Dublin 2-16 Meath 1-13
Well, that won’t stop the muttering. Dublin’s laboured progress through Leinster hit another milestone on Sunday with their tightest victory in the provincial championship for nine years.
The champions won by six and were pulling away by the end but a Thomas O’Reilly free in the 68th minute had closed the margin to three, 2-13 to 1-13.
As manager Dessie Farrell acknowledged afterwards, the match looked worse in retrospect because they had blown an 11-point lead in a listless and at times directionless second half in which they managed just five points - including the three in injury-time.
For a Meath team which had lost the corresponding fixture as recently as last November by 21 points, the outcome was a redemption of sorts, leaving manager Andy McEntee to reflect ruefully on having handed the champions such a large interval buffer.
Evan Comerford looked composed. His first kick-out was touched on by Peadar Ó Cofaigh Byrne to James McCarthy. A quick pass to Con O'Callaghan and Dublin had their first point. The restarts became edgier as the match wore on and Meath's contesting became more meaningful but he also had a couple of decent saves.
It all looked business as usual in the first half. Dublin were busy and purposeful. McCarthy was pulling the strings and Brian Fenton pushing into attacking positions. Jonny Cooper started and looked in good shape, which was good news for a defence missing two of its three All Stars.
Ciaran Kilkenny, O'Callaghan and Cormac Costello supplied the sharp edge with 2-8 between them in the first half. Meath felt they could have had a penalty before Fenton was taken down by Matthew Costello for the one he was awarded, which Costello tucked away in the 13th minute.
In truth a previous collision with Fenton had also looked like a possible penalty. Costello had a follow-up shot cleared off the line before Kilkenny pointed.
Dublin looked back to their best with a hot streak after the first water break, an unanswered 1-6 - the goal coming after O’Callaghan had shrugged off the attentions of the defence before ramming it into the Hill 16 end goal - albeit an empty terrace.
That 1-6 became a balance of 1-7 to 0-2 going in at half-time and the feeling of déjà vu must have haunted Meath.
No wonder McEntee was so pleased with the second half. Matthew Costello ghosted in after a defensive slip to hit a goal in response within seconds of the restart and they added four points without reply to cut the margin to four before Kilkenny restored some order with Dublin’s first point of the half, coming as late as the 50th minute.
If anyone needed solid evidence of the decline in the champions’ composure this season, it could be glimpsed in the familiar, ‘hands up,’ keep-ball routine that they rolled out to stall the momentum of many a team.
On Sunday after the second water break it was all a bit aimless and the patient passing movements brought to nothing when poorly conceived wides were kicked on more than one occasion.
Dublin had edged back to five ahead but there was palpable tension - an actual sense of uncertainty as to the outcome. Eamon and Joey Wallace used their pace to make inroads, the latter coming with two points in the second half although he also managed a momentum killing wide in the 62nd minute.
Meath were inspired. Inhibition long gone, they continued to take the game to Dublin and it needed a double intervention in the 65th minute to stop Ronan Jones, who had broken through. He shot straight at Comerford, who blocked and as the ball ran loose, Brian Howard flung himself down to touch out for 45, which McEntee pointed.
The 45 and a subsequent free reduced the margin to 2-13 to 1-13.
The run of scores in injury-time - two set up by O’Callaghan for Fenton and Costello - took the bare look off it but the champions had been in a contest and Farrell’s downbeat demeanour afterwards told its own story.
Again you have to go back to 2012 for the last time Dublin won successive matches in Leinster by single-digit margins.
They meet Kildare in the Leinster final in a fortnight.
DUBLIN: 1. E Comerford; 2. M Fitzsimons, 3. D Byrne, 7. S McMahon; 9. J McCarthy (capt), 19. J Cooper, 6. B Howard; 8. B Fenton (0-1), 23. P Ó Cofaigh Byrne; 13. P Small (0-1), 11. C Kilkenny (0-5), 12. N Scully; 15. C Costello (1-4, goal penalty), 14. C O'Callaghan (1-3), 26. D Rock (0-2, one free).
Subs: 5. T Lahiff for Ó Cofaigh Byrne (half-time), 18. S Bugler for Small (51 mins), 10. C Basquel for Rock (62 mins), 22. C Murphy for McMahon (75 mins).
MEATH: 16. H Hogan; 2. S Lavin, 17. C McGill, 4.D Keogan; 5. C Hickey, 6. S McEntee (capt), 7. F Reilly; 8. B Menton, 9. P Harnan; 22. E Wallace (0-2), 11. B McMahon (0-1), 12. M Costello (1-2, 1f); 15. J Wallace (0-2), 14. C O'Sullivan (0-1), 13. J Morris (0-3, one free).
Subs: 21. R Jones for Reilly (29 mins), 24. T O’Reilly (0-1, free) for McMahon (half-time), 19. J McEntee (0-1, 45) for Hickey (55 mins), 10. E Devine for Costello (59 mins), 25. J Conlon for E Wallace (65 mins),
Referee: C Lane (Cork)