Mayo finished strongly to eke out a precious 2-17 to 0-14 Super 8s victory over a spirited young Meath side at Croke Park.
The teams were level on seven occasions and the Royal County were in a winning position at the three-quarters stage, leading by 0-12 to 0-11, only to be outscored by 1-6 to 0-2 from there to the final whistle.
Victory sets Mayo up nicely for their Phase III clash at home to Ulster champions Donegal in a fortnight, while a second successive nine-point defeat leaves Meath with nothing but pride to play for when they entertain Kerry.
There was little or nothing between the teams for long periods but a decisive unanswered run of 1-5 between the 53rd and 65th minutes – including Kevin McLoughlin’s 62nd-minute major – proved to be the winning of the game for the westerners, who had ten different scorers.
The sides were level four times during the course of a low-quality, helter-skelter first half where 14 points were shared evenly.
Michael Newman opened the scoring from a 40-metre free from the deck on six minutes and midfielder Bryan Menton was on hand to hammer over the second Royals point 45 minutes later. Darren Coen dropped a delightful shot onto the top of the net at the Hill 16 end to open Mayo’s account in the ninth minute and Fionn McDonagh arrowed over their second and third within seconds of each other after James McEntee fired over Meath’s third.
Newman, who would depart injured before the break, lashed over the next Meath point – a first-time soccer-style finish after Donal Keogan had exposed the porous Mayo defence with a penetrating run only to direct his shot straight at David Clarke. Keogan still had the presence of mind to poke the rebounder towards Newman and the Kilmainham clubman’s shot could just as easily have gone under the crossbar as over it.
Ethan Devine cancelled out McLoughlin’s point before, on 20 minutes, Seamus O’Shea blazed a Mayo goal chance too high and also slightly too wide, the ball ricocheting to safety off the right upright. Despite having been outplayed for the first 24 minutes, the Connacht county drew level via Fergal Boland and surged ahead for the first time courtesy of Jason Doherty.
Mayo's Kevin McLoughlin strikes a late goal against Meath
Cillian O’Connor nonchalantly chipped over a mysterious Mayo free to double the difference with seven minutes left before the break but, with both teams struggling to find any composure in front of the posts, O’Connor and McDonagh both missed opportunities to stretch the lead before, on the stroke of 35 minutes, Cillian O’Sullivan slotted the beaten Leinster finalists’ first score in some 18 minutes of play.
Boland spurned another Mayo chance after Menton brilliantly blocked down O’Connor’s attempted point and Meath punished their opponents’ wastefulness (James Horan’s men squandering eight scoring chances in as many minutes) when corner back Seamus Lavin roared forward to hammer over an exceptional equalising point off the outside of his right boot in the fourth minute of injury time at the end of a poor opening period.
Teenage substitute Shane Walsh calmly pushed the Royals back in front with a free from the hands when the action resumed, Boland cutting in from a tight angle to equalise only for James Conlon to squeeze the ball inches inside the left upright to edge Andy McEntee’s charges ahead by the odd point from 17.
Walsh popped over the softest of frees to make it 0-10 to 0-8 after 43 minutes, O’Connor replying in kind from another questionable free that was also moved forward. Walsh converted his third free but O’Sullivan and substitute James Carr exchanged poor misses at either end as both sides struggled to muster any quality in the final third.
In the 51st minute, O’Connor nailed a free from the hands and the Ballintubber ace took the bull by the horns to slot the leveller off his left boot on the spin 60 seconds later, 0-11 each.
The raiding Lavin then smacked a goal chance over the bar but Mayo now took over... They were quickly level for the seventh time as influential half-time substitute Andy Moran replied with a superb score following wonderful approach play by Doherty. Man of the Match Colm Boyle powered through to register the 13th Mayo score 13 minutes from the end and Lee Keegan finished well after the ball fell fortuitously into his grasp, Carr immediately stepping inside too make it 15-12.
The Mayo goal arrived on 62 minutes when Moran gathered the restart and Mayo worked the ball inside to McLoughlin (via O’Connor and Keegan), who side-stepped Andy Colgan and rolled the ball to an empty net, doubling the Mayo advantage.
O’Connor’s free on 65 minutes made it 1-5 without reply, Walsh’s fourth free, from in front of the posts, reducing the arrears to six with less than three minutes of normal time remaining and his fifth sailing over on the stroke of 70 minutes.
In the fourth minute of injury time, Colgan needlessly conceded a penalty with a third-man tackle on O’Connor and picked up a black card … his replacement Marcus Brennan got down well to his right to save O’Connor’s shot from the spot but the Mayo man reacted quickest to tuck the rebound into the bottom right corner of the net with his left foot, Doherty closing the scoring with a point in the eighth minute of added time.
Mayo - D Clarke; C Barrett, B Harrison, S Coen; D Vaughan, C Boyle (0-1), L Keegan (0-1); A O'Shea, S O'Shea; F McDonagh (0-2), K McLoughlin (1-1), J Doherty (0-2); C O'Connor (1-5, 0-4f), D Coen (0-1), F Boland (0-2). Subs: A Moran (0-1) for D Coen, J Carr (0-1) for F Boland, E O'Donoghue for S Coen, J McCormack for S O'Shea, M Plunkett for L Keegan, C Treacy for K McLoughlin.
Meath - A Colgan; S Lavin (0-2), S Gallagher, C McGill; D Keogan, P Harnan, G McCoy; B Menton (0-1), S McEntee; J McEntee (0-1), B McMahon, E Devine (0-1); C O'Sullivan (0-1), M Newman (0-2, 1f), J Conlon (0-1). Subs: S Walsh (0-5f) for M Newman, B Dardis for G McCoy, S Tobin for E Devine, T McGovern for S Lavin, T O'Reilly for B McMahon, M Brennan for A Colgan (BC).
Referee - C Branagan.Tweet