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Hudson to the rescue after supersub Dolan shocks wasteful Dublin into response

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Dublin's Paul Hudson keeps Westmeath's Kevin Maguire at arm's length

Dublin's Paul Hudson keeps Westmeath's Kevin Maguire at arm's length

Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

Westmeath's John Heslin in action against Dublin's Michael Fitzsimmons

Westmeath's John Heslin in action against Dublin's Michael Fitzsimmons

Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

Eoghan O'Gara wins possession for Dublin ahead of Westmeath's Kieran Gavin

Eoghan O'Gara wins possession for Dublin ahead of Westmeath's Kieran Gavin

Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

Dublin's Paul Flynn closed down by Westmeath's Kieran Martin

Dublin's Paul Flynn closed down by Westmeath's Kieran Martin

Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

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Dublin's Paul Hudson keeps Westmeath's Kevin Maguire at arm's length

Mullingar in watery, February light is a stark, no-frills frontier for glamour footballers and Dublin seemed to neglect what made them great before escaping Cusack Park with the spoils here.

For long stretches, they looked like prize-fighters trying to sneak glimpses of themselves in the gym mirror whilst dodging the shots of an over-matched sparring partner. But then, lo and behold, a windmill landed.

With 21 minutes remaining, Dessie Dolan fired a sublime goal and when, soon after, John Heslin beat Stephen Cluxton to the punch for a Westmeath point, the All-Ireland champions found themselves, almost inexplicably, behind.

They'd failed to convert a necklace of goal-scoring opportunities early in the second-half, Westmeath 'keeper Darren Quinn making brilliant saves from Michael Darragh Macauley and Paul Flynn particularly. Dublin's profligacy looked like becoming the story of the day.

But Jim Gavin found solutions in the stand behind him, replacing his entire full-forward line before the end with Thomas Davis' Paul Hudson making an especially telling last-quarter contribution of four points.

Gavin was familiarly sanguine afterwards, despite Paul Flynn, Ciaran Kilkenny, Eoghan O'Gara and Paul Mannion failing to register a single score from play between them.

"We're only back a couple of weeks," he reflected. "That's not an excuse and we won't use that and the players need to understand that. And they do. So the forwards have to get back on the training field and try and improve that technical area, which isn't pleasing."

For Westmeath, emotions were naturally mixed. They got Dublin on a vulnerable day and might just have taken a prized scalp had they made better use of the wind when it was on their backs. Yet, Paul Bealin would have settled for a four-point deficit if offered it over breakfast.

"Look, while I hate losing games, it's an improvement on last week," said the former Dublin midfielder.

Westmeath were eight points adrift of Cork in their first outing and Bealin is all too aware that some see them as the likely whipping boys in this division. Certainly, Dublin's breadth of talent belongs in a different galaxy.

They lined out with just eight of those who started last year's All-Ireland final and though Westmeath eased into a 0-3 to 0-2 lead with a beautifully constructed Heslin score in the 11th minute, there was always a sense of the Dubs playing within themselves.

But the Dubs were wasteful and inclined to over-elaborate in the final third, Kevin McManamon accumulating four wides while both Mannion and Cluxton looked unconvincing from dead balls.

Westmeath's difficulty was that, Heslin apart, they had no real attacking focal point. In the first half, he was too easily isolated – usually by two Dublin defenders – as long deliveries were either mistimed or misplaced. This meant that, despite having had the benefit of the wind, Westmeath trailed 0-3 to 0-6 at the break. Ominous.

Yet, Ray Connellan ran from half-way to kick a wonderful point just 15 seconds after the resumption and two quick-fires saves from Quinn and a brilliant dispossession of McManamon by John Gilligan had the locals in a 6,500 crowd beginning to find their voices.

Bealin then introduced Dolan off the bench and – within seconds – the veteran attacker had tanked this game out of neutral. His goal arrived after a sequence of three Dublin fouls within a minute. The third free was taken quickly to John Egan, who played a splendid one-two with Heslin before offloading to Dolan. The quality of the finish reduced Cluxton to a virtual mannequin.

Heslin's follow-up point meant that Westmeath led 1-5 to 0-7 with 15 minutes remaining, but Hudson's arrival brought Dublin an instant dividend.

He scored points from play with his first two touches as the Dubs suddenly found some sense of competitive urgency, out-scoring their opponents 0-7 to 0-2 in the remainder. They did so simply by playing with greater pace and using the wind to kick from distance.

For Gavin, there was some satisfaction in his own audit of Dublin's creation of 30 scoring chances at a venue he referred to as "a very difficult place".

He did lament the three-week gap now looming in the league programme, reiterating his view that the league should not start before the completion of the Sigerson Cup.

Dublin's next opponents are Cork, followed by Kildare, Mayo and Tyrone. "A fantastic set of games," said Gavin. "And with 17 weeks to go to the championship, it's a great way to prepare."

For Bealin, next stop is Derry in a schedule that will stretch his squad to their limits. "Every game for us is extremely difficult," he said.

Had an opportunity maybe slipped through their fingers here?

"To say Dublin were vulnerable, I suppose, is something you'd find unusual to say," he reflected. "But I think the game was there to be closed out. And we didn't close it out.

"We had a couple of chances. In the first-half particularly, we gave ourselves too much to do.

"Look I know Dublin football, I've been playing in it for the last 20 years or so, if you give them space inside, they will cause all sorts of problems."

He could not fault the honest effort of a team in which Quinn, Kieran Galvin, Kevin Maguire, Gilligan, James Dolan and Heslin gave their all. Best for the Dubs were Cian O'Sullivan, Ciaran Kilkenny and Hudson.

SCORERS – Dublin: P Hudson 0-4 (1f), C Kilkenny (3fs), S Cluxton (2 '45s', 1f) 0-3 each, C Reddin 0-2, K McManamon, D Byrne 0-1 each. Westmeath: J Heslin 0-5 (3fs), D Dolan 1-0, K Martin, R Connellan 0-1 each.

DUBLIN – S Cluxton; M Fitzsimons, P McMahon, D Nelson; J Cooper, C O'Sullivan, E Lowndes; MD McAuley, S Carty; P Flynn, C Kilkenny, C Reddin; P Mannion, K McManamon, E O'Gara. Subs: K O'Brien for Nelson (51), P Hudson for McManamon (51), D Byrne for O'Gara (58), J McCaffrey for McAuley (60), D Watson for Mannion (62), K Nolan for Cooper (66).

WESTMEATH – D Quinn; K Maguire, K Galvin, S Gilmore; J Gonoud, J Gilligan, J Dolan; D Duffy, D Corroon; P Sharry, J Egan, G Egan; K Martin, J Heslin, D Glennon. Subs: R Connellan for Corroon (25), D Dolan for K Martin (48), C McCormack for Gonoud (62), D McCormack for Glennon (70).

Ref – D Gough (Meath)

Irish Independent