False dawn: From Leinster joy to falling short
Laois defeat set tone for anti-climax in 2003
AFTER the much-needed boost of a first Leinster SFC title in seven years in 2002, hopes were high within the Capital that Dublin could build on the progress made during Tommy Lyons' first campaign at the helm.
Sadly, what ensued over the following two campaigns was a tale of mediocrity and underachievement as the Dubs struggled to find the free-flowing form of 2002.
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The omens were not particularly promising as they started off their 2003 NFL campaign by hosting All-Ireland champions Armagh in Croke Park and the Orchard County showed few signs their celebrations were an issue when easing to a 1-15 to 0-7 success.
Although matters improved with successive wins over Donegal and Tyrone in their following two games, the Dubs stuttered from that point, losing to both Kerry and Cork with a lack of firepower already evident in their meagre tallies.
Indeed, they managed just one goal in those seven league matches (Tomás Quinn v Donegal) and after edging Roscommon by 0-17 to 0-14 in Round 6, they just about preserved their top flight status when drawing with Galway by 0-12 to 1-9 in their final league game.
Despite the relative tedium of their league jousts, Dublin began their provincial campaign on June 1 with a degree of optimism and they were never truly troubled as they eased past Louth by 1-19 to 0-9 in a one-sided quarter-final in Croke Park.
Ciarán Whelan was in majestic form all afternoon and his dominance increased when Louth midfielder Séamus O'Hanlon was dismissed in the second half after an altercation with Johnny Magee.
Alan Brogan's fifth minute goal following a pass from Ray Cosgrove proved the ideal platform for the Dubs but a lack of clinical play punctuated their display against such limited opposition with Joe Brolly commenting that evening on The Sunday Game that to "watch Louth play football today would make you sad".
Sadness was one of the emotions that Dublin supporters would feel in shedloads a fortnight later as they succumbed to Laois by 0-16 to 0-14 in one of the most dispiriting afternoons experienced by their loyal following.
In hindsight, the defeat was probably not the seismic shock that it appeared at the time but to put it in context, it was the first time since 1981 that neither Dublin nor Meath would appear in the Leinster final and the first time in 22 years that Laois had beaten the Dubs in the championship.
Dublin could have few excuses on the day as they kicked 16 wides to Laois' six, while their keeper Fergal Byron made two superb first-half saves to deny Dublin the oxygen of an early goal.
Paddy Christie excelled with a towering display from full-back but he proved powerless to prevent an iconic score from Pauric Clancy in the second-half that, at the last count, was from 95 metres out!
It left Laois manager Mick O'Dwyer with that familiar feeling of getting one over on the Dubs once again with Tommy Lyons' men left to rue their profligacy in front of goal, another all-too-familiar feeling.
The qualifier draw could have been kinder to Dublin as they were pitted against Derry in Clones but Dublin went from zero to hero in the space of just 70 minutes. Manager Lyons shuffled his deck from defence to attack and introduced a host of returning faces including Darren Homan, Senan Connell and Dessie Farrell.
The Na Fianna duo had a point to prove and did so in emphatic manner as their goals helped Dublin to a 2-4 to 0-5 interval lead.
Another Mobhi marvel, Jason Sherlock, had been dropped initially but his brilliant cameo of 1-3 off the bench, including a goal served up on a platter by Farrell, helped ensure what was an ultimately comfortable 3-9 to 1-9 win.
If that draw was considered less than favourable, Dublin's task grew even steeper in the next round of the qualifiers and, despite a courageous display, they fell to holders Armagh by 0-15 to 0-11 in Croke Park.
The Dubs dominated the first-half but their 0-8 to 0-4 interval lead failed to reflect their supremacy over the field and the inevitable Armagh comeback arrived after the break as John McEntee kicked three superb points to help turn the tide of the game.
Stephen Cluxton's dismissal in the 42nd minute, after Paddy McKeever's red card earlier on, was out of character with what we have witnessed since then. Indeed Lyons' post-match comments added a depressing footnote to what was a disappointing campaign.
"They tell me that Stephen Cluxton threw a kick and if he did, he deserved to go as well. It was ridiculous stuff – your goalie getting sent off. It turned the whole game."
Not the most sensitive of comments and one that would lose Lyons sympathy and support the following year.