Dubs dig deep but questions remain

THERE were more twists than Fair City and a mighty Quinn to give it an appropriate climax, but when the dust had settled on yesterday’s Leinster football final at Croke Park, the same question stood on its end, begging an answer.

How good are Dublin? Well, they're better than last year, but a more definitive assessment must wait. Their manager Paul Caffrey is, by nature and profession, a measured individual and he was in no mood or position to offer hostages to fortune last night after their breath-taking 0-14 to 0-13 success over Mick O'Dwyer's Laois.

The fundamentals look good, and that hasn't always been the case. Too often, Dublin has relied on surges of momentum to sweep them to victory it was fine until they met a side of equal ability and greater resolution.

They still retain some of the cavalier elements that endear the Dubs to the masses on Hill 16, but this is a more pragmatic Dublin under Caffrey.

They picked Laois apart in an opening half and but for eight wides, many of them sloppy, would have been out of sight at the interval.

But how can anyone ignore what happened in the second half? We can glibly conclude that Laois had nothing to lose and were bound to summon some sort of recovery. But a defence that had looked tidy and in command in the first half suddenly began to ship water at an alarming rate. Admittedly, it had been knocked out of kilter when Paddy Christie had to retire early, because it took Barry Cahill out of the centre of their defence. But Mick O'Dwyer's side had only two forwards of real potency Donal Brennan and the dynamic Ross Munnelly.

Midfield was worse. Ciaran Whelan and Shane Ryan dominated up to half-time but were destroyed in the second period with Ryan eventually replaced by Darren Homan in a desperate salvage operation.

But here's the rub: Dublin won their 45th Leinster title after trailing by two points with six minutes of normal time remaining. And that, more than anything they may do between now and August 13th, will make them a better side. And a dangerous one.

Caffrey suggested as much. "Belief does come from the winning of titles. They're a great bunch of lads, but how much more can they develop? Well that will be the management's job, to try and push the bar up another bit."

After Chris Conway gave Laois an astonishing 0-13 to 0-11 lead with six minutes left few in the 81,000 crowd could have forecast such a remarkable climax. Dublin seemed to have collapsed, but there had already been a portent of things to come.

Having shed their healthy 0-7 to 0-2 half time lead by the 16th minute of the second half, Dublin somehow halted the Laois revival in its tracks to surge into an 0-11 to 0-8 lead. The manner of those three scores was interesting.

Ciarán Whelan found his feet again to pop up on the right to score, then Alan Brogan scratched and scraped for possession from a breaking ball to add another. Two minutes later a Stephen Cluxton kick-out seemed to be drifting harmlessly out of touch until Whelan's right fist kept it alive. Bryan Cullen surged forward but his effort on goal lacked height and distance. However, Jason Sherlock beat Laois keeper Fergal Byron to the punch. It was a true blue collar score.

"Jason is a very good footballer, and he's had a lot of disappointing days," explained Caffrey. "He's an awful lot of mileage put up with Dublin since 1995 that's a lot of training on dark winter nights, and that's only his third Leinster medal. He contributed hugely."

He wasn't alone. Though it was lost in the subsequent drama, Dublin have possibly the country's best shot-stopper in Cluxton, who foiled Chris Conway from close range shortly before half time.

Defenders Paul Griffin, Stephen O'Shaughnessy and Paul Casey are tight and tidy, but there are still defensive areas of concern. Midfield? The concept of Whelan and Ryan is good, but when Pauric Clancy and Noel Garvan got the bit between their teeth yesterday, they had no answer. The form of most midfield partnerships can vary from game to game Dublin's seems to go from half to half. And that is the crux.

They may end up playing Tyrone or Armagh in the quarter final, and they will not enjoy anything like the midfield possession of yesterday which means their forwards must maximise opportunities. Do you think so? What of Laois? They showed little appetite for the back-door last season though Mick O'Dwyer who was as crest-fallen as I've seen him in the dressing room afterwards will tell you that a different set of circumstances pertain this year. For starters they have thirteen days and would appear with the right attitude to have the measure of any of the remaining back-door qualifiers. He will hope, and believe, that yesterday's first half "tripe", as he called it, was an aberration.

Who knows how to assess Dublin's second half. Answers on a postcard

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