Like Kerry six days before them, Meath came to Croke Park unfancied but unperturbed by their long odds and proceeded to expose the inherent flaws carried on to the biggest of stages by a provincial champion.
And to think that it is just nine weeks since Meath exited the Leinster championship in ragged fashion against a Dublin side whose deficiencies in front of goal were all that allowed Meath depart with some modicum of dignity.
Four off-Broadway nights – against Waterford, Westmeath, Roscommon and Limerick – have served Meath well. As was the case in 2007, the back door has led them all the way to an All-Ireland semi-final.
For Mayo, it is back to Year One. Ground Zero. The defeat will hurt but the manner in which they faded away in that last, defining, 15 minutes will haunt them long after the dark, winter nights begin to lift.
A light summer schedule that required only one afternoon of heavy lifting against Galway might have left them vulnerable, but they actually roared into a four-point lead after 12 impressive minutes.
Mayo were omnipotent in that period, squeezing the life from Meath in every sector and yet, by half-time, the Leinster side was a point to the good and regretting a handful of poor attempts on goal to boot.
The sides were level eight times over the afternoon but Mayo were once again four points to the good after Aidan O’Shea’s 52nd minute goal and in pole position to extract some revenge for 1996 and all that.
Mayo being Mayo, the script was always going to be more convoluted than that and what a twist we got. Within four minutes Meath were level and they outscored their opponents by 1-7 to 0-3 after O’Shea’s seemingly pivotal strike.
Cue knowing nods and talk of Mayo’s bruised psyche and brittle backbone. Though John O’Mahony talked about the team’s youth and inexperience in the aftermath, the fact is that Mayo cracked under interrogation. Yet again.
Their full-back line proved to be the weakest link. Meath’s full-forward line of David Bray, Brian Farrell and Cian Ward finished with 2-8 – 1-5 from play – and Joe Sheridan had four points.
It was an impressive haul for a forward unit operating without the suspended Stephen Bray. But they were well serviced by a midfield which claimed two-thirds of the first-half aerial duels.
Mayo were similarly hamstrung by the absence of one of their Twin Towers – Barry Moran with a hand injury – but Aidan Kilcoyne and O’Shea still got considerable change in the shape of 1-4 from play. That said, Mayo’s ball into the forward line was all too often delivered with a howitzer boot instead of a refined brushstroke. Meath’s full-back line bent but, unlike their counterparts at the far end, they never broke.
It was all entertaining stuff. Less than a quarter of the 33 scores came from dead balls and the tit-for-that exchanges on the scoreboard went a considerable way towards masking what was at times poor quality
When Mayo sift through the carnage, the slippy pitch or bad weather won’t mask the fact that they were beaten by the better team. That said, they will rue a handful of crucial incidents that swung the result Meath’s way.
First up was Alan Dillon’s point attempt six minutes before the break when Meath goalkeeper Paddy O’Rourke seemed to catch and carry the ball over his line before leaping forward like a man on hot coals.
More straightforward was the decision that led to Meath’s second goal after the interval, one that was crucial for its timing as much as its consequence coming as it did just 60 seconds after O’Shea’s three-pointer.
A sideline ball that should clearly have been awarded to Mayo was given the other way and Sheridan ‘s resultant kick fell to Bray who was fouled in the area by Liam O’Malley. Cue, a penalty and goal from Ward.
Meath’s first three-pointer owed something to Lady Luck as well. Sheridan ‘s rifled ‘pass’ that found Bray 20 minutes in was clearly a wayward point attempt but the Navan O’Mahony’s corner-forward accepted the gift by firing home.
Mayo’s one goal was, in fairness, a carbon copy with Trevor Mortimer assuming the role of unintended provider for O’Shea who was one of five starters called ashore by John O’Mahony in the second-half.
The Connacht side’s bench had been pinpointed as a potential game-breaker in the lead up this fixture but that proved to be just another prediction worth nothing when the time arrived to back it up.
Conor Mortimer was the only one of Mayo’s replacements to make anything like the impact desired and the import of his four points were negated somewhat by two excellent efforts from Joe Queeney.
Next up, Kerry.
Scorers for Meath: D Bray 1-3, C Ward 1-2 (0-1f, 0-1 ‘45’), J Sheridan 0-4, B Farrell 0-3, J Queeney 0-2, N Crawford 0-1.
Scorers for Mayo: C Mortimer 0-4 (2f), A O’Shea 1-1, A Kilcoyne 0-3, A Dillon 0-3f, T Mortimer 0-2, K Higgins 0-1, A Moran 0-1.
Meath subs: J Queeney for Byrne (56), P Byrne for O’Connor (67), N McKeigue for Kenny (69).
Mayo subs: C Mortimer for Parsons (35), M Ronaldson for Kilcoyne (41), L O’Malley for Vaughan (44), BJ Padden for O’Shea (64), T Parsons for Heaney (67).
Referee: J McQuillan (Cavan).