Sport Gaelic Football

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Last of the marquee men still pitching up for Sam

Christy O'Connor

Published 14/06/2013 | 05:00

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Alan Dillon said the only way he could get peace of mind was to win an All-Ireland. He was also the man to suggest Mayo warm up in front of Hill 16 before the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin
He was also the man to suggest Mayo warm up in front of Hill 16 before the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin
He was also the man to suggest Mayo warm up in front of Hill 16 before the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin

As soon as Andy Moran began warming up in Pearse Stadium last month, the Mayo crowd started clearing their throats. When Moran finally made his entrance after a 10-month injury lay-off, the cheer was the highest note from a Mayo chorus that had been singing loudly all afternoon.

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As soon as Andy Moran began warming up in Pearse Stadium last month, the Mayo crowd started clearing their throats. When Moran finally made his entrance after a 10-month injury lay-off, the cheer was the highest note from a Mayo chorus that had been singing loudly all afternoon.

Moran deserved every decibel. It was his day but four minutes earlier, there was a roar of appreciation almost as loud when Alan Dillon was taken off. Similar to Moran, it was an acknowledgement of Dillon's huge status within the county.

Equally, it was an appreciation of what Dillon had done to get there. Injury had ravaged his preparations but he set the tone when kicking the opening point. Mayo went on a scoring rampage but they have often taken their lead from Dillon.

He was a doubt before that match but Dillon was also a serious injury concern on the morning of last year's All-Ireland semi-final and he went on to deliver an outstanding performance, kicking three crucial points from play. It carried echoes of his brilliant display against Dublin at the same stage in 2006 when he scored four points from play and was centrally involved in the creation of three more.

CONTENDER

After both of those semi-finals in 2006 and 2012, Dillon went in to the All-Ireland final as a leading contender for Footballer of the Year. Defeat blew every aspiration and ambition to pieces. Dillon did win All Stars in both seasons but poor personal displays in those finals devalued the full extent of his contribution.

Joe Brolly went even further after last year's final. He took a blowtorch to Dillon's reputation. "On 'The Sunday Game', when Kevin McStay gravely announced Alan Dillon wing-forward on the team of the year, I nearly choked," wrote Brolly.

"Alan – a hair's breadth from Conor Mortimer – sums up the problem with Mayo football. Lacking real conviction, he goes well when the team goes well. He is, if you like, a classic Mayo forward. This was his third catastrophic All-Ireland final."

It was a completely unfair and unbalanced assessment. All-Ireland finals can tend to define reputations but Dillon kicked 1-2 in a gutsy personal performance in the 2004 final when, similar to 2006, Mayo were completely overrun by Kerry.

Plenty of players have underperformed in All-Ireland finals but an All-Ireland medal grants a dispensation that is never afforded to someone who doesn't have one. Dillon is an extremely unheralded player outside Mayo but he now fits that classic, but skewed and shallow, genre that Brian Dooher was classed in before he won his All-Ireland.

Dillon was a stonewall All Star last year. He may have struggled in two All-Ireland finals, but did he lack "conviction" in those two huge All-Ireland semi-finals against Dublin? To say that Dillon "goes well when the team goes well" is also totally false.

You could almost reverse Brolly's argument because Mayo go well when Dillon goes well. His absence in this year's league saw them flirt with relegation. He has consistently produced it, often when Mayo's backs have been to the wall.

Some of those performances often only registered as footnotes on the back of disappointing Mayo defeats. Dillon completely took the fight to Tyrone in their 2008 one-point qualifier defeat. In that year's Connacht final against Galway, he almost single-handedly rescued the game when kicking nearly half Mayo's scoring total. And that was in just one season.

Part of the reason Dillon doesn't have a higher profile is because he isn't seen as a prolific finisher and has been largely typecast as a modern wing-forward, linking defence to attack. Yet he is a cerebral player with the ability to hit the killer pass. It is no surprise that Trevor Giles, along with Maurice Fitzgerald, were his heroes growing up.

Early in his career, he was clearly operating in the shadow of Ciaran McDonald but flashes of Dillon's creative ability were always evident. One of his greatest performances was the 2004 All-Ireland quarter-final win over Tyrone, when Dillon scored six points.

His hard work and creativity often masks his scoring potential. In his last five championship matches, Dillon has taken 13 shots at the target from play and scored from 11. One of those misses hit the post but Mayo still got a point from the rebound.

Dillon's potential was marked out from an early age but soccer was a part of his formative years. He joined Galway United at U-16 and youths level but he was only ever going to follow one path.

His father Gerry made a name for himself as a hard corner-back with Ballintubber, while his brother Gary featured alongside him on the 1999 Mayo minor team. Dillon played on the Mayo minor teams that reached consecutive All-Ireland finals in 1999 and 2000. He was good enough to play with the U-21s for four seasons.

He always wanted, and demanded, the highest standards. He has never been afraid to put his neck on the line either. It could be argued that the chaos which ensued before the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final, when Mayo opted to warm up at the Hill 16 end, was triggered by Dillon.

At the team hotel the previous evening, he suggested the move to team captain David Heaney. Dillon wanted to practise his freetaking into the Hill 16 end beforehand but he also felt it would issue a statement of Mayo's brazen intent. When Heaney put the suggestion to the group, it was unanimously agreed.

The risk of it backfiring placed a silent pressure on Dillon but his cast-iron belief was replicated in his performance. Suggesting something so radical and risky was never an issue for Dillon. He has never been slow to air his thoughts if he feels it is for his team's benefit. After Mayo lost to Longford in the 2010 championship, Dillon didn't hold back. In his opinion, players were more focused on themselves than the team.

The arrival of James Horan got everyone working harder together. As clubmates, Horan and Dillon always had a special relationship. Horan led the Ballintubber revolution when guiding them from intermediate to senior champions in three years but Dillon was his chief general on that crusade.

It was the club's first senior county title and they retained it a year later. That winning culture was primarily cultivated by Dillon. Last year, he picked up his seventh consecutive 'Mayo News' Club All Star award. His professionalism has also had an immense influence on his younger club and county team-mate, Cillian O'Connor.

Outside of football, Dillon is a quiet and reserved character. His music tastes range from David Guetta to Florence And The Machine. His preferred method of relaxation is surfing on the beaches in Louisburgh and Achill Island.

Yet there is only one way Dillon will ever truly relax. "The only way I'll get peace of mind," he said in 2006, "is to win an All-Ireland."

From the top-six All-Ireland contenders, there are only a handful of marquee players who have been playing now for as long as Dillon; Tomas and Marc O Se, Colm Cooper, Declan O'Sullivan, Stephen O'Neill, Sean Cavanagh, Graham Canty, Alan Brogan and Stephen Cluxton.

Yet all of those players have All-Ireland medals. And no one deserves one more than Dillon.

Irish Independent

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