IT'S been a funny-peculiar spring for the Dublin hurlers, but they weren't laughing on Saturday evening as Galway raced over the Portlaoise horizon.
Six days previously, these relegation rivals were inseparable after 90 leg-sapping minutes. Now, an error-strewn second half saw last year's Allianz League champions finish on the wrong end of a 14-point defeat, thus consigning them to life among the Division 1B wannabes next year.
Fourteen points suggests a gulf in class that -- in truth -- wasn't borne out by the match itself. But in a game of inches, you can finish yards off the pace if you repeatedly come up short.
That, essentially, is what happened here. Dublin took wrong options and, though a distinctly sliotar-unfriendly surface didn't help, coughed up possession far more often than Galway.
When you've a cold-blooded assassin like Joe Canning lurking, that's a fatal thing to do.
So then, to the bigger picture: have Dublin gone from champs to chumps inside 12 short months? Not only is that a glib assessment, it's a wholly inaccurate portrayal of how they have played over the past two months.
But the bottom line is still the bottom line: where Anthony Daly's men perfected the art of digging out results last spring, they have now lost the winning knack. They could have beaten Cork, Kilkenny, Tipperary and Galway (during normal time eight days ago) and failed to do so, even once.
That has to be a concern for Daly as he contemplates their Leinster SHC opener against Laois or Carlow on June 2 -- even more so presuming they negotiate that banana skin to face Kilkenny three weeks later. "We only got two draws really over the whole series so we can't complain too much," the Dublin boss reflected.
"But at the same time, besides the first day in Salthill, we were very competitive ... I'd be more disappointed with the match in Salthill than today, to be honest."
Whatever about outweighing the negatives, Dublin can glean positives amid the gloom of demotion. The depth of Daly's panel has been fully tested by their legendary casualty list and several newcomers have showcased their claims, most notably Danny Sutcliffe, even if his form tapered off in recent games.
The seemingly imminent return of the 'Cruciate Three' -- Messrs Hiney, Brady and Keaney -- will fuel optimism that narrow defeats can be turned into white-knuckle victories when it matters most. But again, there are no guarantees.
"There have been a lot of positives," insisted skipper Johnny McCaffrey. "Look at the amount of lads that have come in and got game time and have done really well. Some lads had off-days today and that happens -- but we'll put the head down, back with the clubs now for the next couple of weeks, and we'll be raring to go come championship time, don't worry about that."
What Dublin should worry about, though, is tackling the error count that ransacked their chances of winning Saturday's O'Moore Park replay. They started with impressive intent -- no one more so than rookie midfielder Martin Quilty, who struck a hat-trick of points in the opening quarter -- and led by two points on eight separate occasions during that first half.
Yet, a very dubious 20-metre free that Canning dispatched (albeit not with his trademark venom) gave Galway a 24th-minute foothold and, when the half-time whistle sounded, they actually led by 1-11 to 0-13. From there on, it got progressively worse for the Dubs.
Even during their dominant spells, they played into Galway hands -- quite literally -- at times. Even before Canning's pivotal second goal after 51 minutes, we counted seven Galway points that originated with Dublin players either in possession or in apparent control of the situation.
Cue Canning's goal -- a piece of Portumna genius carved out of Sky Blue hesitation. From the press box, it appeared as if Peter Kelly delayed for half-a-second before chasing after a ball played up the right wing; he still got there marginally ahead of Damien Hayes but failed to gather, and the latter duly fed his club-mate. No hesitation here: Canning took aim from 20 metres and the net danced.
If Gary Maguire was left helpless by that sumptuous finish, his goal-line handling mistake allowed the livewire Davy Glennon to pilfer a third goal four minutes later. Game over and, as Dublin wilted, Michael Carton was the fall-guy for Galway's fourth goal -- the wing-back was bottled up on the left touchline, losing possession, and though Maguire saved David Burke's first attempt, the latter batted home the rebound.
Meanwhile, at the far end, you had five potential green flags but Paul Ryan, Conor McCormack, Eamon Dillon, McCormack again and Simon Lambert (from an injury-time penalty) simply couldn't find a way past the resolute Fergal Flannery.
"One of those days -- we didn't take any chances and they took theirs," said Daly.
"Would it have been worse if we lost it by a point last week? I don't know.
"You could argue it exposed a few frailties in us today."
Galway had a democratic spread of forwards who all made telling contributions -- the two Burkes, David and Niall, Glennon, the deep-roving Hayes and the omnipotent Mr Canning. Their delighted manager Anthony Cunningham concluded: "That's the biggest thing you'll get out of this evening, confidence."
Something Dublin would love to bottle.