenge.

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