Monday 18 December 2017

Sloppy show late on a cause for Dubs concern

Dubious goal ignites Fermanagh when it's too late, but leaking 2-15 will be a worry for Gavin

Stephen Cluxton
Stephen Cluxton

We came to Croke Park half-expecting one landslide and another slightly more interesting afternoon for one of the heavyweight contenders for Sam.

And that's what we got: a 27-point rout and a comfortable eight-point victory that still raised a handful of questions about the winners.

This time, though, it wasn't Dublin coasting over the double-digit horizon ...

After a Leinster cruise yielding a 59-point cumulative winning margin, Jim Gavin's provincial pulverisers had to settle for that rarest of phenomena, a single-digit success over Fermanagh yesterday.

Of course it could have been more. It should have been more - and not just because Fermanagh's first goal carried such a sulphurous whiff of illegality that one press box cynic was afterwards (only half) joking that a certain Joe Sheridan goal in 2010 had more legitimacy.

We'll return later to Stephen Cluxton's putative own-goal after being challenged/pushed over his goal-line by Seán Quigley, who ended the day with the dual distinction of being Fermanagh cult hero and bete noire of Hill 16 rolled into one.


Dublin were 13 points clear before that 62nd minute controversy seemed to belatedly stoke the fire in Fermanagh bellies. They produced a rousing finale thereafter, adding another 1-4 ... Dublin managed a 1-2 riposte of their own as an All-Ireland quarter-final that had been ambling towards its predictable conclusion belatedly sparked to life.

Paul Flynn punched home Dublin's second goal in the 65th minute, only for his defence to concede a calamitous second just beyond the 70-minute mark. Defender Marty O'Brien, wandering into oceans of space, was initially poised to pull the trigger; it was no coincidence that Dublin's best defender, Jack McCaffrey, hared back to execute an excellent block.

But in the ensuing confusion, as the ball sprayed loose, Cluxton and his full-back line got their lines of communication crossed ... and suddenly there was Tomás Corrigan to poke into an unguarded net. The destroyer of Westmeath duly celebrated with an enthusiasm that one rarely associates with a team about to exit summer with an eight-point defeat.

How and ever. Fermanagh left the pitch a few minutes later to a rousing reception from the Erneside faithful. Their team had trailed by ten at half-time and won the second half by two. Moral victories may not hold any great truck with Pete McGrath, but he was still gushing with praise afterwards.

"The choice (at half-time) was stark," McGrath admitted. "We could lie down and accept defeat, or we could go out and show people what we are capable of doing. And I think in the second half we showed people what we are capable of doing.

"We showed character, courage, enthusiasm, high skill levels and I am exceptionally proud of the players."

By the same token, Jim Gavin couldn't fault many facets of Dublin's display. From an attacking perspective, yesterday was so much better than their misfiring effort against Westmeath. Just consider the stats: 2-23, all bar three points from play, coupled with a shrinking wide count of ten (compared to 16 the last day).

All six starting forwards had scored from play by the midpoint, at which point the buzzing Ciarán Kilkenny departed with what Gavin later described as "a little stiffness in his back".

Kevin McManamon had paid the price for his below-par Leinster final, losing out to Paddy Andrews in two pre-match team alterations (the other being Denis Bastick for Michael Darragh Macauley).


Andrews justified his call-up with a busy performance crowned by 0-3 from play; Flynn also stepped up on his erratic Westmeath display, even though there is still more to come from the Fingallian; while Diarmuid Connolly mixed the mundane with several flourishes of his sublime talent, none more standout than his two first-half points.

But Dublin's best two forwards were Bernard Brogan and Dean Rock.

We'll start with Rock because, freetaking apart, he appeared a man under pressure beforehand. But son of Barney answered the doubters with an assured display that comprised three deadball attempts from three and four points from play, while he was unfortunate to see a 40th-minute goal chance beat Fermanagh 'keeper Thomas Treacy but not last man back James McMahon.

Brogan had tallied 4-10 from play in his three Leinster outings; here he added another 1-6 to leave him well positioned for a fourth All Star.

His 13th-minute goal showcased his current clinical streak, and yet it was even more about the creation and all about Jack McCaffrey, who won possession deep in his own defence, played a couple of one-twos and then delivered the most sumptuous of raking foot passes, over the Fermanagh cover and straight into Brogan's hands.

Dublin now led 1-4 to 0-1. At half-time it was 1-13 to 0-6. Game over.

It was still game over when Quigley - who had already hit four points from play in an all-kinds-of-everything performance - manhandled Cluxton over the line.

The Dublin skipper had just caught a speculative Damien Kelly shot. True, he had veered precariously close to his own line in the process, but the goal was only awarded - belatedly, after discussion between referee Pádraig O'Sullivan and his umpires - because of Quigley's dubious intervention.


"I didn't realise you could tackle the goalkeeper (inside the square) in Gaelic football," was Gavin's pointed response to the inevitable post-match question. "That's the interpretation that was made today and you can't change it in that moment of the game. You've just got to roll with it and get on with it."

He said players, managers and supporters only asked for consistency. The Dublin manager was then asked about the 21-4 free count favouring Fermanagh. "Was that what it was? Mmm," he replied, before agreeing that his team struggled to get a break from the officials.

"Once the game is on, I can't control the referee, it's his interpretation. I'm sure he did his best."

Gavin concluded that Dublin were "in control" until that chaotic last quarter. Privately, one suspects, he will worry about conceding 2-15 given that Mayo or Donegal are bound to provide a major step-up in class come the semi-final.

But that debate is for another day. For now, the Sky Blue bandwagon rumbles on.

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