O'Sullivan dazzles as Royals dig deep to see off Mayo
CORK'S seniors might have been waking up in much better form today if they'd taken a leaf out of the Meath minors' sensational fighting spirit yesterday.
The Royals showed oodles of the county's legendary never-say-die spirit to bag a somewhat unexpected place in the All-Ireland final.
Five minutes after half-time they trailed by seven points (1-10 to 0-6) but a controversial penalty in the 57th minute and then a second goal in the first of three minutes' additional time left Mayo thoroughly shell-shocked as they watched a game they should have closed out trickle from their grasp.
The penalty was certainly a contentious call by referee Cathal O'Hagan. The Tyrone official had a faultless game up until that moment but, without the benefit of video evidence, he looked to have erred in awarding Meath a spot-kick for a foot-block by Adam Gallagher on Cillian O'Sullivan, which Fiachra Ward (Cian's brother) duly dispatched to level the game and make extra-time look inevitable.
Mayo, in fairness, did not make a big thing of it afterwards, conscious that they should not subsequently have leaked the second goal -- an opportunistic shot from sub Patrick Kennelly -- that then stole it.
"I honestly don't know if it was a penalty, I was very far away from it but my instinct felt it wasn't a foot-block," Mayo boss Tony Duffy said. "But we were in a very good position at half-time to see out the game and got the first few scores on the restart too.
"We were just under severe pressure then, we couldn't get out of our own half and when we did, we gave the ball away foolishly, so hats off to Meath."
He also didn't make a big thing of the fact that his side lost two key forwards -- Sean Regan and Eoghan Lavin -- after a bad clash of heads just four minutes after the restart.
Regan returned eventually but Lavin was dispatched to hospital and although they scored a point afterwards Mayo then went scoreless until injury-time and the incident seemed to throw them off kilter. However, they also had another second-half problem they couldn't handle in O'Sullivan.
A Diarmuid O'Connor goal after 19 minutes had given Mayo a commanding 1-7 to 0-6 half-time lead. Within the opening eight minutes Meath had missed three goal chances, including one shot off the crossbar, and Stephen Coogan forced a great save from Conor O'Malley.
Their first score didn't come until the 18th minute, they shot 12 wides and at half-time it was largely James McEntee and Jason Daly that had kept them in the game.
But on the re-start it was all about O'Sullivan. He wasn't the biggest player on the pitch but the decision to isolate him at full-forward proved a brilliant one as he won every long ball they sent his way and tortured his marker.
Between him and Ward's free-taking, Meath hauled themselves back into the game and manager Andy McEntee admitted afterwards that he hadn't berated them at the interval for their one-track minds.
"That's minors for you, they don't see the danger involved in only going for goals," he said. "But I wouldn't like to knock that out of them, they've great adventure and great spirit and why not?
"We'd maybe four goal chances in the first half and felt we were doing something right and it was a matter of it just happening at the right time."
McEntee was particularly delighted with his young charges after showing such fight in the wake of their Leinster final and said O'Sullivan epitomised the kind of sacrifices they've made.
"Cillian gave up the chance to spend a year in Australia this season, a sabbatical sponsored by his school (Belvedere College), to stay and play football for Meath," he revealed. "So many of these guys could be doing so many other different things but their application has been fantastic.
"Yeah, we ground it out today but after the Dublin game it would have been easy to put your head down and say we're just not good enough. They've come back and tried to get better all the time and we're very proud of them."
Man of the Match -- Cillian O'Sullivan (Meath)
Scorers -- Meath: F Ward 1-3 (0-3f, 1-0 pen), P Kennelly 1-0, C O'Sullivan, J Daly 0-2 each, P Harnan, J McEntee, R O Coileain 0-1 each. Mayo: D O'Connor 1-0, A Gallagher 0-3 (2f), S Coen, E Lavin 0-2 (1f, 1 '45) each, P Durcan, J Quinn, S Regan, S Hennelly 0-1 each.
Meath -- R Burlingham; D Smyth, B Power, S Gallagher; C Carton, P Harnan, S Lavin; S McEntee, A Flanagan; C O'Sullivan, J Daly, J McEntee; B Dardis, S Coogan, F Ward. Subs: R O Coileain for Carton (35), P Kennelly for Dardis (37), C O Griofa for Coogan (62).
Mayo -- C O'Malley; J Geraghty, S Moran, M Plunkett; P Durcan, C Burke, K Lynch; B Mullen, A Gallagher; E Lavin, S Coen, D O'Connor; J Quinn, S Regan, S Hennelly. Subs: D Duffy for Regan (inj 34), C Byrne for Lavin (inj 34), Regan for Quinn (47), D McHale for O'Connor (53).
Ref -- C O'Hagan (Tyrone).