Old guard rise to Royal challenge as Mayo strike late
Mayo 2-17 Meath 0-14
Mayo live and breathe! As ever they made life hard on themselves, but with reserves of big-day nous that Meath couldn't call on, the last quarter was always likely to be their moving time as they carved out a win that sets up a mouth-watering home game against Donegal on August 3 that they must win to stay alive in the championship.
It fell to some of their most experienced hands to pull the ladder up on a Meath team that will feel a sense of deja-vu from the previous week in Ballybofey, when they also lost by nine points having been right in it down the home stretch. But that's what the big teams can do to you - some more ruthlessly than others.
Meath will certainly rue missed opportunities in both halves, particularly Cillian O'Sullivan's wide from a great position in the 47th minute after they had got possession from a Mayo kick-out.
A point would have given them a three-point advantage (0-12 to 0-9), but within minutes Cillian O'Connor had popped over a free after Lee Keegan was fouled, and it felt like a different game again.
With the sides level at 0-12 each, 18-year-old Shane Walsh, just a few weeks in the squad having completed his Leaving Cert, dropped a 20-metre free from a challenging angle short into Clarke's hands and again the swing in Mayo's favour was pointed, as Keegan put Colm Boyle through for a lead on 57 minutes that they would quickly build on.
From that point on there was only one winner. Keegan's influence grew, as did Boyle's and between them they lived on the edge, dishing out tackles that could have merited yellows before they eventually found their way into Ciaran Branagan's book.
The 2016 Footballer of the Year pushed them two clear and Boyle was on hand to intercept a Seamus Lavin delivery and counter for substitute James Carr to stretch the lead to three.
Andy Moran came off the bench at the interval for Darren Coen, who had taken a knock just before the break and had a huge influence, scoring a point, setting up two more and winning a free for O'Connor to convert.
His movement had Meath in a spin, but maybe his biggest impact was to secure possession from a Meath kick-out on 63 minutes to get the ball rolling for Mayo's first goal; Keegan laying off to Kevin McLoughlin whose job was made easier when Lavin slipped as he tried to close him down.
A six-point push in just as many minutes made it a safe final passage for them and ensured a first victory over their opponents since the 1951 All-Ireland final, having lost four and drawn one of the five championship games they have met in since.
Late on Mayo won a penalty when Meath goalkeeper Andrew Colgan, under pressure again with his kick-outs, bumped into Cillian O'Connor late, giving referee Branagan no option but to award a penalty and black-card him.
Meath got Marcus Brennan on for his championship debut at the age of 34 and his first piece of action was to save O'Connor's penalty, the Mayo man's second successive 'miss' from the spot having driven over the bar in Killarney last week to blemish an eight from eight championship record. However, from the rebound O'Connor reacted sharply to steer past Brennan and compound a self-inflicted Meath wound.
Without Diarmuid O'Connor, Matthew Ruane, Paddy Durcan and Keith Higgins, who picked up an injury this week - a quartet on which Horan gave a "positive" prognosis afterwards - Mayo were vulnerable, particularly after the disappointment of Killarney.
There was some scar tissue evident from that defeat, but after a shaky start, when they fell 0-3 to 0-1 behind, Mayo appeared to have control. Coen was influential, scoring a point and setting up three more as he moved across the full-forward line with real purpose.
Aidan O'Shea enjoyed periods of dominance at midfield, but they were vulnerable to Meath runners, with Donal Keogan making one of his obligatory treks forward to draw another great save from a catalogue of great David Clarke saves this season. From the rebound, Mickey Newman got a point, but Meath needed to maximise those opportunities.
Once again Meath went man-to-man with Mayo's forwards and some gave as good as they got and more, particularly Lavin and Conor McGill.
Fionn McDonagh cut them open, however, for two points and was fouled for another which O'Connor converted for a 0-7 to 0-5 lead.
Meath broke for two points before the break with Brian Menton, Lavin and Bryan McMahon engineering a fine move for O'Sullivan to finish, before Lavin sliced over the first of two points for parity at the break, 0-7 each.
Walsh had replaced the injured Newman just before the break and Meath lost nothing from that as he landed three frees and played his part with a couple of telling assists.
They got two points clear twice in the second-half, but as they "tightened", as manager Andy McEntee put it afterwards, Mayo filled their nostrils with the smoke-filled air of a Croke Park battle. They were always going to be geared better for that type of environment and had the bench to back it up, with no Ben Brennan and Graham Reilly available to Meath.
McEntee accepted there were kick-out flaws, but countered that they were a problem common to almost every team. He also acknowledged the level of inexperience Meath brought to this stage of the competition, though neither defeat to Donegal or Mayo felt like they carried the weight of nine points.
"Maybe you have to go through this learning experience to get out the far side of it. I don't know. What I do know is that we have to be better for longer," he said.
Horan had the air of a manager with a little weight off his shoulders, with a two-week break now after five games in 29 days. They'll make the most of it.
Scorers - Mayo: C O'Connor 1-5 (4f); K McLoughlin 1-1; J Doherty, F Boland, F McDonagh 0-2 each; D Coen, C Boyle, L Keegan, A Moran, J Carr 0-1 each. Meath: S Walsh 0-5 (5f); S Lavin, M Newman (1f) 0-2 each; B Menton, C O'Sullivan, E Devine, J Conlon, J McEntee 0-1 each.
Mayo - D Clarke 7; C Barrett 6, B Harrison 7, S Coen 6; D Vaughan 7, C Boyle 8, L Keegan 7; S O'Shea 6, A O'Shea 7; F McDonagh 7, J Doherty 7, F Boland 6; C O'Connor 7, D Coen 7, K McLoughlin 7. Subs: A Moran 8 for D Coen inj (h-t), J Carr 6 for Boland (48), E O'Donoghue 6 for S Coen (55), J McCormack for S O'Shea (63), M Plunkett for Keegan (74), C Tracey for McLoughlin (75)
Meath - A Colgan 5; S Lavin 8, C McGill 7, S Gallagher 6; D Keogan 7, P Harnan 7, G McCoy 6; B Menton 7, S McEntee 7; J McEntee 6, B McMahon 6, E Devine 6; C O'Sullivan 7, M Newman 5, J Conlon 5. Subs: S Walsh 7 for Newman inj (37), B Dardis 6 for McCoy (50), S Tobin 6 for Devine (53), T McGovern for Lavin (64), T O'Reilly for McMahon (65).
Ref - C Branagan (Down).