Dublin 1-24 Cavan 0-12
At the end, the Dublin subs didn’t even cheer. Nobody clenched a fist or raised a roar. Dublin roll on to their eighth All-Ireland final in 10 years, all business, no fuss. They turned the Cavan carriage back into a pumpkin and didn’t need to sprinkle the slightest bit of fairy dust to do so. You wouldn’t quite say Cavan’s year ended with a whimper – they made as much noise as they were allowed.
They were ushered towards their demise by one of those displays where Brian Fenton, Ciarán Kilkenny and Con O'Callaghan look like they're playing a couple of years overage. They were central to just about everything Dublin did well, controlling the tempo and more or less choosing when to twist the knife each time, ending up with 12 points split neatly and equally between them.
This was like that line in The Handmaid’s Tale. ‘Nothing changes instantaneously; in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.’ Cavan spent plenty of the first hour not out of the game. But at the same time, it was hard to identify a stage when they were truly in it.
Cavan weren’t cowed by the occasion. Far from it. At one point just short of half-time, after soaking up a good minute and a half of Dublin possession, they had a half a chance to break off a turnover but they turned it down. Instead, they did as Dublin do – they allowed everyone to catch their breath, to get into their structure, to start running whatever training drill they’d been working on to ferry the ball up the pitch.
It was all very controlled, very precise. The problem with that from Cavan’s point of view is that controlled and precise is where Dublin live. Nobody plays better boring football than Dublin because nobody has had more practice. They will very happily outwait before outwitting you.
There was no madness in the Cavan performance. Granted, it almost certainly wouldn’t have made any difference. A chopper could have crashed into Hill 16 and Fenton in particular looked like he would have strolled around the park oblivious to it. But one thing was for sure, Cavan weren’t going to lay a glove on Dublin without trying something different. That something different never came.
And so, imperceptibly but inevitably, Dublin put water between themselves and Mickey Graham’s team. They didn’t blitz them, they didn’t shock or awe them. They just scored two points for every one that Cavan managed. By the first water break, that meant a scoreline of 0-7 to 0-4. By half-time, it meant 0-12 to 0-7.
Dean Rock had three on the board from play inside the first 20 minutes. Kilkenny had a couple, Fenton a couple more. None of them were towering or spectacular – they were all just your regular Dublin death by a thousand clipped finishes. Cavan couldn’t keep pace and so the game inched out of their reach.
If there was to be any thrust from Cavan after the break, Dublin were in no mood to encourage it. Fenton scored an unbelievable point in the 41st minute, striding outside the Cavan cover as if running on an airport moving walkway and stroking a high one over with his right foot. Kilkenny and O’Callaghan added their own party pieces and by the time the second water break came around, it was 0-17 to 0-8.
Cavan stuck at it and made a bit of a burst around the hour mark, with points from Martin Reilly, Oisín Kiernan and a fine score on the run from James Smith to bring the margin down to nine.
But Dublin’s answer was to stitch the night’s only goal, Robbie McDaid getting on the end of a handpassing break at the back post. It brought his tally for his first All-Ireland semi-final appearance to 1-2 from play. So much for the Jack McCaffrey rumours.
Onwards then for Dublin, the six-in-a-row theirs to lose. Will the subs cheers at the final whistle in a fortnight? It feels like the only question the season has left in it.
CAVAN: Ray Galligan; Jason McLoughlin, Pádraig Faulkner, Killian Clarke; Gerard Smith, Ciarán Brady (0-1), Luke Fortune; Thomas Galligan (0-1), Killian Brady; Martin Reilly (0-3), Gearóid McKiernan (0-1, free), Oisín Kiernan (0-2); Conor Madden (0-1), Chris Conroy (0-1, free), James Smith (0-2).
Subs: Conor Smith for K Brady (18 mins); Stephen Murray for Conroy (35 mins); Niall Murray for Clarke (46 mins); Conor Brady for C Smith (51 mins); Stephen Smith for Madden (64 mins).
DUBLIN: Stephen Cluxton; Mick Fitzsimons, David Byrne, Eoin Murchan; John Small, Jonny Cooper, Robbie McDaid (1-2); Brian Fenton (0-4), James McCarthy; Niall Scully, Ciarán Kilkenny (0-4, one mark), Seán Bugler; Paddy Small (0-2, one mark), Con O'Callaghan (0-4), Dean Rock (0-6, two frees).
Subs: Brian Howard (0-1) for Bugler (49 mins); Philly McMahon for Cooper (51 mins); Paul Mannion for P Small (55 mins); Cormac Costello (0-1) for Scully (64 mins); Colm Basquel for Rock (71 mins).
Referee: Ciarán Branagan (Down).