Mayo hit Meath with late blitz to secure vital Super 8s victory in Croke Park
Mayo 2-17 Meath 0-14
A NINE-POINT margin may sound emphatic, but don't be lulled into believing that Mayo are back as genuine All-Ireland contenders.
They are still in the hunt, for sure, and will play host to Donegal in a fortnight still believing that they can make the semi-finals.
But they'll need to play far better, for far longer, if they're to aspire to the ultimate prize this season.
For now, though, James Horan will gladly take this result – especially as the outcome was mired in doubt at the three-quarter mark with Meath 0-12 to 0-11 ahead.
By then, it might have been better again for the Royals; but when Seámus Lavin took a pass on the run from Pádraic Harnan and burst through a parting Mayo defence, his 52nd minute shot veered over.
In hindsight, Meath needed a goal in a game where their lack of blue-chip quality in attack came back to haunt them. Several more presentable chances, from play and from a couple of Shane Walsh frees, went a begging in that period.
Shaken and stirred, Mayo regrouped and went for the jugular. Andy Moran delivered a hugely influential cameo off the bench and his 54th minute point, after selling Harnan a clever dummy, kickstarted an unanswered run of 1-5.
Points from ‘Man of the Match' Colm Boyle, the improving Lee Keegan and sub James Carr edged Mayo three clear before Kevin McLoughlin's 62nd minute goal killed off any prospect of a Royal comeback.
It stemmed from Moran claiming a short-range Andrew Colgan kickout; he transferred the play to Cillian O'Connor, who fed Lee Keegan, who in turn spotted McLoughlin free inside.
The Mayo veteran dropped the ball and, in the process, outfoxed Colgan and Lavin, leaving McLoughlin with a tap-in to an unguarded net.
Two Walsh frees cut the deficit to five entering stoppage-time, but then a moment of madness from Colgan – blocking O'Connor off the ball – resulted in a black card and penalty.
O'Connor's 76th minute strike was well saved by sub ‘keeper Marcus Brennan (with his very first touch) but the championship's all-time record scorer reacted sharply to reach the rebound first and bring his afternoon's tally to 1-5.
When Jason Doherty iced the cake with his second point, Mayo had eased to a flattering nine-point win that almost equalised the ten-point damage shipped in Kerry.
Mayo's previous status as perennial All-Ireland contenders was already in serious doubt after last weekend's calamity in Killarney.
A first half of oscillating momentum that finished deadlocked at 0-7 apiece did little to alter that perception.
Horan had made three changes from his ‘official' 15, Chris Barrett, McLoughlin and Fergal Boland promoted at the expense of Eoin O'Donoghue, the injured Keith Higgins and Ciarán Treacy.
Yet it was Meath who were faster out of the blocks, and James McEntee had edged them into a two-point lead before a quickfire brace from Fionn McDonagh drew Mayo level at 0-3 apiece by the 13th minute.
Even though Boyle was generally impressing at the Mayo sweeper, their defence still appeared vulnerable at times. Never more so than on 15 minutes when Donal Keogan's slick ball-carrying skills saw him ghost past Séamus O'Shea to find himself one-on-one with David Clarke.
Not for the first time in his career, Clarke saved brilliantly with his feet and when the rebound fell loose, Mickey Newman slid in but could only direct the ball over the crossbar.
McLoughlin and Ethan Devine when swapped points to keep Meath one up at the end of the first quarter.
There followed Mayo's best spell of the half, rewarded by three unanswered points from Boland, Doherty and an O'Connor free.
Several more chances were carelessly spurned, however, enabling Meath to draw level late in the half via Cillian O'Sullivan and Lavin, wandering up from corner-back.
SCORERS - Mayo: C O'Connor 1-5 (4f), K McLoughlin 1-1, F McDonagh, F Boland, J Doherty 0-2 each, D Coen, A Moran, C Boyle, L Keegan, J Carr 0-1 each. Meath: S Walsh 0-5f, M Newman (1f), S Lavin 0-2 each, B Menton, J McEntee, E Devine, C O'Sullivan, J Conlon 0-1 each.
MAYO: D Clarke; C Barrett, B Harrison, S Coen; D Vaughan, C Boyle, L Keegan; A O'Shea, S O'Shea; F McDonagh, J Doherty, F Boland; C O'Connor, D Coen, K McLoughlin. Subs: A Moran for D Coen (ht), J Carr for Boland (48), E O'Donoghue for S Coen (56), J McCormack for S O'Shea (63), M Plunkett for Keegan (75), C Treacy for McLoughlin (75).
MEATH: A Colgan; S Lavin, S Gallagher, C McGill; D Keogan, P Harnan, G McCoy; B Menton, S McEntee; E Devine, B McMahon, J McEntee; C O'Sullivan, M Newman, J Conlon. Subs: S Walsh for Newman (inj 35+2), S Tobin for Devine (53), T McGovern for Lavin (inj 64), T O'Reilly for McMahon (66), M Brennan for Colgan (BC 75).
REF: C Branagan (Down).