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Dubs' win shows gulf in divisions

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Michael Darragh Macauley and Darren Daly, Dublin, in action against David Duffy and Ger Egan, Westmeath Picture: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

Michael Darragh Macauley and Darren Daly, Dublin, in action against David Duffy and Ger Egan, Westmeath Picture: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

Bernard Brogan. Picture: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

Bernard Brogan. Picture: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

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Michael Darragh Macauley and Darren Daly, Dublin, in action against David Duffy and Ger Egan, Westmeath Picture: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

THE small picture from Croke Park on Saturday night reveals a giant gulf between the footballers of Dublin and Westmeath, plus an emphatic early-summer message of intent from Jim Gavin's buoyant young men in blue.

And the big picture? An alarming chasm between the elite and those below, one that appears to be growing with every passing week.

Little wonder, then, that as a crestfallen Pat Flanagan entered the post-mortem theatre that doubles as the media auditorium under the Hogan Stand, he was talking up the urgent need for drastic championship reform – a two-tier competition that will, at least, give the likes of Westmeath something to aim for.

Otherwise, we'll have more players left bereft of hope or even reason to hang around, as they pack their summer bags for America while the gap between genuine contenders and the rest expands ever further.

These are weighty decisions to ponder for an association that tends to tread warily when it comes to such radical structural upheaval.

And yet, Saturday night's Leinster SFC mismatch at a half-empty Croke Park reinforced the new reality of inter-county football in the twenty-tens. Dublin were everything we have come to expect in all their effervescent glory under Gavin: fitter, faster and infinitely more powerful, while refreshingly direct (and usually pinpoint) in their ability to transform defence into attack.

Pale imposter

Westmeath were, admittedly, a pale imposter of those defiant comeback kings of spring ... and yet, did we expect too much?

After all, they may have been the second-best team in the league's second tier; but the margins were fine and the opposition less than stellar. They had yet to face a litmus test like Dublin. Now they have.

We already knew there was an unbridgeable gap between Divisions One and Four (despite Offaly's brave attempts to disprove the theory in their quarter-final curtain-raiser with Kildare).

Now we have further proof of a grand canyon existing between Divisions One and Two ... and the really scary thing for Westmeath is that, in their newly promoted state, they'll be facing this vaunted opposition week in and week out next spring.

The difference between the haves and have-nots can, more precisely, be defined as one between the leading six Sam Maguire contenders (Donegal, Dublin, Cork, Kerry, Mayo and Tyrone, in what-ever order takes your fancy) and the rest.

Kildare, as nearest pretender in the chasing pack, are still trying manfully to bridge that gap, but are they any closer today than at any previous point in the five-and-a-half year reign of Kieran McGeeney? On June 30 we'll have our answer.

But below Kildare it's a different world. If you exclude Donegal's two-goal victory over Tyrone, consider how the remaining of our Top Six elite have fared over the past fortnight.

Our Munster heavyweights have gorged themselves on their minnow neighbours: Kerry trounced Tipperary by 17 points and Waterford by 26 while Cork had 18 points to spare on the best team in Division Four, Limerick.

Even scarier, though, is what happened when the fourth best team in Division One (Mayo) met the fifth best team in Division Two (Galway) and romped home by 17 points. Yet if Galway were complicit in their own downfall via crazy hara-kiri defending, the difference between league champions (Dublin) and Division Two runners-up (Westmeath) was more all-embracing.

You could argue that the 16-point margin was slightly flattering in the context of a 1-2 salvo in the dying minutes against clearly demoralised opposition. Jim Gavin even ventured that the 1-22 to 0-9 scoreline didn't reflect the "intensity that Westmeath brought to the game". And yet, in truth, it could have been even worse for the marooned midlanders.

What if Diarmuid Connolly – a clinical executioner on his day – had hit the jackpot with those three glorious goal chances? Instead he was denied by Mark McCallon's goal-line clearance (43 minutes) and by his own inaccuracy (45 and 62 minutes).

On another day, maybe in August against a top-six rival, Dublin could well suffer for such lack of ruthlessness close to goal.

On Saturday night, it mattered not a whit that the game was already 69 minutes old before Connolly caught a kickout at his leisure and released Dean Rock through an exposed central corridor; Son of Barney duly teed up Paddy Andrews for a precise curling finish to break Dublin's goal duck.

Goal misses apart, there were moments of mild concern for Dublin tempered by the realisation that there was never the remotest chance they would lose this game. Bernard Brogan's first half execution (and shot selection) left obvious scope for improvement; but you know that on another day, those very same efforts could all be sailing over.

Of the younger brigade, neither Ciarán Kilkenny nor Paul Mannion gave full vent to their attacking potential but they are surely worth another start.

They were each confined to a point apiece; sufficient on the night because the workaholic Paul Flynn, the livewire Andrews and Connolly (when it came to white flags if not green) were all in the point-scoring mood, sharing nine from play between them.

At the other end, there was the occasional frisson of alarm when Kieran Martin or Denis Glennon ran at the heart of Dublin's defence. But these were sporadic surges in the face of otherwise one-way traffic.

In mitigation, the visitors' slim hopes were obviously hampered by the pre-match loss of their hamstrung talisman, Dessie Dolan. Not that one man could alter the inevitable: Westmeath's first ploy was to pack their own half and then patiently work their way up the pitch.

But they tended to take half a day (and multiple handpasses) in doing so, playing straight into Dublin's tentacles. Then, when Westmeath tried to foot-pass from the half-back line, their lack of craft and dearth of available targets (beyond Glennon) conspired to produce even more costly turnovers.

They already trailed by eight points before Glennon broke their duck in the 24th minute. When three John Heslin frees cut the margin to four points, it was the trigger for Dublin to switch gears again. From neutral and back into third.

Fifth gear can wait.


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