O'Gara steals show to quell Laois revival
COUNTIES evaluate themselves on how they perform against All-Ireland champions, in which case Laois will be confused after their engagement with Dublin in Portlaoise on Saturday night.
Their start and finish suggested they are a constructive work-in-progress, but the intervening period featured enough mediocrity to support the view that they will be lucky to avoid relegation.
Laois manager Justin McNulty described it as "a game we could have won," but it was also one they would have lost more heavily if Dublin's finishing had been more precise.
Dublin kicked 12 wides, a higher than usual error rate, part of which was probably due to the unstable underfoot conditions brought about by the persistent rain.
Still, a 1-14 return was more than enough to secure Dublin's first League points of the season on a night when full-forward Eoghan O'Gara delivered a memorable performance which yielded 1-5, all from open play.
Questions have been raised in the past about his finishing capacity, but, on this occasion, everything he touched turned to gold in a superb display which proved all too much for Laois.
It will have pleased him as much as his manager, who has great faith in O'Gara's all-round game.
"We'd be very happy with Eoghan. He does a lot of unseen things and gives 100pc all the time," said Pat Gilroy.
"Tonight, he got the scores which was great for him and us. It's the first time in a long time that he has been free of injury. Playing with the college (DCU) has done him a world of good. There's a lot of football in Eoghan, but then we've always known that," he added.
It was a good night, too, for Diarmuid Connolly, who scored 0-5 (0-4 from open play) and Mossy Quinn, who delivered another solid performance.
The inside trio scored 1-12 between them with O'Gara's goal coming in the 70th minute after Laois had staged a revival, which put them in a position to rescue a cause that looked totally lost when they fell six points behind in the 62nd minute.
They had been outscored by 0-13 to 0-4 since the 10th minute and appeared to have run out of ideas, only to have their challenge revived by a fortuitous goal in the 65th minute.
Ross Munnelly, their best forward, appeared to have attempted a point with a looping shot from the left, but it dipped wickedly at the last second and dropped into the net.
Substitute Colm Kelly pointed a free in the 68th minute to cut the deficit to two points, but O'Gara's goal re-established Dublin's dominance on a night when they lined out without four of the forwards from the starting six in last year's All-Ireland final.
Two of them (Bryan Cullen and Alan Brogan) came on as subs, but it was still very encouraging that they could be so effective without so many main men for quite some time.
"It's important to have a strong panel and to get as much out of them as we can. We need to have more resources than we had last summer," said Gilroy.
His assessment is based on the view that what wins an All-Ireland doesn't necessarily retain it, which is an altogether different consideration from McNulty's concerns as he attempts to steer Laois into big-time contention.
Frankly, it's difficult to know if he's getting there.
They were energetic and enterprising early on when they outscored Dublin (0-4 to 0-1) and finished well too, but, in between, they scored just four points between the 10th and 65th minutes.
They were well beaten for most of that period, but on the positive side, their application remained solid, something that didn't always apply in the past.
"The lads work very hard -- I certainly couldn't fault them there," said McNulty.
"There's a great unity between them, but it's obvious what's killing us -- the turnovers. We had far too many of them.
"We also missed too many opportunities, but I still think that if a few breaks had gone our way, it was a game we could have won."
That may have been an overly generous view of the Laois performance, but, in fairness to them, their task was made all the harder by the loss of two of their best forwards, Padraig Clancy and Paul Cahillane to injury.
Clancy was doing quite well at full-forward before tweaking a hamstring late in the first half, while Cahillane was withdrawn in the 46th minute after taking a heavy knock.
It left Munnelly carrying most of the scoring responsibility, which was quite a challenge against a compact Dublin defence.
Dublin led by 0-7 to 0-6 at half-time and added three points on the restart before Laois pared back two. Another Dublin surge yielded four points, before Laois hit back with 1-1 to give themselves a chance of salvaging something.
It wasn't to be, however, as Dublin re-asserted themselves and ensured victory when O'Gara goaled late on after being put through by Connolly.
"It was good to get some points on the board, but we still have an awful lot to work to do," said Gilroy, who clearly has a League semi-final place on his target list for the spring campaign.
Laois have more modest ambitions, topped by survival in Division 1, a challenge which will test them to the limit.
"We learned a lot this evening. The players are really hurting, but it's at times like that you look inside yourself and figure out how you can change things. We know we can improve," said McNulty.
They will need to, as the challenges are coming thick and fast now, with Cork next up.
"We're playing the last two All-Ireland champions in a week.
"It's a unique situation and something we're enjoying but it shows how tough this division is," said McNulty.
Whether it proves too much for Laois remains to be seen, but right now a return to Division 2 is looking ever more likely.
Man of the Match: Eoghan O'Gara (Dublin)
Scorers -- Dublin: E O'Gara 1-5. D Connolly 0-5 (1f), T Quinn 0-2 (1f), P Flynn, A Brogan 0-1 each. Laois: R Munnelly 1-3, P Cahillane (1f), C Kelly (2f) 0-2 each, C Begley, P Clancy 0-1 each.
Dublin -- M Savage 6; P McMahon 7, R O'Carroll 7, D Daly 6;
D Byrne 6, G Brennan 7, C Dias 7; R McConnell 6, E Fennell 7;
P Flynn 7, K McManamon 6, P Brogan 6; D Connolly 8, E O'Gara 9, T Quinn 7. Subs: B Cullen 6 for Brogan (33), MD Macauley 6 for McConnell (54), A Brogan 7 for McManamon (54), P Andrews 6 for Quinn (62).
Laois -- E Culliton 7; P O'Leary5, K Lillis 5, C Healy 5; D Strong 6, K Meaney 6, C Boyle 6; B Quigley 5, J O'Loughlin 6; R Munnelly 8, C Begley 6, D O'Connor 5; P Cahillane 7, P Clancy 7, B Sheehan 6. Subs: C Kelly 7 for Clancy (33), S Conroy 6 for Cahillane (36), B Mulligan 6 for Sheehan (64), J Kavanagh for O'Connor (68).
Ref -- D Coldrick (Meath).