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Thursday 23 November 2017

Mannion leads onslaught in a Dub bloodbath

Scary signal of intent from holders as Westies collapse

Dublin’s Eoghan O’Gara fires to the net despite the efforts of Westmeath’s Callum McCormack. SPORTSFILE
Dublin’s Eoghan O’Gara fires to the net despite the efforts of Westmeath’s Callum McCormack. SPORTSFILE

So much for the notion that Dublin are growing leg-weary or success-sated in their fifth year under Jim Gavin.

What happened in Croke Park yesterday, in front of 33,370 witnesses, was a bloodbath inflicted by ruthless Dubs. Or, if you prefer, a slaughter of the midland innocents.

A quick history book trawl would show their 4-29 was not a record Dublin championship haul (they tallied 10-13 against Longford in 1960) but the 31-point margin eclipsed their previous best under Gavin, the 27-point rout of Longford two years ago.

As for Westmeath, this was even worse than their own 27-point capitulation to Pat Gilroy's Dubs in 2009.

Suffice to say they'll be having nightmares about Paul Mannion. He has never enjoyed a day like this in Sky Blue, reflected in a final audit of eight points from play - three in the first, five in the second.

The Kilmacud Crokes speedster wasn't alone in displaying a ravenous intent or supreme athletic presence. Eric Lowndes marauded from centre-back. Brian Fenton lorded the central prairies, in the air and on the ground. Ciarán Kilkenny bobbed and weaved and crowned his day with - amazingly - his first senior goal.

This performance belied any recent intimations of slippage and, for all Kildare's palpable improvement, Dublin will be hot favourites to become the first team to win seven straight Leinster SFC titles on July 16.

Yet, if there is a caveat, it is the impoverished state of Westmeath's putative challenge.

Two Leinster finals running, Tom Cribbin's team had come to Croker intent on stifling Dublin with ultra-defence resistance. Damage limitation 'worked' to a point - they trailed by four points and then one at the break - before the wheels came off.

This time they were notably less defensive, even if it was still a case of playing just two forwards up top (John Heslin and Kieran Martin) and using Mark McCallon as a sweeper.

"To be honest my players wanted to have a go," Cribbin explained afterwards. "They wanted to see where we are in the class rankings playing a team of that calibre. We honestly felt that we could be a lot closer to them."

Dublin’s Eric Lowndes breaks past the challenge of Westmeath’s James Dolan. SPORTSFILE
Dublin’s Eric Lowndes breaks past the challenge of Westmeath’s James Dolan. SPORTSFILE

Now chastened manager and players have their answer.

It doesn't matter how many bodies you have back if you afford Dublin so much space through the central corridor. Or if you stand yards off your man.

Or if the only intensity in your tackling comes in the guise of last-ditch flying blocks such as those executed by Killian Daly and Frank Boyle to deny first quarter goal chances for Niall Scully and Dean Rock.

Or, more especially, if your restarts prove such an unmitigated disaster.

In fairness to Dublin, they have always excelled at applying heat on a vulnerable 'keeper. Once they forced Darren Quinn to go long, often to a lone Westmeath target surrounded by a posse of blue jerseys, they devoured the breaks.

Westmeath won just four of their 17 first half kickouts. Even two of these wins carried the whiff of good fortune. By the time Heslin abandoned inside sentry to claim their only first half 'mark', Dublin were accelerating over the horizon.

Dublin’s Brian Fenton plucks the ball from the skies. SPORTSFILE
Dublin’s Brian Fenton plucks the ball from the skies. SPORTSFILE

Much earlier, just 75 seconds in, a soaring catch and point from Heslin had cancelled Con O'Callaghan's opening score. But that was a rare cameo of success on a hugely frustrating day for the Westmeath talisman, who kicked four wides, dropped another short, ran into bottlenecks and was generally stifled, by Cian O'Sullivan and then James McCarthy.

Zenith

Westmeath needed all their main men at the zenith of their powers ... but only Kieran Martin (with three from play), including a brilliant equaliser to tie the game at 0-4 apiece after 12 minutes, came close.

That was Martin's second point, having outfoxed both Mick Fitzsimons and Jonny Cooper near the endline. By that juncture, Mannion hadn't even scored and had been bottled up with his first scoring chance.

But once he opened his account in the 13th minute - cutting in from the right wing, far too easily, it must be said - Mannion caught fire. In his movement and execution he was sensational.

Soon after, O'Callaghan's goal chance was repelled by Quinn. The gap had grown to six when another slick Dublin move ripped Westmeath to shreds, only for Kilkenny to spoil it all with a wild finish.

The first goal wasn't long coming, though, as Lowndes sauntered through the middle before feeding Dean Rock for a fisted finish in the 28th minute.

By half-time, the scoreboard read 1-15 to 0-5 and only the most delusional Westmeath fans would have harboured thoughts of them beating the 14-point handicap.

And then it turned even more ghoulish.

The irony is that they secured virtual parity off Quinn's second half kickouts but the margin kept on growing. And growing.According to our stats, Stephen Cluxton didn't lose a single restart as Westmeath conceded the short kickout. Then, on the rare occasion he went long, Kilkenny secured the mark and the resultant route-one move culminated in sub Eoghan O'Gara soaring above Daly to catch, turn his man and bury a 42nd minute goal.

From there on, job done, Gavin emptied his bench. His subs would help themselves to 2-5 but the most intriguing introduction was that of U21 hero Brian Howard, making his first senior appearance.

The gap was out to 21 when Noel Mulligan shipped a black card on 66 minutes; Westmeath had already emptied their bench and Dublin twisted the knife against 14 men, outscoring them 2-5 to 0-1. Kilkenny's 70th minute goal was followed by a Kevin McManamon piledriver, deep in added time.

That completed the carnage.

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