Saturday, Dublin v Laois, Croke Park, 7.00 (Ref: Cormac Reilly, Meath)
Latest from the medics and management… The return of Eoghan O’Gara to the starting line-up makes sense. He was brilliant when the side’s clashed in the league, hitting 1-5 that Saturday in Portlaoise and his performance when leaving the bench in the Leinster final demonstrated his evolution as a footballer. His game is still based around hard, direct running but he no longer tries to do too much, knows when to lay the ball off having drawn markers to him and his pass for the goal the last day demonstrated an unselfishness and a vision that was lacking in previous years.
But the dropping of Kevin McManoman to make space doesn’t sit well with us. He’s been harshly treated by Pat Gilroy before but this may be the cruellest yet. Indeed during the week when putting together an All Star team thus far this season he was the only Dublin player to make it. His decline in form against Meath coincided with the loss of Alan Brogan but the Footballer of the Year is now back, although his fitness level is questionable after his recent injury.
Dublin: Stephen Cluxton (Parnells); Michael Fitzsimons (Cuala), Rory O’Carroll (Kilmacud Crokes), Philly McMahon (Ballymun Kickhams); James McCarthy (Ballymun Kickhams), Kevin Nolan (Kilmacud Crokes), Cian O’Sullivan (Kilmacud Crokes); Eamon Fennell (St Vincent’s), Denis Bastick (Templeogue Synge Street); Paul Flynn (Fingallians), Alan Brogan (St Oliver Plunkett’s/Eoghan Ruadh), Bryan Cullen (Skerries Harps); Bernard Brogan (St Oliver Plunkett’s/Eoghan Ruadh), Michael Darragh MacAuley (Ballyboden St Enda’s), Eoghan O’Gara (Templeogue Synge Street).
Unsurprisingly it’s the same again for Laois, but what is more noteworthy is the team contains 13 of those that started against Dublin in the league. They were taken apart that night but there have been several positional changes since the March humbling as well as a change of style and a drastic change in form. Kevin Meaney is now full-back, John O’Loughlin has taken over at six where he is fulfilling some of his big potential, Brendan Quigley has been their star player in the qualifiers, Ross Munnelly has bought into his defensive role and Pádraig Clancy looks more comfortable on the edge of the square than ever before. The line-up means Kieran Lillis misses out and Peter O’Leary — so impressive against Meath after a late call-up – holds on at corner-back instead of Jamie Kavanagh.
Laois: Eoin Culliton (Timahoe); Cahir Healy (Portlaoise), Kevin Meaney (Arles-Kilcruise), Peter O’Leary (O’Dempsey’s); Darren Strong (Emo), John O’Loughlin (St Brigid’s), Conor Boyle (Portlaoise); Brendan Quigley (Timahoe), Colm Begley (Parnells); Ross Munnelly (Arles-Kilcruise), Gary Walsh (Ballylinan), Damien O’Connor (Timahoe); Billy Sheehan (Emo), Pádraig Clancy (Timahoe), Colm Kelly (Stradbally).
Checking the odds… Dublin come in at 1/9 and you know what, it’s worth it. Laois are 15-2, the draw is 14-1, the handicap is a generous seven points while Eoghan O’Gara is 7/1 for first goalscorer with Bernard Brogan at 4/1 in the same market.
Clues from the form guide… Quite how Laois are here, we simply don’t know. They were beaten by a better team against Longford, fortunate again Carlow and weren’t exactly drawing attention when scraping past Leitrim. Their win against Monaghan was decent, their win against Meath impressive but on the back of their relegation in the league it’s a season that’s been all over the place.
Ross Munnelly of Laois scores a penalty against Meath last time out. Pic: INPHO/Donall Farmer
They are easily the worst team to reach August and come up against a side looking for a statement win at this time of year, just as they did in 2011, now that an unimpressive Leinster campaign is behind them. Dublin have been under-performing in several key areas, especially their work rate in defence, and even though the draw has been kind to them, they’ll look to find answers to the questions surrounding them sooner rather than later. Time is short and the big boys are just around the corner so it’s time for them to start on an upward curve.
The game breakers are… Laois’s ability to absorb pressure without fouling, stay close for the first quarter and look to cut open the Dublin defence just as Meath did in the second half of the Leinster final. In that regard Quigley will be key as not only has his high-fielding set the tone for possession but he’s able to take off in the direction of goal just like Ciarán Whelan once did. If he can do that he may break tackles and crucially make room for Ross Munnelly and Colm Kelly, his side’s two chief scorers. In terms of Dublin, they’ve game breakers all over the park. Alan Brogan is the key man when it comes to making their forward line tick but if the back six and two midfielders can create intensity and turnovers, then the forwards will get possession before the defence can set and the damage will be huge. Laois have to cling to the ball in the tackle or it’ll be a rout.
Gazing into the crystal ball… Stephen Cluxton will avoid the long kickout for the most part, Dublin will build from deep while Laois will sit deep. But even with the recent form of John O’Loughlin, Kevin Meaney and Peter O’Leary, Laois have had to get cynical against lesser teams and they won’t be able to live with Dublin’s movement inside. In Bernard Brogan and O’Gara there are goals, in Alan Brogan there are points and in Bryan Cullen and Paul Flynn there are two players who will be hoping to lay down a marker. With Michael Darragh MacAuley roaming, it’ll leave more space for those players and allow him to form the first line of defence with Eamonn Fennell and Denis Bastick across the midfield. Laois will rarely bypass even that group and it’ll be a long and painful evening but no matter the beating, it shouldn’t take away from Justin McNulty’s feat of getting them this far.
Verdict… Dublin by 10