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Monday 18 June 2018

It's a stroll in the Garden as Fenton leads Blue wave

Dublin 4-25 Wicklow 1-11

BLUE TIDE: Dublin’s Brian Fenton hits the first goal during the Leinster SFC quarter-final at O’Moore Park Portlaoise. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
BLUE TIDE: Dublin’s Brian Fenton hits the first goal during the Leinster SFC quarter-final at O’Moore Park Portlaoise. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

It was obvious long before yesterday but here was the day when it became official: there are two Leinster senior football championships.

The first qualifies as a thrilling competition between mere mortals - one rendered even more fascinating by the relative descent into mediocrity of Dublin's putative chief rivals in the province, Kildare, Meath and Westmeath.

And the second Leinster SFC? This is the battle between Dublin and themselves.

After watching the four-in-a-row chasing Sky Blues open their All-Ireland defence with a 23-point demolition of a palpably out-of-their-depth Wicklow, the only conclusion is that no one can even hope to live with them in the eastern province next month.

Especially now that the promise shown by Kildare last summer has turned to dust - something most of us had realised even before yesterday's crushing defeat to Carlow.

And even more so now that Meath have hit the reverse gear in Andy McEntee's second season - again, something that many of us had suspected before the Royals suffered ignominy in Longford yesterday.

That match, with a 3pm throw-in, would have ended sometime after 4.30 in Glennon Brothers Pearse Park.

By then, Dublin had also secured their Croke Park semi-final berth against Longford on June 10 ... the only difference being they hadn't even reached half-time in O'Moore Park.

Dublin's lead was already in double-digits; the outcome was pre-ordained and all that remained was for the auditors to sign off on the final scoreline.

As it transpired, Dublin's lead had risen quickly to 13 points (having scored 2-7 without reply by the 17th minute); was briefly reduced to ten (after James Stafford's fisted 26th minute goal); went back out to 18 by the midpoint (thanks to another double-whammy of goals); reached a high of 24 on 65 minutes (after a Conor McHugh free) and finally settled at 23 by the final bell.

When it was all over, the obvious question to ask was what did Jim Gavin learn from it all, if anything?

The glib answer is not a lot. But who's fault is that? Certainly not Dublin's. They did what they had to do and, for the most part, did it with trademark killer efficiency.

And that brings us back to the real Leinster championship - the internal battle in Gavin's dressing-room to be as good as you possibly can be; to be so good that you can't be left off the starting 15.

On that score, they are in ridiculously rude good health. No players more so than Brian Fenton and Ciarán Kilkenny.

Rolls Royce

As the mismatch proceeded and the gap kept growing, perhaps the only thing to keep press-box veterans interested was figuring out who was better - Dublin's Rolls Royce midfielder or their all-action No 11.

It was a near-impossible task, they were both so blindingly brilliant.

That, of itself, was no surprise given the stellar form that both Kilkenny and Fenton carried from Dublin's latest triumphant league campaign into the first gentle fence of summer.

For what it's worth, our Man of the Match choice - by a microscopic hair's breadth - was Fenton. Which might seem strange given that Kilkenny amassed 1-7 from play and was central to so many of Dublin's defence-shredding moves, in the first half especially.

The Castleknock man has just enjoyed his best and most prolific league and here was further evidence that he's flourishing in a more attack-minded role. Instead of linking the play from behind midfield, his starting position is far further up the field - either on the '40' for the first half or in the inside line for most of the second.

Oozed

And yet Fenton's influence was every bit as profound and perhaps shades Kilkenny for the effortless class he oozed in a variety of roles.

First we had Fenton the possession king around the middle, helped by Mark Jackson's first half tendency to aim several of his long-range restarts right into the orbit of Dublin's No 9.

We had Fenton the peerless distributor: nothing unusual there.

Then we had Fenton the high-scoring marauder from deep. He finished with 1-3 to his name and the only minor blemish is that it could, really should, have been 2-3.

And finally we had Fenton the purveyor of party tricks. Take, for example, the way he took a 38th minute pass from Kilkenny and immediately hopped the ball to take it beyond the last covering defender. Simple but ingenious; the only shame is that he failed to finish it with a goal, his placed effort brilliantly diverted for a '45' by Jackson.

Much later in the half, for his second point, Fenton received a pass from lively sub Paul Flynn and, in an instant, left two covering Wicklow players in his trail as if they weren't there.

If Fenton and Kilkenny led the onslaught, Dublin had plenty of willing accomplices.

Not for the first time this season, Jonny Cooper was feisty leader of the defence - albeit the searching questions posed by Wicklow were sporadic at best.

Alongside Fenton, Michael Darragh Macauley put in a lung-busting first half shift, continually punching holes through the middle. Gavin clearly felt he had seen enough by the 41st minute, replacing Macauley with Flynn for the latter's first appearance of 2018.

Up front, meanwhile, even though Kilkenny deserves most of the plaudits, Con O'Callaghan wasn't far behind.

The minor detail of Cuala's latest club hurling heroics meant that this was O'Callaghan's first Sky Blue start since the All-Ireland final. Talk about hitting the ground running: he tallied 1-3 from play himself and, even by the end of that contest-ending first quarter, he already had 1-2 in assists to his name.

So far, so relentlessly positive. Any caveats? Just a few.

Firstly, and perhaps understandably, Dublin eased off the gas in the second half, failing to add to their four-goal haul.

Secondly, if they were at their most ruthless best, they could easily have doubled that green flag tally.

For the record, the chances converted came from Fenton on seven minutes (with a drilled low finish after a defence-opening O'Callaghan hand-pass); from Dean Rock on 14 minutes (palmed home at the far post after Fenton laid the chance on a plate); and then from Kilkenny (an emphatic volley) and O'Callaghan (clinically picking his spot after an excellent Paddy Andrews pass) within a minute of each other at the end of the half.

But it should have been more. Macauley fisted over with a colleague free inside. Philly McMahon was found loitering with scoring intent only to fire into the side-netting. Fellow full-back 'roamer' Eric Lowndes arrived on the end of a defence-splitting move only to stumble and miscue wide from point-blank range.

Then, in the second half, first Fenton was repelled by Jackson; then Kilkenny had to settle for a point when a goal would surely have beckoned if Fenton's pass had been more favourable.

Bombardment

At the other end, meanwhile, there were a few flashes of uncertainty in the Dublin defence, especially under aerial bombardment.

This led to Wicklow's goal, Stafford outjumping Macauley to fist home. The veteran midfielder duly stayed at full-forward, forcing Dublin to move James McCarthy ... but the All Star was caught out by Stafford for another goal chance, an angled piledriver saved by Stephen Cluxton.

That chance came just before Dublin's third and fourth goals. A turning point? Don't be daft.

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