Derry O’Connor had a Championship debut to remember as he helped Limerick earn a 1-21 to 1-15 extra-time win over Longford at Pearse Park.
The Limerick Under-21 captain weighed in with 1-2, coming off the bench to send this enthralling All-Ireland SFC qualifier to extra-time and then firing home the winning goal in the dying seconds.
Niall Mulligan’s timely goal had nudged Longford into a 1-05 to 0-07 half-time lead but tension gripped the hosts and despite some quality scores from Francis McGee and Sean McCormack, they could not shake off the Shannonsiders.
Maurice Horan’s men were more assured in possession and made crucial strides in the first period of extra-time when O’Connor and fellow substitute Iain Corbett pointed them ahead.
McCormack pared the gap back to 0-20 to 1-15 but that was after Longford defender Declan Reilly saw red for his second bookable offence.
A stray arm from substitute David Barden soon led to him being dismissed. With 13-man Longford on the brink, Limerick went for the jugular and O’Connor’s goal, on the back of a Corbett point, sealed their progress.
This was a game full of honest endeavour and Limerick produced a gutsy performance to get themselves back on the Championship radar after their provincial exit.
Jim Donovan and Sean Buckley were paired together in the Limerick midfield for the first time this year, with Stephen Lucey solidifying the defence at centre back.
Longford were forced into a late change as Francis McGee was promoted to the half forward line in place of David Barden.
McGee and Sean McCormack, the star turn in that confidence boosting defeat of Derry, were fed early ball as Longford used their wind advantage intelligently - the product of which was a Paul Barden point.
Limerick were level in the sixth minute, Ian Ryan cleverly playing a free short for the unmarked Buckley to score and expose some poor defending.
Neither side could find top gear in a pockmarked opening quarter, but Longford showed signs of their good recent form with McGee getting loose for their second point.
Another rapid attack created an opening for Barden but Bernard McElvaney’s pass had too much on it and Limerick goalkeeper Brian Scanlon was able to snuff out the chance.
The tempo was lifted by surefooted scores from McCormack and Stephen Kelly, the busy Limerick centre forward who profited from a Buckley pass.
Worryingly for Glenn Ryan’s charges, their shooting was mostly of the wayward variety and by the midpoint of the half they had struck six wides.
Lucey, who gradually quelled the influence of Barden, drove forward to square things up at 0-03 apiece. Limerick’s patient, methodical build-up play gained them further reward when Ian Ryan landed a free to give them the lead in the 26th minute.
In between wides from Michael Quinn and John Keegan, the fired-up Shannonsiders stretched two points clear with Scanlon successful from a 45.
The visitors were really on a roll now and precise passing and good running off the ball set up Eoghan O’Connor for their sixth point of the afternoon.
But a lapse in concentration sparked a storming finish to the first half from Longford.
McGee picked out Mulligan with a brilliant cross-field ball, sending him through on goal and he netted decisively after Scanlon had half-blocked the initial shot.
Scanlon then rushed his kick-out and McGee managed to tag on an immediate point, moving the home side into a 1-04 to 0-06 lead. Ryan and McCormack swapped further points as Longford headed for the dressing rooms with a one-point buffer.
It was nip and tuck at the start of the second period, the scoreless spell being broken by a left-footed drive from Eoghan O’Connor as Limerick got back on terms again at 0-08 to 1-05.
Most of the 3,622-strong crowd roared their approval as McCormack quickly cancelled out that score, and Longford used the momentum to set up McGee’s third point from play.
With danger man Ryan drawing the defenders, Buckley had enough space to snap back a point form Limerick but McGee soon reopened that two-point gap.
Ryan showed his ability again as he got onto a delivery from Kelly and forced Damien Sheridan into a save, with the ball deflecting off defender Barry Gilleran’s shoulder and going over for Limerick’s 10th point.
Mulligan powered forward to create a first point for influential Longford substitute David Barden. The Barden brothers turned providers for a fisted effort from McCormack, which moved Longford three clear at 1-10 to 0-10.
Substitute Iain Corbett pointed with his first possession to keep Limerick very much in contention, although Longford were carrying more of a threat now and Paul Barden blazed over with a goal on his mind.
Scanlon did superbly to foil McGee as Longford pressed for that second goal and Limerick burst downfield as the intensity increased again, their reward being a Johnny McCarthy point.
Ryan rattled off a free for Limerick’s second point in a row, reducing the arrears to 1-11 to 0-13 with just five minutes remaining.
Longford were wobbling and substitute Mike Sheehan coolly slotted the levelling score, leading to Limerick boss Horan showing his delight on the sideline.
Longford showed some grit of them own, breaking forward after a Brian Kavanagh wide to set up McCormack for the lead point three minutes into the injury-time.
But Derry O’Connor forced extra-time at 0-15 to 1-12, lobbing between the posts after his first effort had been blocked.
The Fr Casey’s clubman edged Limerick ahead two minutes into extra-time, using the wind to split the posts, and tireless midfielder Buckley teed up Eoghan O’Connor shortly afterwards for a 0-17 to 1-12 scoreline.
Longford were lagging now and their only response in the first period of extra-time was a solitary free from McCormack. Limerick pushed on with John Riordan’s run leading to a Corbett point and Ryan tagged on a late free.
Ryan was free for a possible goal chance early in the second period, however Seamus O’Carroll opted to take his point instead and extend the advantage to 0-20 to 1-13.
Longford’s Championship hopes were hanging by a thread when Reilly picked up his second yellow card.
A brace of frees from top scorer McCormack gave them a brief lifeline, but young guns Corbett and O’Connor quickly slammed the door shut as Limerick progressed.
Longford: S McCormack 0-08 (0-04f), F McGee 0-04, N Mulligan 1-00, P Barden 0-02, D Barden 0-01
Limerick: D O’Connor 1-02, I Ryan 0-05 (0-03f), E O’Connor, I Corbett 0-03 each, S Buckley 0-02, S Kelly, S Lucey, B Scanlon (0-01 ‘45’), J McCarthy, M Sheehan, S O’Carroll 0-01 each
Longford Team: Damien Sheridan; Dermot Brady, Barry Gilleran, Declan Reilly; Colm P Smyth, Michael Quinn, Shane Mulligan; Bernard McElvaney, John Keegan; Francis McGee, Paul Barden, Niall Mulligan; Donal McElligott, Brian Kavanagh, Sean McCormack.
Subs used: Padraig McCormack for McElligott, David Barden for Keegan (both half-time), Peter Foy for McElvaney (60 mins), Noel Farrell for Smyth (70), JJ Matthews for Kavanagh (79), McElvaney for Mulligan (85).
Limerick Team: Brian Scanlon; Andrew Lane, Johnny McCarthy, Lorcan O’Dwyer; John Riordan, Stephen Lucey, Pa Ranahan; Jim Donovan, Sean Buckley; Eoghan O’Connor, Stephen Kelly, Paudie Browne; Ger Collins, Seamus O’Carroll, Ian Ryan.
Subs used: Mike Sheehan for Lane (40 mins), Iain Corbett for O’Dwyer (54), Damien Quaid for Lucey (65), Bobby O’Brien for Donovan (67), Derry O’Connor for Kelly (69), Eoin Barry for O’Meara (77).
Referee: Padraig Hughes (Armagh)