Tuesday 21 January 2020

Nine the magic number as Dubs pile on the pain

Champs turn up the heat after weird first half to inflict another 16-point Royal rout

TURN AND GO: Dublin’s Con O’Callaghan gets the ball ahead of Meath’s Shane Gallagher during the Leinster SFC Final at Croke Park. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
TURN AND GO: Dublin’s Con O’Callaghan gets the ball ahead of Meath’s Shane Gallagher during the Leinster SFC Final at Croke Park. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

There are many ways to inflict double-digit despair on labouring Leinster opposition. Just ask Jim Gavin: he has been doing this ever since he took over as Dublin manager for the 2013 season.

So there was nothing remotely surprising about yesterday's outcome at a wet, bordering on wintry Croke Park.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that 47,027 fans descended on GAA HQ: the attendance was above some doomsday predictions, hinting at the enduring appeal of this fabled fixture.

But for how much longer?

Dublin have now won 27 consecutive provincial games en route to the first ever senior football nine-in-a-row. Gavin has masterminded 21 of those - 19 by double-digits.

The gap between Dublin and the rest of Leinster is frightening. Here's how scary: they were miles below their metronomic best in the first half here and still they eventually won by 16 points, the same margin that separated these old foes when last they collided in a Leinster final five years ago.

Yet this followed a different script to 2014. Partly because of the slippery conditions and partly because they weren't their usual, ruthless, ultra-focussed selves in that first half, they only scored five points before the break.


You might surmise that when you limit the four-in-a-row All-Ireland kingpins to just 0-5 in 35 minutes, you've corralled them into that unfamiliar place called the discomfort zone.

That was not the case here, for the self-explanatory reason that Meath only managed 0-1 in the same period, Brian Menton finally breaking their prolonged duck in the 33rd minute.

That first half was weird in a not very wonderful way. The underdogs bombarded the Dublin full-back line in the hope of an early goal, but nothing concrete materialised.

Thereafter, Andy McEntee's men huffed and puffed but never threatened to blow the house down. They were, of course, undermined by some increasingly desperate shooting that must have drained the last vestiges of belief from an attack that, even beforehand, looked physically ill-equipped to deal with Dublin's decorated defensive veterans.

They were unfortunate, up to a point: Ben Brennan's free, Cillian O'Sullivan and Graham Reilly all clipped a Canal End upright. Reilly's effort deflected wide, one of six Meath wides before the interval, and 12 in total.

Throw in a few more undercooked efforts and you get a measure of Meath's chronic shot conversion on a day when they managed just four points and only one of their forwards - Mickey Newman with 0-3, two from play - even troubled the scoreboard.

The scattergun Royals actually created more first half chances so you could argue that, for the want of an assassin like Ollie Murphy or a Trevor Giles to nail the frees, this final would have been in the melting pot at half-time.

That doesn't tell the full story either.

Truth is, Dublin always appeared to be playing within themselves. They also left behind a glorious goal chance on 26 minutes when Con O'Callaghan was fouled in the act of shooting by Conor McGill, only for Paul Mannion's low penalty to strike the right post and rebound to safety via the back of diving 'keeper Andrew Colgan. And yet Mannion would take home RTÉ's Man of the Match gong, compensating with three sweet points, one off his weaker right.

It was not a day for free-flowing fluency, despite a few trademark super-sonic bursts by Jack McCaffrey rewarded with a brace. Nor was it a day when any individual shot the lights out - certainly not one in green, while it was curious fact that Dean Rock top-scored with 0-4, three from play, despite only entering the fray after 52 minutes.


It was Rock's first appearance of the summer; he looked like a man in a hurry when clipping his first three points in a two-minute blur around the hour.

At that stage, the contest had long since escaped from Meath, who lost the second half by 1-12 to 0-3, O'Callaghan twisting the knife with an unstoppable 68th minute finish after Dublin had swarmed all over another Colgan kickout.

The goal assist came from Rock, who will surely be pushing for a starting recall when Dublin open their 'Super 8s' campaign in Croke Park three weeks hence - against Cork or whoever beats them in round four of the qualifiers.

The fear, of course, is that James McCarthy won't be available for that match - or several subsequent ones - after he was forced off with a worrying knee injury on 32 minutes.

Michael Darragh Macauley proved a typically energetic replacement, but Gavin is not blessed with midfield options, especially if the invaluable McCarthy proves a long-term absentee.

Sub Paddy Small only lasted three minutes before his injury-enforced departure ... but his manager's in-tray of problems to resolve is nothing compared to McEntee's more urgent and drastic dilemma: how to become the first Leinster final victim in the Gavin era to win a qualifier.


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