For Westmeath, it is a second chastising provincial decider defeat to Gavin’s Invincibles inside 12 months. Last time, they trailed by four points at half-time and lost by 13. Yesterday, those figures stood respectively at just one and then 15. Closer and yet further away, all at the one time. How depressing.
And yet this was no like-for-like repeat. Westmeath tweaked their defensive system for the sequel. Full-back Francis Boyle played as a sweeper. So did Callum McCormack, though he wore 15 on his back. The other six defenders stuck to their men rather than predetermined zones and it all paid off for a while.
Dublin struggled to put up seven points on the scoreboard in a first half that stretched to 43 minutes. Westmeath managed six by then – as many as they posted over 70-plus minutes last time they met. It at least kept the half-time conversations interesting.
Set aside their infamous meltdown against Donegal in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final and what Croke Park witnessed up to that point was arguably Dublin’s least effective championship performance during Gavin’s time in charge.
The argument that they might be rattled was made all the stronger by the brouhaha that erupted after 27 minutes when James Dolan ruffled Diarmuid Connolly’s hair and the Dublin forward responded by taking the Westmeath man to the floor in a headlock.
Twenty-four players found themselves tangled up in the blue that followed. Connolly escaped with a yellow and was joined in Fergal Kelly’s bad book by Dolan and Kieran Martin. It seemed a disproportionate punishment for the midlanders but battle lines had been drawn.
Westmeath were battling manfully at both ends and in the middle by then. John Heslin was competing effectively for the sort of long, diagonal balls into the Dublin box that is supposedly an Achilles heel, now that Rory O’Carroll is having his passport stamped around the world, though there were some frustrating wides to temper hope.
Martin spun a shot wide inside 60 seconds and Ger Egan had to settle for a point 10 minutes in after Heslin’s bat down seemed to open up a route to goal. For a side that, by Cribbin’s own admission, needed three goals to stand any chance, they were costly lost opportunities.
Westmeath were no more than a neck adrift by the break but they had already been knocked off their stride by the suspected fractured ankle suffered by wing-forward Ray Connellan who had been one of those working overtime in the contested midfield.
Another tip in the scales followed in the sheds.
Cribbin knew what was coming on the restart - and he did all he could to instil the need in his players to withstand the inevitable surge - but he couldn’t have foreseen Gavin’s decision to sacrifice a defender and send on another forward.
Eric Lowndes was the man to make way and Ciarán Kilkenny slipped back to the half-back line as Paddy Andrews came on. Facing six Dublin forwards is tough enough, having to combat seven seemed just unfair. By the end, they had eight of them on the pitch.
Westmeath didn’t help themselves with the sort of basic errors that could not be explained away by fatigue so soon after the breather but Dublin’s effortless shift through the gears was breathtaking nonetheless. Ten of the next 11 points went over Darren Quinn’s crossbar.
Dean Rock was providing most. He would finish the game with eight points from frees but Bernard Brogan was interjecting with a bouquet of his own efforts that stood head and shoulder above most others. The speed with which Brogan was collecting passes and sending the ball on its way over the bar was astonishing and he complemented his four one-pointers with an easy tap-in for the opening goal after a slick team move.
Kevin McManamon provided the second goal as injury-time beckoned.
By the end, a stirring first-half that had 38,855 people questioning pre-match certainties felt like nothing more than a distant mirage on what was a hot July day in HQ as Dublin matched the previous record of six senior Leinster titles on the spin.
It marks 25 league and championship games unbeaten for them, too.
D Rock (0-8 frees); B Brogan (1-4); K McManamon (1-2); P Andrews (0-2); J Small, P Flynn and D Connolly (all 0-1).
J Heslin (0-6, 5 frees); G Egan (0-2); D Corroon, C McCormack (both 0-1).
S Cluxton: J Cooper, P McMahon, D Byrne; J Small, C O’Sullivan, E Lowndes; B Fenton, MD Macauley; P Flynn, C Kilkenny, D Connolly; K McManamon, D Rock, B Brogan.
P Andrews for Lowndes (HT); C O’Callaghan for Macauley (49); D Bastick for Connolly (53); D Daly for Small (56); M Fitzsimons for O’Sullivan (60); P Mannion for Rock (63).
D Quinn; K Daly, F Boyle, J Gonoud; K Maguire, J Dolan, D Lynch; D Corroon, G Egan; A Stone, C McCormack, R Connellan; K Martin, J Heslin, P Sharry.
D Daly for Connellan (35); S Corcoran for Lynch (53); S Duncan for Daly (55); J Connellan for Martin (58); R Gorman for Maguire (61); D McNicholas for Sharry (65).
F Kelly (Longford).