This is where football starts getting cruel

Dublin will secure another Leinster crown but the surprise of the weekend will be this evening, if at all

IT HASN’T been the best of weeks for Wexford GAA people. Their cherished senior hurling team have just exited the 2011 Championship — the dejection on the face of their manager, Colm Bonnar upon resignation after that exit spoke volumes. There is ongoing disquiet about the arranging of hurling fixtures next weekend with their U21 hurlers in action against Dublin a few days earlier and almost everybody has an opinion on the underage development in the county since the wonder that was the Liam Griffin era in the mid 90s. Little surprise then, that tomorrow’s Leinster football final carries a small bit more significance than the Model County’s last appearance at this stage three years ago.

Wexford’s progress in 2008 was viewed with wonder and bemusement. Playing an innocent and likeable brand of football, their progress to the All Ireland semi-final of that year was as romantic as it was sensational. It dawned on those of us outside the county at the time that football had always mattered in Wexford. We discovered that their decades-long quest to find a place at the top table of Leinster football made sense in light of their history. Not too many counties could boast of having played in six All-Ireland finals and won five, and of being one of only two counties to win four All-Irelands in a row, back in 1915-18. But Wexford almost disappeared from football after that, only winning two Leinster titles, in 1925 and ‘45. With the uncertainty in Wexford hurling these last few years, football’s sustained expression in the county has become more than just a guerilla enterprise. It goes without saying that a Wexford win tomorrow would mean so much more than it would in Dublin.

This is where Gaelic football gets cruel. Much like Limerick, Monaghan, Sligo and Louth in last year’s provincial finals, Wexford could well discover it was a long way to come for nothing.

Logic and cold analysis suggest no reason for Wexford to win tomorrow. Dublin have the better players (who on the Wexford team would make the Dublin team? Redmond Barry? Ciarán Lyng? Brian Malone?), Dublin have the better pedigree, home advantage and crucially perhaps, they’ve had two games of a higher intensity than Wexford’s three against Offaly, Westmeath and Carlow.

Fortunately from a Wexford viewpoint, passion, motivation and organisation have as much to do with winning matches as logic and whatever about coming through the easier side of the draw, we can be sure that Wexford won’t want for motivation after their brutal and disfiguring defeat at this stage three years ago.

Much has been made of the high-scoring Wexford forwards heading into this game but I would be inclined to ignore that and focus instead on the fact that they’ve yet to concede a goal in three championship matches. Anthony Masterson has always impressed me as a goalkeeper and he was particularly comfortable in the role as extra man carrying the ball out of defence when the sides met in June of last year. Joey Wadding was under serious pressure at corner back against Dessie Dolan and Denis Glennon against Westmeath and indeed against Offaly’s Niall McNamee in the first round so he’s unlikely to be tasked with picking Bernard Brogan up if Wexford hope to stop the goals flowing tomorrow.

There is a perception abroad that Dublin thrive on the oxygen of goals (what team doesn’t?) but it is notable that they were pulling out of sight at 0-16 to 0-9 in the Leinster final of 2008 before Diarmuid Connolly and Alan Brogan opened the floodgates with two rapid-fire goals midway through the second half. If Wexford have learned anything from previous encounters it is that games against Dublin are best approached as a matter of survival, a progress of small ambitions and negotiations. Should they find themselves still happily above the high tide line with 10 minutes to go, then anything is possible.

From a Dublin viewpoint, much of the pre-match debate has centred on the continued selection of Eoghan O’Gara in the full-forward line, the continued exclusion of Barry Cahill from the half-back line and on how to get the best possible use out of proven league performers like Kevin McManamon and Diarmuid Connolly. Dublin supporters are getting quite angsty about Connolly’s recent subdued form and many feel O’Gara is being accommodated in the full-forward line to the detriment of Connolly’s obvious talents. This is rather harsh on O’Gara and his manager, Pat Gilroy has quite rightly jumped to his defence this week. It was always unlikely that O’Gara would have the same impact as he did in his rookie season but he can still become an important cog in the Dublin machine this year and if he could show more awareness of his colleagues, he could be the making of Connolly and Brogan this summer.

At the other end of the field, Dublin supporters must be very encouraged by the form of Rory O’Carroll and to a lesser extent, Paul Conlon, coming out of their battle with Kildare. Indeed, the entire back-line are much better attuned to what’s expected of them within Gilroy’s system compared to when some of them last met Wexford in June 2010.

Trying to find auguries from the entrails of previous Dublin — Wexford games is probably pointless but if we are to find a thread and to make a clear unambiguous statement about tomorrow’s clash it is this: Dublin will win because they have the better players.

IF the last two All-Ireland winners are anything to go by, Round two of the qualifiers is the place to be for all aspiring champions this weekend but, outside of Kildare and Tyrone at a stretch, it’s hard to pick teams capable of surviving into September from the 16 teams on show this evening. The ties of the round are obvious; Laois v Kildare in Portlaoise and Galway v Meath in Navan but the two worth keeping an eye on are Tyrone at Longford and Waterford’s trip to play London in Ruislip, which has danger written all over it. Kildare should extend their near flawless qualifier record this evening but I’m not so sure about Meath’s chances in Páirc Tailteann. An awful lot of things went right for Meath against Louth and an awful lot went wrong for Galway against Mayo. Home advantage and a slow game should see Meath through. Down got their wake-up call against Clare and they too should progress along with their neighbours Armagh and Antrim. It’s hard to see a Limerick team who were so dismal against Kerry being able to halt Offaly’s gallop after their great win over Monaghan.

Now back to those two games worth keeping an eye on. There are quite a few factors militating against a good Waterford performance over in Ruislip — including the inconvenience of overnight stays and the hassle that can draw down from hurling-oriented county boards. The fact that all senior club football in the county is stalled by Davy Fitzgerald’s demands as hurling boss and the absence of Shane Briggs, Liam O Lionáin and others is not good. It’s all pointing to another historic win for London. Kerry people know all about the kingmaker role that Longford played in their All-Ireland successes of 2006 and 2009 and if they were so disposed they could warn Mickey Harte and his Tyrone troops of the pitfalls of a trip to Pearse Park. It doesn’t quite have the Accrington Stanley vibe of the Gaelic Grounds in Drogheda from whence they launched their previous successful backdoor bid three years ago but it’s going to be a day for rolling up sleeves. Still it’s hard to imagine then not doing that.

Tyrone to make it four Ulster teams in the bowl for the round 3 draw.

Picture: CAPITAL CIRCLE: Pat Gilroy rallies his players before they face Kildare. Dublin are hot favourites to win again tomorrow. Picture: Brendan Moran

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