Dublin 5-21 Louth 0-10
There is a sameness about Dublin's opening championship fixtures in the Jim Gavin era. As likely to be stretched as a winter's afternoon, the champions win by double figures and the Tier 2 discussion picks up in earnest.
Louth came to Portlaoise on Saturday evening for their first experience of this and never looked like beating the stereotype. At their own level they’ve been a decent side this year but that offered little reassurance.
In the event their 26-point dismantling became the second-biggest opening championship win of Gavin’s Leinster career but only pushed his average winning margin in such matches over seven years from 16.6 to 18 points.
More unusually it was only the second time the champions had hit five goals in the Leinster championship but even these statistics have to be streamed through the filter of losing Paul Mannion to a red card after 25 minutes, leaving Dublin to administer their punishment with 14 men, which they duly did.
Afterwards Gavin was unhappy with the sending-off – for a high forearm challenge on Conal McKeever – pointing out (not unreasonably but not exactly relevantly, either) that Paddy Andrews got his jaw broken in the league at a cost of just a yellow card to Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan.
“Paul’s a strong guy. He’s a big man. He’s 6ft2in I thought the Louth player crouched a little bit, which probably didn’t help him. But the Louth guy got up and played on. But the initial reaction is it’s certainly not a red card.”
He said that Dublin “would have a really close look” at whether to look for a hearing to challenge the decision.
Gavin was happy though with the performance, stuttering as it was in the early stages and probably reflective of the two months of inactivity since the team’s last match in an undistinguished league campaign.
There was however plenty to be happy about at this early stage of the campaign to become the most successful side in GAA history with a fifth successive All-Ireland.
The forwards moved well and with purpose. A bulkier Con O'Callaghan was a constant threat, Niall Scully's pace continues to open up teams and Cormac Costello, deputising on the placed ball for the injured Dean Rock, accepted the challenge, missing just two – one of which hit an upright, was regathered by him and popped over – for a total 10 frees and one 45 and adding 1-1 from play, as well as flashing another goal chance narrowly wide.
Gavin, however, iced the tributes a little by hinting that there was still a pecking order.
“Dean as just a little bit tight for the week, so Cormac got in.”
Louth started quite well. Ryan Burns gave Cian O'Sullivan anxious moments with his movement and actually put his team ahead in the second minute. Goalkeeper Fergal Sheekey blocked Scully a couple of minutes later but the pressure was building, as manager Wayne Kierans reflected afterwards.
“Fergal and the defenders did well with a few early goal chances to keep them at bay but when they get to seven-one – and they get ahead, it is very difficult.”
Inaccuracies crept in and James Califf was off-target with a couple of long-range frees. Five of the starting forwards scored from play but that was an indication of perseverance rather than menace.
Kierans was disappointed with how his team reacted to the biggest challenge that have faced in a while.
“I wouldn’t have underestimated how good they are but I would have underestimated how much they would put you under pressure to force mistakes and we made an awful lot of mistakes.”
As Dublin rumbled with the familiar moving parts starting to click – Brian Fenton gliding up and down the field, Ciarán Kilkenny probing and orchestrating, Brian Howard flat out all the time – Louth were left chasing shadows.
O’Callaghan sprang for the first goal in the 23rd minute to finish good work by Scully and 14 men notwithstanding, the match was heading in only one direction: 11 points in it at the break, 1-12 to 0-4, and every indication that the dam might burst in the second half.
Five minutes after the resumption, it did. Kilkenny’s quick free launched a flowing move, featuring O’Callaghan, the excellent James McCarthy, Kilkenny again and for a finish, Fenton.
The bench rolled and recognisable faces began their season. Michael Darragh Macauley and Philip McMahon added goals for good measure, as did Costello of the starting cast.
The biggest reception was reserved for Rory O’Carroll, who in the 48th minute completed his comeback four years after his last appearance in a blue jersey, the 2015 All-Ireland final against Kerry. Gavin paid tribute to the Kilmacud player, a familiar ally, for keeping himself in shape when working in New Zealand.
“That shows his dedication. But we’ve gone into plenty of battles with Rory, back since his under-21 days. And we know each other really well.”
The newer generation was also well represented with John Small’s brother Paddy coming on at the same time as O’Carroll and injecting some energy and urgency into a fairly sated attack with two goal assists and a point. He looked a really viable bench option for tougher days ahead.
At the outset to such a potentially momentous season, there were elegiac moments, as a minute’s silence was observed for the late Anton O’Toole, one of the prominent heroes of Kevin Heffernan’s pioneering 1970s team.
“There’s a great sense of community within Dublin GAA and how they paid their respects to Anton O’Toole,” reflected Gavin afterwards.
"There certainly has been a lot of sadness but it's also been a celebration and there was a fantastic eulogy by Father Joe Cassidy in Mount Argus about Anton's life and I think players picked up on that."
DUBLIN: 1.S Cluxton (capt); 3. M Fitzsimons (0-1), 6. C O'Sullivan, 2. Byrne; 4. J McCaffrey, 7. J Small, 5. J McCarthy; 8. B Fenton (1-1), 9. D Gavin; 11. B Howard, 12. C Kilkenny (0-1), 15. N Scully (0-2); 13. P Mannion (0-2), 14. C O'Callaghan (1-0), 10. C Costello (1-12, ten frees, one 45). Subs: 19. MD Macauley (1-0) for Gavin (40 mins), 22. P McMahon (1-0) for O'Sullivan (40 mins), 24. R O'Carroll for McCaffrey (48 mins), 26. P Small (0-1) for O'Callaghan (48 mins), 23. K McManamon (0-1, free) for Scully (54 mins),
LOUTH: 1. F Sheekey; 2. F Donohoe, 3. E Carolan, 4. J Craven; 5. A Williams, 6. B Duffy (Capt.), 7. J Clutterbuck; 8. T Durnin, 9. J Califf; 10 C Downey (0-1), 11. J McEneaney (0-2), 12. C McKeever (0-1); 13. A McDonnell (0-1), 24. R Burns (0-4, two frees), 15. D Byrne. Subs: 17. D Corcoran for Donohoe (half-time), 14. S Mulroy for Byrne (half-time), 21. C Earley for Califf (43 mins), 18. D M aguire for Clutterbuck (46 mins), 20. E Callaghan (0-1) for Craven (black card, 52 mins), 23. E Duffy for McEneaney (60 mins).
Referee: J Henry (Mayo).