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TOUGH WORK Dublin's vulnerabilities appear again as they see off Meath in Leinster SFC semi-final

Dublin 2-16 Meath 1-13

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18 July 2021; Brian Fenton of Dublin is tackled by Meath goalkeeper Harry Hogan during the Leinster GAA Senior Football Championship Semi-Final match between Dublin and Meath at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

18 July 2021; Brian Fenton of Dublin is tackled by Meath goalkeeper Harry Hogan during the Leinster GAA Senior Football Championship Semi-Final match between Dublin and Meath at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

18 July 2021; Brian Fenton of Dublin is tackled by Meath goalkeeper Harry Hogan during the Leinster GAA Senior Football Championship Semi-Final match between Dublin and Meath at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

A strange kind of wonderful in Croke Park. At half-time, this Leinster SFC semi-final was going the same way as every recent Dublin/Meath mismatch: the blessed Sky Blue trinity of Brian Fenton, Ciarán Kilkenny and Con O’Callaghan were running the show, and the six-in-a-row All-Ireland champions led by 11 points.

Oh, and did we mention that Dublin had the wind to come?

If the Meath team bus had tried to beat the traffic and leave early for Navan, no one would have batted an eyelid.

Just as well they didn’t.

After 47 minutes, Meath had rattled off 1-4 without reply, this most unexpected purple patch ignited within a minute of the restart after Matthew Costello got behind the cover, then rounded Evan Comerford and Mick Fitzsimons to goal in front of an empty Hill 16.

And so the trend of a weird second half, in which Dublin for once appeared mortal within their own provincial fiefdom, was set.

By the second water break the gap stood at just five – 2-13 to 1-11.

Dublin were being turned over far more often than we’ve become accustomed to seeing.

They were kicking uncharacteristic wides. And when James McEntee’s ‘45’ (after a Ronan Jones goal chance was repelled by Evan Comerford and eventually cleared in a goalmouth scramble) and then Thomas O’Reilly’s free made it a one-goal contest, the clock read 67.20 and you were starting to wonder if the impossible might actually happen.

It didn’t.

Just in time, Dublin regained their composure and a lengthy spell of their trademark ‘keep ball’ culminated in a Fenton point two minutes into injury-time.

The fisted salute spoke volumes, and further points followed from Cormac Costello and Kilkenny to secure a six-point victory and, with that, a place in another Leinster final against Kildare.

Still, for the first time in almost a decade, they are starting to look vulnerable long before we even get to the All-Ireland series.

For all the recent travails that have beset Dublin – retirements, defections, injuries, their fitful performance in Wexford, the ongoing melodrama over Stephen Cluxton’s inscrutable intentions – Meath fans had just as many reasons to fear the worst as they sampled a rare Covid-era outing at GAA Headquarters.

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Never mind that they’d lost the last four SFC dates with their nemesis in blue by a cumulative 63 points, their most recent memory doubled as the grisliest yet.

Last November, much of the pre-Leinster final debate focussed on a Meath attack that had plundered 12 goals in two games. Finally, perhaps, they were gearing up to ask some serious questions of the Invincibles?

And then they lost by 21 points, a record margin of defeat between these once-inseparable rivals.

Where to next for Andy McEntee and his players?

Mind you, Dessie Farrell had his own bulging in-tray of headaches. Today he had to plan without two of his three defensive All Stars – the still-injured John Small and Eoin Murchan, while Robbie McDaid was also still out.

On the flip side, the fit-again Jonny Cooper was a late call-up at corner-back, displacing fellow veteran Philly McMahon. The other two late Dublin changes saw Peadar Ó Cofaigh Byrne and Dean Rock promoted at the expense of Tom Lahiff and Colm Basquel.

Not to be outdone, McEntee also made three 11th hour alterations: Harry Hogan making his first championship start in goals, Conor McGill returning from suspension and Eamon Wallace adding further pace to the attack.

Andrew Colgan, Ronan Ryan and Ethan Devine duly dropped to the bench.

And now, if Meath diehards wish to look away, here’s what transpired.

For one of the four quarters, we had the pretence of a contest. At the first water break Dublin led by 1-4 to 0-4.

Brian Fenton could have won a penalty at one end but to no avail; Cormac Costello’s effort on the rebound was blocked on the line and Dublin had to eventually settle for a Ciarán Kilkenny point.

That left Dublin two clear. Soon after, Bryan McMahon ghosted onto an inviting pass to make it a one-point game once more; then Meath claims for a penalty of their own also went unheard by an unsympathetic Conor Lane.

But, at the third attempt, the Cork whistler did point to the spot after Fenton pressed on the accelerator and, tackled first by Séamus Lavin and then Matthew Costello, went to ground. You could argue that the first two looked more genuine penalties; either way, Cormac Costello sent Hogan the wrong way to ease Dublin five clear in the 13th minute.

Matthew Costello’s booming free and Jordan Morris gave Meath some hope before the water break; but that quickly evaporated as Dublin moved through the gears and added 1-6 without reply in the space of 14 minutes.

Con O’Callaghan was led the onslaught, adding a 20th minute goal – a left-footed bullet – and two further points, bringing his first half haul to 1-3 from play.

Wallace’s second point finally ended Meath’s long barren period but, in truth, the game was already long beyond the point of rescue.

Matthew Costello and then Rock swapped points to leave the half-time deficit at 2-11 to 0-6. An unassailable 11-point cushion – or so we thought.

SCORERS – Dublin: C Costello 1-4 (1-0 pen), C O’Callaghan 1-3, C Kilkenny 0-5, D Rock 0-2 (1f), P Small, B Fenton 0-1 each. Meath: M Costello 1-2 (0-1f), J Morris 0-3 (1f), E Wallace, J Wallace 0-2 each, B McMahon, C O’Sullivan, J McEntee (‘45’), T O’Reilly(f) 0-1 each.

Dublin: E Comerford; M Fitzsimons, D Byrne, S McMahon; J McCarthy, J Cooper, B Howard; B Fenton, P Ó Cofaigh Byrne; P Small, C Kilkenny, N Scully; C Costello, C O’Callaghan, D Rock. Subs: T Lahiff for Ó Cofaigh Byrne (ht), S Bugler for Small (51), C Basquel for Rock (62), C Murphy for McMahon (74).

Meath: H Hogan; S Lavin, R Ryan, D Keogan; C Hickey, S McEntee, F Reilly; B Menton, P Harnan; E Wallace, B McMahon, M Costello; J Wallace, C O’Sullivan, J Morris. Subs: R Jones for Reilly (29), T O’Reilly for McMahon (ht), J McEntee for Hickey (55), E Devine for Costello (59), J Conlon for E Wallace (65).

Referee: C Lane (Cork).

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