Mannion shining brightest of Dubs' young guns
KERRY boss Eamonn Fitzmaurice has already promised to send him a Christmas card for saving the Kingdom's Division 1 bacon in Ballybofey, and he has top-scored for Dublin in their past three games to help them reach the league final.
That may sound like 'Roy of the Rovers' stuff for a 19-year-old, but it's doubtful that Paul Mannion dreamt that his first year in a Dublin senior jersey was going to turn out this well when he ended up in Beaumont Hospital on February 2.
That was the night of Dublin's league opener against Cork in Croke Park – a game which was held up for six minutes before half-time while Mannion was treated for a head injury and carted off.
Thankfully it was only concussion, but the Kilmacud Crokes star was still forced to take a fortnight's break, and the combination of that and his county U-21 commitment mean that it is only in recent weeks that he has come to real prominence, scoring 1-4 (0-1f), 0-6 (5fs) and 0-5 (3fs) in the Dubs' past three outings.
He has benefited from the opportunity thrown up by the injury to Bernard Brogan and another young Dub whose burgeoning career has mirrored his own. Back in 2011, Ciaran Kilkenny and Mannion were key men on the Dublin minor football team coached by Dessie Farrell which was heartbroken to lose a dramatic All- Ireland final to Tipperary.
Kilkenny – equally adept at hurling and on the team that also reached that September's All-Ireland minor final – lined out at centre-forward and Mannion was inside him at No 14.
In Kilmacud, the stylish left-footer and consummate free-taker had long been recognised as a rising talent and helped local school St Benildus to a Leinster SFC 'A' title in 2010.
A year later, Mannion was showcasing his talents in another code as he was the flying winger who scored one goal and set up another when Benildus won the Leinster schools' soccer title.
His soccer talent also saw him capped by the Irish schools' team in 2011. But it wasn't until last year that he got to taste All-Ireland success when he, like Kilkenny, was part of the Dublin U-21 team that beat Roscommon in a marvellously exciting final.
The game was already decided when he came on to bag a goal in the dying minutes and that was just the start of his brilliant season as Mannion repeatedly pulled out big scores – and goals – to help Kilmacud to the Dublin senior final, where they were narrowly pipped by Ballymun.
After the league opener he did not line out again for Dublin until round four, when he replaced Philly Ryan against Tyrone in the game in which Kilkenny picked up that medial ligament injury.
But Jim Gavin's selection of Mannion and his 2012 U-21 team-mates Jack McCaffrey and Emmet O Conghaile that first day out indicated their former U-21 manager's huge confidence in them. And the debut given to Ballymun Kickhams' Jason Whelan last Sunday – which he rewarded with an audacious goal – indicates another rookie is ready to step up.
Kilmacud manager Hugh Kenny had no qualms about giving Mannion his senior debut with the club last year.
"We introduced him gently, took him off in his first few games, and our older players would have been minding him early on," the former Wicklow star explained.
"But Paul is the kind of young lad that you can explain that to and he understands. The really great thing about him is that he has both feet firmly on the ground and is willing to listen and to learn from what you tell him.
"People should realise that he is still quite green and has a lot to learn, but Jim (Gavin) knows him well from the U-21s and I'd imagine he will manage how he uses him very carefully."
Dublin's next outing will be a challenge match against Galway at Round Towers on Saturday (7.0) to mark the official opening of new facilities at Gavin's home club in Clondalkin.
With a forthcoming league final against Tyrone – the only side to beat Dublin – you would expect them to field a second string, but Gavin has indicated that places will be on offer.
Few managers have the depth of choice to be able to throw down such a gauntlet but, after three years in which they have won one All-Ireland senior title and two All-Ireland U-21s, that is the pool into which Gavin can dip.
Last year's minors also won an All-Ireland and provided many of this year's U-21 team, of which Kilkenny and Mannion were also part, and their shock defeat by Longford in the Leinster final has probably only sharpened their ambitions.