HE IS Westmeath's premier footballer of the modern era, but, for a while it looked as if his Championship swansong would be a low-profile, downbeat day in Belfast.
That was June 2011; a first round qualifier ending in six-point defeat by Antrim, with a hamstrung Dessie Dolan confined to a 20-minute cameo off the bench.
Last season, the 2004 All Star opted not to rejoin the county squad after a marathon club campaign with Garrycastle. And so it appeared that Casement Park – the scene of his National League debut in November 1998 – would also constitute the last hurrah for Westmeath's perennial talisman ...
Not so. This Saturday night, Dolan is back on the HQ stage where he has enjoyed many of his greatest hours and most gut-wrenching days too. Championship D-Day against Dublin; enough to make the heart pound a little faster in hope, anticipation and fear, all at the one time.
"To be honest, any opportunity you get to play in Croke Park is just a treat. But to play the Dubs in Croke Park – there is nothing like it," he enthuses, in conversation with the Herald.
"I can't imagine any sport (being like it) because generally, if you've a Champions League final, it's 30,000 this and 30,000 that. Westmeath might have 5,000 people if they were very, very, very lucky. There'll be 65,000 maybe at the game. So we're going to get totally and utterly annihilated in terms of support."
The private fear for Westmeath fans, whatever about their young, upwardly mobile team, is that on-field annihilation could materialise.
Dolan has lived the Dublin experience from both sides of the triumph/disaster divide and several times during our interview, stresses the pressing requirement for a good start and the prevention of that steamrolling Sky Blue trait, getting a "run on you" because when that happens, Croke Park can be "the worst place to be".
But, before focusing on Dublin, this maroon veteran of three different decades is keen to set the record straight on why he opted out last summer, having concentrated on his club right up to an All-Ireland final replay against Crossmaglen on the last day of March.
Garrycastle had been on the road for 15 months. His wife Kelly was pregnant with their first child (Nathan, born in January). He had friends in the States from a previous trip in 2003 and had always wanted to go back, but football invariably got in the way. In short, he needed a break.
"Coming to the end of my career, I just thought it was an opportunity to go away and spend some time with my wife," he explains.
"It's hard for people to get their head around it – you're trying to have a bit of a life. When you get over 30, it's important; other things are a factor. We just found out my wife was expecting, and we said, 'You know what we'll do, we'll go away and spend some time and just have a bit of time to ourselves'."
It almost feels like "you should apologise" for going away, he muses. But was it always his intention to come back this season?
"I was never just going to leave Westmeath in that situation – that was never an option," he confirms. "As soon as Pat Flanagan rang and said he wanted me to play again, I just said straight away that there's no problem, I'd like to come back in and give it another year. I felt that I've given a lot to Westmeath, but also I've got a lot back from the supporters."
The one thing he didn't want was people wondering "was I rowing with someone or had I a huff about something?"
He never did. Dolan will turn 34 in July. A non-drinker and non-smoker, he feels in "pretty good nick" notwithstanding an ongoing battle to mind his troublesome hamstrings. He professes huge admiration for the even older likes of Tomas ó Sé and Johnny Doyle, saying he would love to pick up the phone and ask them: "Lads, is it just normal that you suffer for two or three days after games?" Because the demands of inter-county football are increasing all the time.
But walking away won't be easy, either. His original intention was to return for just one season; then Westmeath bucked expectations to seal top-flight promotion. The prospect of Division 1 games against the big guns, maybe up in Croke Park too, is "very appealing" – a decision can wait until he sees how summer pans out.
In that context, Saturday night will be illuminating. Having started the first round against Carlow and scored five points from play, it appears that his spring role – that of marquee impact sub – has been jettisoned.
"Well, I was never overly happy!" he protests when asked if he relished the role. "Because I was never a sub in my life. Now, it worked out grand and I was coming back from an injury and we got through it well, but I was always thinking Championship and getting into that first 15. And I think I've worked hard to get in there."
Back in time for the Dubs.