It didn’t matter in the end that last Sunday’s compelling Leinster football final wasn’t necessarily one for the purists. The spectacle, the battle, and of course the result, were far more important.
While manager Mick O’Dwyer groaned that Laois’s one-point defeat had felt like a “crucifixion,” Dublin celebrated with a mix of unbridled joy and utter relief that spoke volumes for how high the stakes had been.
It was fast, it was furious, it was uneven, there were mistakes to counter the moments of brilliance, but most of all it was game that left the spectators breathless.
Not that Kerry, Armagh or Tyrone will be quaking in their boots at what they saw — Dublin were far from perfect and Laois only came out of their shell in the second half — however, the main contenders for the All Ireland title will certainly taken stock of Dublin’s desire, their refusal to bend when the match was slipping away.
That stubbornness has hardly been one of the Dubs’ most obvious traits in recent seasons, but if Laois probably deserved a replay on the grounds that there so little between the protagonists, the winners showed more nerve and composure in those crucial closing minutes.
“Once again we showed a bit of heart in the second half,” explained Dublin manager Paul Caffrey who has now secured a provincial title in his first season in charge.
“We stuck with it, and I think that’s been one of the trademarks of the season so far. These lads don’t lie down at the end.”
If there was a distinct ebb and flow with Dublin controlling the opening 35 minutes and with Laois then taking over after the interval, in essence, the winning and the losing of it came down to the events just before the referee’s final whistle.
Chris Conway’s point seven minutes the end had put Laois two clear and seemingly on track for victory.
Now was the ultimate test of Dublin’s resolve at the close of half in which they had been bossed by the opposition.
Colin Moran pulled one back, and then they manufactured a free, not too far out on the 40-yard mark, but their deadball kicker Mossy Quinn wasn’t exactly at the height of his powers, or his confidence, following a couple of bad misses.
Yet this time, the ball sailed straight and true between the posts and the sides were level. With the GAA facing into a fixture mire if this game went to a replay, there was a sense that whatever injury time was necessary to get a result would be played. Five minutes of added time came the announcement, more than enough for either county to take the spoils.
Dublin pressed down the left and won a 45. There was a massive intake of breath as Quinn placed the ball and set his sights. No doubt he had spent many hours of lonely practice for moments like this, but this was surely pressure beyond anything he had ever experienced before. Once again, the kick was perfectly struck, once again the stadium erupted and Dublin were in front.
Yet there was still time for Laois to rescue the situation. The otherwise excellent Ross Munnelly had an opportunity from a free, but lacked both Quinn’s radar and his nerve, before Tom Kelly driving forward had a chance from play only for his shot to float wide. Dublin were home and dry, and as hordes of supporters poured onto the pitch, the scenes were more reminiscent of All Ireland final day.
“That was a very disappointing game in the end for us,” said O?Dwyer quietly. “Certainly, it was one we could and should have drawn. We got the two chances at the end there, but we didn’t take them. And that’s the way it goes. Meanwhile, Munnelly was generous in his praise of Quinn.
“You have to give credit to Mossy for a fantastic score. I missed mine at the end, and it may as well have been an inch as 10 feet. It doesn’t matter. I didn’t make it on the day, and I’ll have to live with that.”
It didn’t look like Laois would get within a point after a first half in which they trailed by 0-7 to 0-2, and if Dublin hadn’t kicked eight wides, there would never have been anything like the drama at the death.
With Bryan Cullen, Alan Brogan and Jason Sherlock twisting and turning the Laois defense, and with Dublin bubbling with energy and skill, their lead should have been greater.
Ciaran Whelan powered forward from midfield from time to time, and even though Dublin had lost their captain Paddy Christie with a groin injury after 18 minutes, they continued to dominate.
“We played terrible football in the first half, just weren’t contesting the ball,” admitted O’Dwyer. “We absolutely played tripe and nobody can say otherwise. The players were dead, and I couldn’t understand it.”
However, the revival wasn’t long in coming. Noel Garvan and Padraig Clancy began to take charge of the middle of the field, and suddenly, Munnelly was cutting a swathe through the Dublin backs as Laois fired off five points in succession. Dublin settled again and built up an 0-11 to 0-8 advantage, before Laois went on another run of five points.
“At least we showed resilience and character to come back after a dire first half,” said goalkeeper Fergal Byron. “This is a huge disappointment but we’re definitely not finished yet. This team has a long way to go this year, believe me.”
No one would argue with Byron or Laois who will surely be a force in the qualifiers, but as O’Dwyer sagely added, the only way to go through a championship is by winning the provincial title. And Dublin weren’t arguing with that either.
CAVAN TAKE SPOILS
It had been 51 years since Cavan and Meath last met in a championship game, so there was fevered anticipation before the clash of these two neighbors and rivals in round three of the football qualifiers at Clones last Sunday. If disappointingly the contest didn’t match its billing, Cavan won’t care too much as they came through by 1-8 to 1-6.
Possibly because of the lack-luster way his team performed, and partly because whenever Meath lose it’s the same old story, there were questions over whether manager Sean Boylan would continue at the helm.
With four All Ireland and eight Leinster titles in his locker after 22 years of service, the decision should be left to the man himself, however, if this was his send-off, it was a depressing way to go.
Meath were poor, and that’s a euphemism. A total of six yellow cards was par for the course given the intensity, but you would have expected Boylan’s players to have risen above the skirmishing and the little feuds that characterized the exchanges. They failed abjectly, so much so that they trailed by four points deep into injury time when Graham Geraghty fired home a penalty.
Would this be one of their trademark escapes? Cavan won the kick-out, Meath committed yet another foul and Finbarr Reilly smacked over the insurance point. Justice had been done.
“Fair play to Cavan,” said Boylan. “They took their chances and we didn’t play well. We’d enough opportunities to win a few matches, but we just didn’t perform especially in the first half, and we’re disappointed as hell.”
In truth, Cavan weren’t much better though if their shooting had been up to scratch they would have won comfortably. At least they had Dermot McCabe at midfield who gave his all, and a defense that kept Geraghty under wraps.
“The players have been looked upon as soft, mentally and physically, with an inability to put wins back-to-back,” said Cavan manager Martin McElkennon. ?
“This cruel and unjustified criticism from our own supporters has been going on for 20 years, but claiming they’re a soft touch without leadership is a lot of nonsense. They’re as hard as nails and fully committed to attaining their goal.”
Elsewhere, Limerick?s championship summer, and Liam Kearns’s time as manager, both came to an end at Castlebar where Derry were deserving winners by 0-13 to 0-9. Kearns had always indicated he would be stepping down this year, and as he said his farewells he paid tribute to his players.
“They’ve done things Limerick footballers have never done. Won a Munster under 21 title, played in an All Ireland under 21 final, won three McGrath Cups, they’ve also played in Division One of the league and in successive Munster finals. So there’s a lot to be proud of.
“But at the end of the day, the goal I set them was to win a Munster title. We’ve just missed that, and I have to accept it now.’
The difference between the teams came down to Derry’s Paddy Bradley who, like he has done all season, produced scores from almost nothing. He finished with 0-6 including three frees, and fired over points from nearly every angle. In contrast, Limerick’s full forward line failed to raise a flag and it was left to Muiris Gavin to keep their hopes alive with seven frees.
With injury problems of their own – manager Mickey Moran had only 20 players out of 32 for training a week before the game – Derry were relieved to have made it through to the next round.
“It’s one of the best victories in terms of all we had to put up with,” said Moran, “and please it’s not Mickey Moran’s team. They deserve the credit.”
Also through to the last stage of the qualifiers are Sligo who defeated Clare by 1-13 to 0-11 at Castlebar. Mark Breheny, who scored 1-6, was the hero of the hour as Sligo came back from a two-point interval deficit to turn the game around in the second half.
Louth also staged a comeback against Monaghan at Breffni Park, but lost out in the end by 1-12 to 0-14. Leading by six points at the break with Hugh McElroy fisting a goal, Monaghan appeared to have the match sewn up when Louth’s Nicky McDonnell was sent off after being shown a straight red card, but they struggled to hold on.
Having won just once in five previous appearances in the qualifiers, manager Seamus McEnaney was confident about making progress.
“We?re not afraid of anybody, and we don’t care who we get in the draw,” he said. “Compare where we are now to the start of the season when we were among the bottom four teams in the country.”