Dublin 1-17 Meath 0-4
The definition of optimism must be watching Dublin put a 16-pointer on Meath and insist that it shows up certain vulnerabilities in Jim Gavin’s side. Sure, for long periods of the first half here they were something less than stellar. But a walk to the moon and back wouldn’t cover the distance between that and actually being in trouble.
This was the 21st Leinster Championship game of the Gavin era, and the 19th double-digit win. They saw James McCarthy go off injured, had Ciarán Kilkenny well contained by Donal Keogan and carried Cormac Costello through one of his intermittent off days. They did all that and still never missed a beat.
Dean Rock came off the bench and scored four points – three from play – and set up Con O'Callaghan for the game's only goal. Throw in a smart Paddy Andrews score late on and their substitutes alone beat Meath by a point.
Stitch on the two points set up by Michael Darragh Macauley’s relentless barrelling and dishing-off in the half he was present for and it starts to look like the bench alone routed Meath
But maybe that’s an unnecessarily smartarse way of looking at the game. In truth it was a curious enough encounter for much of the way. If you looked at the scoreboard on 50 minutes you would have seen Dublin with only 0-9 against their name.
A combination of cranky Meath defending and slippery conditions underfoot meant they weren’t able to pop the sail and disappear across the horizon in their usual manner. But neither were they remotely within reach – Meath had 0-3 scored at that point and only managed one more the rest of the way.
“We defended reasonably well,” said Andy McEntee afterwards. “We had more than our fair share of possession, we just didn’t convert it. The truth is Dublin were never really under pressure because we didn’t put the scores on the board.
“We had 11 shots at goal in the first half and if you get half of those it would have been a fair tight game at half-time. But we didn’t. Dublin had deployed Philly McMahon in the sweeper role there, and we weren’t maybe getting our shots from the best parts of the field but they were still a lot of decent efforts. We had three frees and missed them all. conditions weren’t easy – Dublin were having their problems at the far end too.
“That’s it really. I don’t have any more answers straight away. I’d have to watch it all again. We just couldn’t get them into positions where we could force them into more mistakes than they usually make.”
On reflection that’s a small mercy we can be a little thankful for. The last thing this game needed was more mistakes. If we thought the Leinster Championship was a chore when Dublin were blitzing all-comers, it was only because we hadn’t imagined what it would be like when they regressed to everyone else’s level, as they did in the first half.
Pretty, it wasn’t. By half time the two teams had taken 21 shots and scored just six points. Meath had one from 11, including three off the post, two of which the Dubs reacted quicker to and another that clanked out for a wide. Dublin had one off the post as well, Paul Mannion’s penalty that counted as the main goal chance of the half on either side.
Such was a level of waste you half expected an Extinction Rebellion protester to storm the field and shout stop. It all washed out as a 0-5 to 0-1 half-time lead for the Dubs, the sort of scoreline it normally takes them, oh, a good six minutes to put together.
Of their principles,only Jack McCaffrey was putting on the usual show, twice burning Ben Brosnan for pace from the 65-metre line and zipping himself through on goal.
By far the most interesting thing to happen in that first half was the knee injury to James McCarthy five minutes short of the break. Ominously it seemed to occur without a collision that anyone could remember seeing. He tried three times to put weight on it but eventually had to admit defeat.
Gavin said afterwards that he was on crutches but couldn't give anything more concrete. Three weeks to the Super-8s, eight to the All-Ireland semi-final – it goes without saying that a Dublin without James McCarthy is a lessened version. Just because Meath were easily outmatched here doesn't mean a better side won't find a McCarthy-shaped hole in the Death Star somewhere along the way.
As it was Macauley replaced him to serious effect on this occasion as Dublin ramped up the tempo after the break. Gavin’s side scored 1-12 from 15 shots in a second half in which their only wide from play was an injury-time goal effort from Rock that went a foot outside the post rather than nestling in the corner as he intended. Other than that and a careless free from Costello that earned him the curly finger from Gavin soon after, it was an immaculate half of shooting.
Mannion hit his groove to end the day with three from play. O’Callaghan made up for getting robbed for a goal when fouled for the first-half penalty by planting his shot past Andrew Colgan on the 68th minute. Rock played him in with a gorgeous pass and was a restive, ruthless presence in his 20 minutes on the pitch.
The Dubs weren’t great at times but they were unanswerable for the short period when they needed to be. Next year it will be a decade since we were able to say anything different.
DUBLIN: Stephen Cluxton; David Byrne, Mick Fitzsimons, Philly McMahon (0-1); John Small, Cian O'Sullivan, Jack McCaffrey (0-2); Brian Fenton (0-1), James McCarthy; Niall Scully (0-1), Cormac Costello (0-3, 0-2 frees, 0-1 45), Brian Howard; Ciarán Kilkenny (0-1), Paul Mannion (0-3), Con O'Callaghan (1-0).
Subs: Michael Darragh Macauley for McCarthy, 33 mins; Dean Rock (0-4, 0-1 free) for Howard, 52 mins; Kevin McManamon for Costello, 59 mins; Paddy Small for Kilkenny, 61 mins; Paddy Andrews (0-1) for Small, 65 mins; Rory O'Carroll for McCaffrey, 68 mins
MEATH: Andrew Colgan; Seamus Lavin, Conor McGill, Shane Gallagher; Donal Keogan, Ronan Ryan, Shane McEntee; Bryan Menton (0-1), Graham Reilly; Ben Brennanm Bryan McMahon, James McEntee; Cillian O'Sullivan, Mickey Newman (0-3, 0-1 free), James Conlon.
Subs: Sean Tobin for Brennan, 39 mins; Ethan Devine for Reilly, 40 mins; Thomas O'Reilly for Conlon, 54 mins; Barry Dardis for S McEntee, 59 mins; Sean Curran for Gallagher, 66 mins; Thomas McGovern for McMahon, 66 mins
Rferee: Seán Hurson (Tyrone)
Attendance: 47, 027