Jim Gavin hails attitude of his Dubs in ruthless Garden rout
Leinster SFC Quarter-final: Dublin 4-25 Wicklow 1-11
With landmines detonating across the province over the weekend it was, unsurprisingly, left to Dublin to steer the steadiest path as they made their championship bow against Wicklow in O'Moore Park.
It was ruthless and bloodless at the same time. After the furore over Diarmuid Connolly's push on linesman Ciaran Branagan last year, ironically the referee here, that resulted in a three-month ban for Connolly, this was smooth and at times sublime from Dublin as they picked Wicklow apart to threaten a record score.
In the end, it didn't materialise. Dublin ran the bench, making all six substitutions by the 51st minute, while Wicklow got fresh legs in for the second half and shored up their defence with a much tighter formation.
It didn't stem the tide but it at least prevented further leakage of goals after the champions scored four in the first half.
Dublin moved a lot better in that opening half than they did in the corresponding game against Carlow just under 12 months ago and likewise for their opening game against Laois in Kilkenny two years ago. That's an ominous sign in the weeks ahead.
Wicklow manager John Evans had compared a meeting of Dublin for either Wicklow or Offaly, prior to his team's win in that first-round fixture, to killing a fly with a sledgehammer and as they were opened up at every opportunity and from every angle in the first half, it felt like a very apt description.
But they lost the second half by just 0-12 to 0-7 and that will offer a small positive note for the qualifiers and the future, irrespective of how much Dublin eased off or changed their team.
In all Dublin created up to 10 clearcut goal opportunities, taking four. Eric Lowndes stumbled with one at his mercy in the first half, Michael Darragh Macauley fisted a point when slightly more ambition would surely have yielded a better result, while Philly McMahon hit the side netting from a tighter angle.
In the second half the imperious duo of Ciaran Kilkenny and Brian Fenton both had chances with Fenton producing a smart save from Mark Jackson at the end of one particularly mesmerising move.
Kilkenny finished with 1-7, building on the 2-18 he bagged during the league, and rotated in and out from full-forward throughout where he presented a relentless and consistent target.
Fenton, stretching his flawless championship record to 21 games, was a colossus at midfield who looked like he was playing a different game at times with elegant movement, great balance and acceleration to join the line.
It helped him to a first-half goal as he ran on to a Con O'Callaghan pass and then provided the assist himself for their next goal on 15 minutes, finished by Dean Rock for a 2-6 to 0-0 lead.
That lead was at 13 points (2-7 to 0-0) when James Stafford finally got Wicklow off the mark with a 17th-minute point.
Stafford switched in to full-forward shortly afterwards and producedimmediate results, flicking home Rory Finn's delivery as Macauley and Stephen Cluxton converged. He had another subsequent chance, this time fending off James McCarthy to gather a Sean Furlong ball and drew a smart save from Cluxton.
If there is a flaw in Dublin it's how they defend their airspace around their goalkeeper sometimes. But for everything else, pace, power and pinpoint accuracy they were "on script" as manager Jim Gavin acknowledged afterwards.
"You'd have to be very happy with that result, particularly the attitude the Dublin players displayed. They've trained really well coming into this game, and they've been on script, a very ambitious and determined group," he said.
"And their application over the last number of weeks was shown there in terms of their performance. We just focus on our own game, probably 25 scores, thereabouts, from play, which is pleasing. A lot of work done on that aspect of the game, offensively."
For Wicklow, Stafford's brief period of disruption to the Dublin full-back line was supplemented by industry from Dean Healy, Rory Finn and Darren Hayden further outfield but for Evans the biggest compliment that could be paid to them was the team that Dublin started.
"Somebody said to me, was it on some website somewhere, it was, 'don't look now if you're a Wicklow supporter,' he laughed.
"Do you know something, the way I looked at that, I remember Tipperary playing Kerry for two or three years in a row and Jack O'Connor came with full guns blazing, a huge compliment to the team you are playing, a huge compliment that makes a good, positive statement by the manager Jim Gavin that says, 'hey, anyone that wants to get on this team, there is no easy walk-in there. You are going to have to earn it'."
They were 4-13 to 1-4 behind at the break, the final two Dublin goals coming in added time from Kilkenny, as he held off Ross O'Brien, and O'Callaghan following a superb chipped pass over the top from Paddy Andrews to underline great vision.
But Evans felt his players settled more in the second half. "We were doing OK-ish but I think the two goals before half-time really weakened us and made the legs a small bit wobbly.
"They were here against Offaly and they were nervous as cats on a hot-tin roof. They were more settled going out today. In the second half they were even more settled still so I learned that the more they play, the more experience they get and the better they are going to get."
As a sidenote, the attendance in Portlaoise was 11,786, down from the 13,238 that saw Dublin beat Carlow at the same venue just under a year ago and the 16,764 against Laois in Kilkenny where they were for their first championship game on the road in 10 years.
If those numbers continue to drop at those rates the policy of taking these games out of Croke Park, if they're not going to be played at home venues for opponents like Wicklow, would have to be questioned.
SCORERS - C Kilkenny 1-7; B Fenton, C O'Callaghan 1-3 each; D Rock 1-2 (0-2fs); P Andrews 0-3; C McHugh 0-2 (f); P McMahon, MD Macauley, B Howard, P Mannion (45), C Basquel 0-1 each. Wicklow: J Stafford 1-1; M Jackson (2fs), T Smyth, D Hayden all 0-2 each; D Healy, R Finn, M Kenny, S Furlong (f) 0-1 each.
Dublin: S Cluxton 7; P McMahon 7, M Fitzsimons 6, E Lowndes 7; J McCarthy 7, J Cooper 8, B Howard 7; B Fenton 9, MD Macauley 8; N Scully 6, C Kilkenny 9, C O'Callaghan 8; P Mannion 6, D Rock 6, P Andrews 7. Subs: E Murchan 7 for Fitzsimons (h-t), C McHugh 6 for Rock (h-t), D Daly 6 for Mannion (41), P Flynn 7 for MacAuley (41), C Basquel 6 for Andrews (48), K McManamon 6 for O'Callaghan (51).
Wicklow - M Jackson 7; C Hyland 6, R O'Brien 5, E Murtagh 5; J Crowe 5, D Healy 7, S Kearon 5; R Finn 6, J Stafford 7; D Hayden 7, K Murphy 5, T Smyth 6; M Kenny 5, S Furlong 6, J McGrath 5. Subs: C Magee 6 for Murphy (h-t), D Fitzgerald 6 for McGrath (h-t), C Healy 5 for Kearon (49), P Merrigan 5 for Crowe (53), B Kennedy 5 for Stafford (58), D Keane for Smyth (68).
Ref - C Branagan (Down)