Saturday 24 March 2018

Mannion taking it all in his stride

Dazzling young Dub has world at his feet but debut-season heroics have not given him 'airs and graces'

Paul Mannion celebrates after scoring against Mayo in the NFL semi-final at Croke Park
Paul Mannion celebrates after scoring against Mayo in the NFL semi-final at Croke Park
Paul Mannion is taking it all in his stride
David Kelly

David Kelly

A SATURDAY morning in April. The figure in the plain grey Crokes hoodie peeks assuringly from within its fleece. Almost a man but, for sure, no longer a boy.

The figure in the plain grey Crokes hoodie speaks reassuringly from within its fleece. "That's it," he invokes endearingly. "Same again."

We are in Oatlands Primary School, Stillorgan for a Kilmacud Crokes U-8 blitz against a clutch of south city rivals.

Nineteen-year-old Paul Mannion maintains an unobtrusive presence on the sidelines, anonymous amongst the over-eager fathers.

Other thoughts occupy Mannion on this Saturday morning. But nothing else would occupy his presence when asked to give his club a dig-out.

"Nothing is a chore for him," says one of the Crokes mentors. "He'll bend over backwards to help the club in a blitz. His feet are grounded. What you see is what you get. There are no airs and graces about him.

"If you wanted him to come down to senior training, even when we've no matches, a lot of fellas might say 'ah no, I'm with the Dubs now, I've no time, I'm tired'. Paul would always come down, if only to stand on the sidelines and say a few things."

A SUNDAY afternoon in April. Croke Park may be a world away from Oatlands but it is just grass beneath his feet all the same. Everyone we spoke to says the same thing about Paul Mannion: "That fella has his feet on the ground."

The figure in the Sky Blue jersey has just kicked his third point from play in an hour to tauten Dublin's grip on the league final against Mayo.

Anonymity is nigh on impossible now.

Many of the 25,000 or so are still reeling from Mannion's improbable opening goal, which combines the theft of the Artful Dodger, the hip swivel of Elvis and the pace of Usain Bolt. Crucially, the ingredients are topped off with a magically calm, Gooch-esque finish.

When Dublin's All-Ireland winning captain Bryan Cullen and their winning goal-scorer Kevin McManamon arrive from the bench, it is notable that when they combine before the Hill late in the piece, they are looking for just one man. It is not Bernard Brogan. Instead, Mannion is the go-to man.

Already a clear favourite for Young Footballer of the Year – he had a decent shout based on league displays alone – the former underage soccer star is symbolic of Jim Gavin's enigmatic, joyously liberated Dublin side, a youthful ally as an enemy of system and cynicism. And this is not merely the view from the Hill.

Ray Cosgrove, another whose comet-like scoring streak lit up blue skies a decade ago, has played with and now, in his role as a club selector, managed the prodigious talent.

"Without a shadow of a doubt he's the best young lad to come out of Kilmacud in the last 20 years," says Cosgrove, at once dismissing himself, Mark Davoren, Mark Vaughan ...

"A lot of class players have come through here in the last 20 years. But he's top of the pile. Talent-wise and ability-wise, he's the best I've seen."

HIS JOURNEY has not always matched that strident, determined march for goal that marks him out as one of the most lethal forwards in the game.

Last year, the current Dublin manager was so burdened by talent in his U-21 class that Mannion was deemed surplus to requirements, with the similarly striking figure of Paul Hudson from Thomas Davis and a certain Ciaran Kilkenny elbowing him out.

He had just started international commerce in UCD – with over 500 points in the Leaving, he has brains to burn – and was keen to settle in.

Those close to him reckon he made the decision to withdraw from the panel for a time, in order to concentrate on the start of Crokes' busy twin league promotion charge and county championship march.

Then Sean Cox, who would this year lead DIT to a historic Sigerson, saw Mannion shooting the lights out in a challenge game behind closed doors. He made a call.

"Jim, I think you need to come back and have another look at this fella ... "

It was fitting that Mannion's signature goalscoring ability cemented the Dubs' late charge to the final that May, when he emerged from the bench to score a decisive late strike against Roscommon U-21s..

Gavin wouldn't make the same mistake again.

IN ST Benildus secondary school, some reckon the free-scoring left-winger was a better soccer player than a Gaelic footballer, despite his prowess with the Dublin minors.

"I've known him since he was a baby," says Dave Archbold, who capped him twice for Ireland Schools in 2011. A Lakelands graduate, Mannion's dad Tommy would move him on to Belvedere and Home Farm as a teenager.

"I know that Martin Russell (current UCD manager) would love to have him," says Archbold, "but that was before Brian Mullins and Dave Billings got a hold of him!"

Mannion had won medals at both sports in school and for his soccer coach, Oisin MacEoin, it is little surprise that his skills have transferred across the codes.

"He was such a good reader of the game that he saw things half a second before other players," assesses MacEoin. "Even watching him with Dublin, you think sometimes 'Jesus, he's going to get battered here', but he just moves so quickly, he seems to be able to look after himself.

"Certainly on the soccer field, he was well able to take care of himself and well used to taking the hits.

"Because he was so skilful, lads were always trying to chop him down. But he just rode the tackles and got on with it. He's that type of guy."

Lacking obvious muscularity, Mannion deploys a low centre of gravity to wriggle free of markers and blistering pace to leave them behind; his runs are economic and not showy.

And, if the ball is dirty, he can demonstrate no little bravery to put himself where it hurts; as he did during Dublin's league campaign when he received a nasty jaw injury against Cork, or against Tyrone in the league final when he won scrappy high ball.

"He'll pivot on a sixpence," says Cosgrove. "He won't just take the easy point. He'll go for the black spot too. He's not afraid to pull the trigger. That's key. And he's only 19 so he hasn't developed physically. He'll put on more weight. But he's a wiry fella, he wouldn't shirk a tackle.

"Give him the ball any way and he'll fight for it. He's not your stereotype knicky-knacky corner-forward. He'll scrap for the ball."

Friends and team-mates alike are almost scripted in their descriptions of him – "modest", "hard-working", "excellent attitude". The tributes are too coincidental to be contrived.

"He'll do whatever needs to be done to get to the top of the game and be the best that he can," says Cosgrove. "He'll listen to you. Tell some guys to XYZ and they'll just as soon do ABC. Not Paul."

Yet MacEoin also recalls that by the time he got to sixth year, he was able to trust Mannion enough to give him virtually a free role in the team – he even took the free-kicks.

Nothing appears to faze him and, though he doesn't seek the spotlight, he won't actively avoid it either.

Mannion was down in Brittas Bay a few weeks back but blended in with the summer crowd. He'll have a few drinks, according to college mates, but in moderation. He is at once shy but confident.

"What you see is what you get," says Cosgrove. "There are no airs and graces about him." The future now lies at his dancing feet.

"I remember him scoring 10 points against Bray Emmets last summer and wondering what this guy could achieve," muses Cosgrove. "He can be a fixture for the next 10 years."

A man, to be sure, for many seasons.

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