'I came in and got sick in the sinks of Croke Park' - Paul Mannion
Published 18/10/2016 | 02:30
Getting sick into a Croke Park sink at half-time of Dublin's league clash with Kerry in January told Paul Mannion everything he needed to know about what it would take to get back to the required standard.
Just six months previously, Mannion had been immersing himself in Chinese culture, learning to read and write Mandarin as he spent nine months with a dozen college friends in Beijing and Wuhan as part of his Commerce International with Chinese degree.
Football was the last thing on his mind while abroad, but after a summer with McBrides in Chicago and watching the 2015 All-Ireland final win from Hill 16, he was invigorated to don the sky blue once again.
The new year brought a new pep in his step and an eagerness to prove his worth. It was only natural that the classy Kilmacud Crokes attacker would encounter some turbulence on his Dublin return, however.
Even without taking into account his one-year hiatus, the demanding winter slog can break the best and the 23-year-old admits to having doubts about whether he could condition himself for championship football again.
And what if his place was no longer there? Rather than deter him, it fostered "extra determination" to make an impact for the Dubs, but his journey wasn't without a few rocky, and sometimes nauseous, moments.
"It was tough, January and February were tough months. I remember the first league game of the year. The first half I was absolutely knackered at half-time, I came in and got sick in the sinks at Croke Park," says Mannion.
"It raised eyebrows a little bit. It took a long time to get back up to that level. I came in at the start of the year and all of the rest of the lads were pushing hard in the gym, doing runs, I was falling behind a bit so I said I need to pull my socks up a bit here.
"It never happened me before, even after the hardest training sessions I've ever done in my life, long runs and sprints, that never happened me. I knew after coming back from the year I had I wasn't in the best of shape. so it wasn't really surprising."
While slightly unnerving, it didn't worry him and an injury picked up early in UCD's Sigerson Cup win over DCU worked in his favour and allowed him to play catch up.
With summer rolling around, final-year exams halted his gallop and Mannion wasn't at his best when an 11th-hour replacement against Laois but by mid-July, he feels he was in the "best condition" of his life.
With all in flying form around him during another Leinster procession, chances were minimal but Mannion was at his deadly best off the bench in the All-Ireland quarter-final with a scintillating individual goal to finish off Donegal.
Despite breaking onto the scene in 2013 as a speedy corner-forward, his role was much deeper this year but he had to settle for second-half substitute appearances against Kerry and Mayo (drawn final) before declaring his rude health to Jim Gavin when sensing change was imminent in the replay build-up.
"Just a couple of days before. I had an idea. I spoke to Jim and said 'I feel ready and I feel I'm flying, and if you're thinking of making any changes I'm confident and up for the challenge'. . . and a couple of days before it he gave me the nod," he says.
"I just initiated it myself. As it turned out, I didn't have as good a game, or near as good a game as I thought I was capable of. I felt so confident that I probably worked myself up a bit too much really. I just felt really, really confident.
"Earlier on in the year I actually said to him, 'Try me out at half-forward or centre-forward'. I was doing well running at players. I think that's why the manager liked me at half-forward. It's a completely different game to corner-forward.
"I'd say most of the game I was at wing-forward and I remember Jason Sherlock running in, 'Paul, you have to get up the pitch'. I tracked back and he was shouting at me to get back up.
"It was tough work but it's a savage intensity. The physicality of it as well. We all came out with a few bruises. It's an All-Ireland final, when you've got that much on the line that's what you'd expect."
All things are difficult before they're easy, and Paul Mannion is proof of the power of perseverance.