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Dillon: Mayo edging ever closer to Sam

ALAN DILLON knows all about reaching the promised land of September only to have the gates of paradise slammed in his face.

But he reckons - or at least he hopes - that 2012 can be different to what went before in '04 and '06. That it's a further step, albeit a painful one, on the stairway to All-Ireland heaven. And that's why this 30-year-old veteran has recommitted to the Mayo cause in 2013.

"We're close, that's the reality," says Dillon, speaking to the Evening Herald from the GAA /GPA All Stars tour to New York.

"That's my philosophy anyway - the goals never change really, it's to get across the line. I think the gap is getting narrower between the so-called top teams, the likes of Kerry, the Tyrones, the Dublins, the Corks. There's always optimism that we'll be there again for next year, so you just don't want to miss that boat!"

Maybe the memory of last September is still too raw, accounting for Dillon's unwitting omission of Donegal from that elite shortlist.

Then again, the example of the newly crowned All-Ireland champions surely acts as a spur to Mayo, given how both counties were starting out from similar rock-bottom scenarios when their respective managers were appointed in 2010.

The Ballintubber clubman believes there has been enough incremental progress under James Horan (reaching an All-Ireland semi-final in year one, then a final in year two) to suggest they are still on an upward curve.

"Absolutely," he affirms. "It's probably the change factor in terms of the squad. Previously, we might have had more individuals on the team . . . but there's a huge unity within the squad at the minute.

"You have to compliment James on what he's done for Mayo football. It's probably different than other years that I've played, in '06 and '04 -- we've gone off the beaten track for the next 12/24 months afterwards, whereas this year we've met already (after the All-Ireland).

"The wheels are in motion to raise the bar against next year, so there was never an option or never a thought really to walk away at this stage.

"The challenge is that we'll improve again next season and that's where we're at at the minute, but there's no guarantees either."

For all his optimistic outlook now, Dillon admits to enduring several tough weeks in the wake of his unwanted All-Ireland hat-trick. He had come into the final as a potential Footballer of the Year, having produced Man of the Match displays in the quarter and semi-finals, but never managed to reach those same heights in the shadow of his marker, Karl Lacey, who subsequently took home the player of the year plaudits.

Adding injury to insult, he was then forced off with concussion in the county final against Ballaghaderreen as Ballintubber's quest for a Mayo SFC hat-trick turned to dust.

"The month after the All-Ireland, we just scraped over Crossmolina and I was carrying a groin knock at the same time," he recalls. "It was difficult trying to get back into the club, and trying to reach that level again.

"Your body is telling you you're okay, but mentally you're fatigued. To get yourself up for the game, to get motivated, that's the hardest thing.

"For the county final itself, we were decimated with injuries. Cillian (O'Connor) was a big loss . . . and when I got the knock, I knew it was lights out at that stage.

"It's just disappointing, in the space of a month, to lose an All-Ireland and lose a county final. You ask yourself serious questions -- but you just say to yourself, 'Take a lengthy rest and recharge the batteries'."

Several days amid the bright lights of the Big Apple should help that process no end.

He reckons the arrival of a fresh voice - belonging to Horan's new coach, the well respected Donie Buckley -- can prove another tonic for the Mayo troops.

Sounds like Dillon can't wait for another year, and another shot at Sam.