'They are the big monster in Leinster' - Dubs sweat on Cluxton fitness after routine rout of Longford
Dublin 2-25 Longford 0-12 - Leinster SFC semi-final
It says a lot about Dublin's domination of Leinster that the biggest story in Croke Park yesterday had nothing to do with the result, as Stephen Cluxton was taken to the Mater Hospital Accident and Emergency Department.
A dangerous challenge from James McGivney when Cluxton was airborne in the 21st minute left the Dublin skipper visibly shaken - after initially bouncing back to his feet - with manager Jim Gavin explaining that he had suffered a "lower-back" injury which resulted in a temporary substitution.
McGivney was deservedly given his marching orders by referee Maurice Deegan, although Jonny Cooper can arguably count himself lucky for a high tackle on Dessie Reynolds.
It was quickly obvious that Cluxton wouldn't be returning as Dublin played a championship game without him between the posts for the first time in 14 years.
That last occurred when Brian Murphy started their 2004 Leinster quarter-final defeat to Westmeath, as Cluxton served a one-match suspension having been dismissed against Armagh in their 2003 qualifier defeat.
Evan Comerford deputised on this occasion but there will be concerns that the four-time All-Ireland-winning captain could face a spell on the sidelines in what would be a hammer blow for the Dubs, given his unique role in their system.
Gavin said of the incident: "It was hard to see from my angle but, just a mid-air collision, that's all I saw. These things happen," the Dublin boss commented before adding. "We'll review that over the next 24 to 48 hours and just assess the situation."
His side were military-like in their approach once again as they clocked up a huge total and could have had as many as eight goals were it not for some sloppy finishing and Paddy Collum's heroics in the Longford goal.
Credit to Denis Connerton's men for not adopting a defensive system - they went 15 on 15 until the sending off - and they kicked some fine points, with Robbie Smyth dangerous in attack.
However, once Longford were reduced to 14 whatever hope they had of remaining competitive diminished.
Dublin led 1-8 to 0-4 at that stage, with Dean Rock expertly finishing yet another basketball-style goal - a signature move under Gavin's regime - when palming to the net after a surging run from Michael Darragh MacAuley.
Paul Mannion fired a 24th-minute thunderbolt to the top-right corner in front of Hill 16 to help them into a 13-point half-time lead, 2-13 to 0-7, but Longford did their best to keep the Dubs honest after the break.
Dublin led by 10, 2-16 to 0-12, heading into the final quarter after some brief Longford resistance. But, with an extra man and fresh legs in the returning Jack McCaffrey - playing his first game since rupturing his cruciate knee ligament in last year's All-Ireland final - and Cian O'Sullivan (back from a shoulder injury), they powered on to canter home by 19 points, with Brian Fenton and Ciarán Kilkenny excelling.
"We knew what we were facing - one of the greatest teams of this era. I refer to Dublin as the Real Madrid (of football), they're an absolutely outstanding team.
"They're so economical in their shooting and passing, all you can do is admire them," a dejected Connerton said.
"We had five training sessions before the game so it's impossible for us to come along with a new game plan, we just are not able to do that. All we can do is stick to the game plan we had, that's what we've been trying to use all season."
With an average winning margin of 18.3 points in their last six Leinster semi-finals, Dublin have led the province a merry dance as they look set to collect their eighth Delaney Cup in succession later this month against Laois.
Longford were sitting ducks to the Dublin juggernaut - Leinster would be very competitive if they weren't present - and Connerton suggested a radical change to the provincial system to alter perceived imbalances.
"In Leinster, Dublin is this big monster that looms over everybody. And they are. The system … we all know the provincial system is imbalanced. Everybody knows that," he said.
"How do you explain to some alien that comes down to Earth that there's 12 counties and 11 of them play football in one province and five or six play in others and nine play in another? How you do explain that and say it's an equal competition?
"It sure as hell isn't. That's the imbalance that is there in the system. If you want to continue with the provincial system, you've got to share the counties out equally. That has to be the starting point."
Another Leinster crown awaits for the Dubs while the qualifiers - a competition Longford have thrived in, taking some noteworthy scalps - beckons for Connerton, who admitted that not even prayer can beat the Dubs ahead of another tilt in the backdoor.
"We have to be upbeat about this. There weren't too many people giving us any hope of winning.
"There were a lot of people in Lourdes and Lough Derg praying for us - obviously prayer that doesn't work. But, we're back in our favourite competition," he said.
"We'll go away and we'll rest for a couple of days. But you needn't worry, we'll be back and we'll give the qualifiers everything. It's real championship football, we'll give it everything we have.
"We do it every year and we won't change this year either. We'll give it every single thing we have. We'll put all our energy into staying in this competition and staying in the All-Ireland series for as long as we possibly can."
Scorers - Dublin: D Rock 1-6 (5f), P Mannion 1-2, B Fenton and C Kilkenny 0-4 each, C O'Callaghan and C Basquel 0-2 each, B Howard, P Andrews, P McMahon J McCarthy, N Scully 0-1 each. Longford: R Smyth 0-5 (3f), M Quinn, P Collum ('45), D McElligott, D McGivney (f), S McCormack, R Brady, D Reynolds 0-1 each.
Dublin - S Cluxton 6; P McMahon 7, M Fitzsimons 6, E Lowndes 7; B Howard 7, J McCarthy 7, J Cooper 6; B Fenton 8, MD Macauley 7; N Scully 6, C O'Callaghan 7, P Mannion 8; P Andrews 6, C Kilkenny 7, D Rock 7. Subs: E Comerford 7 for Cluxton inj (temp 23), J McCaffrey for Copper and D Daly for Fitzsimons (both ht), C Basquel 7 for Mannion and K McManamon for Andrews (both 49), C O'Sullivan for McCarthy (54), P Flynn for Macauley (57).
Longford- P Collum 8; P Fox 6, P McCormack 7, D Masterson 7; M Quinn 7, D McElligott 7, D Mimnagh 7; D Gallagher 6, C Berry 6; D Reynolds 6, D McGivney 6, L Connerton 5; R Smyth 8, J McGivney 4, R Brady 6. Subs: S McCormack 7 for Connerton (28), B Gilleran 6 for Quinn (black 56), M Nally 6 for D McGivney (64), P Foy 6 for Reynolds (65), D Quinn 6 for Masterson (66), S Donohoe for Mimnagh (71).
Ref - M Deegan (Laois)