In fairness to Pat Gilroy, he did warn us.
Last Thursday morning, the Dublin manager sat down with the media at Dublin’s St Clare’s base on the city’s northside and waved away talk of complacency with a lesson in modern history. Of Kerry’s defeat to Down in 2010 and Cork’s by Mayo last year.
Both had come at the last eight stage. Both were out of the blue. It was the kind of talk you expect from a manager in his position but he was right. Had Laois’ attack been half as good as their defence, Gilroy would be muttering ‘I told you so’ under his breath right now rather than contemplating an All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo.
Everything he said about Laois was on the money. He had compared them to his own Dublin team of two years ago, one that was coming to terms with a new manager and system and finally beginning to do it’s master’s bidding instinctively after a long period of distrust.
On Saturday night, Gilroy compared the game to the gruelling All-Ireland semi-final they had endured against Donegal 12 months ago. Just 14 points were scored that day and Dublin only made it to the final because they were able to hew eight of them from the granite wall that was the opposition defence.
That analogy only stretches so far. Dublin turned into that Donegal game on the back of an exhilarating destruction of Tyrone in the quarter-final, but the only performance to match that this term came against an insipid Louth at the start of June.
Since then, it has been a case of some good stuff here, more bad stuff there. Something just isn’t clicking with this Dublin team and time is running out if Gilroy and his brains trust are to put their finger on what that is. The suspicion is they simply haven’t the same desire and focus as last year. Few All-Ireland champions do.
That said, Saturday’s win wasn’t without it’s plus points. Dublin conceded just four scores from play, none at all in the second-half, and Eamon Fennell and Denis Bastic were dominant in midfield for large spells against a combination of Brendan Quigley and Colm Begley pegged beforehand as the chief threat.
Michael Darragh Macauley was poetry in motion and Kevin Nolan added to his already glittering reputation with a consummate display at centre-back but very few of their colleagues were anywhere close in terms of individual performance.
Gilroy played down the absence of Alan Brogan – who aggravated a groin injury on the Friday – but the former captain’s intelligence and penetrative passing is clearly something that Dublin can ill afford to be without against a defence as drilled and diligent as that of Laois.
Add in a second summer’s off-day for his brother Bernard and Dublin were left looking to others to take up the slack. No-one did. Paul Flynn, a man known for his leg work rather than scoring prowess, was their only forward to score twice from play. Eoghan O’Gara saw plenty of ball but was held to just the one point after his five-star display against Meath in the Leinster final while Diarmuid Connolly’s return from suspension lasted just 42 minutes before Ciarán Kilkenny was ushered on in his place.
The youngster’s introduction was greeted with an expectant rumble from the Hill but Gilroy’s decision to plug the livewire that is Kevin McManamon into the mainframe charged the team more and the St Jude’s forward simply must start against Mayo.
No doubt about it, Dublin are vulnerable.
The feeling prior to throw-in was that Laois needed to hang tight for the first 20 minutes, avoid the concession of a goal or run of points that would energise that famous terrace, and see where the game could take them from there. Which is precisely how it played out.
The teams were level six times in the first 26 minutes even though Dublin were dominating most of the aerial exchanges like a schoolyard bully and Bernard Brogan had been given half a sight of a goal chance on two occasions. Laois were just beginning to gain some parity around the middle when they were sucker-punched by the game’s only goal. If only Colm Begley hadn’t been disposed so cheaply. If only John O’Loughlin hadn’t deflected Macauley’s fisted effort into his own net.
It was a misfortune compounded by the knowledge Laois would be highly unlikely to engineer anything approaching a shot on goal and, with that proving to be the case, a green flag against them was weighted with considerable doom.
Laois may well regret the fact they stuck their guns as the clock wound down, with the excellent Billy Sheehan stationed as a sweeper. Superb as they were at the back, had they gone all in they may well have caught the off-colour champions.
On this evidence it is simply a matter of time before someone does.
Scorers for Dublin: B Brogan 0-4 (3fs), J O’Loughlin 1-0 (own goal), S Cluxton 0-3 (2 45s, 1f), P Flynn 0-2, K Nolan, D Bastick, E O’Gara 0-1 each.
Scorers for Laois: R Munnelly 0-4 (3fs), C Kelly 0-3fs, G Walsh, MJ Tierney (2fs) 0-2 each, C Begley (0-1).
Subs for Dublin: C Kilkenny for Connolly (42); K McManamon for Bastic (52); G Brennan for McMahon (54); T Quinn for Brogan (62).
Subs for Laois: P McMahon for Walsh (50); MJ Tierney for O’Connor (54); K Lillis for Sheehan (65); S O’Leary for McMahon (71).
Referee: C Reilly (Meath).
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