Sunday 22 September 2019

Roy Curtis: 'Paul Mannion and David Clifford - twin authors of wonder chasing the same imperishable prize'

Paul Mannion of Dublin in action against Brendan Harrison of Mayo during last Saturday's All-Ireland SFC semi-final match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Paul Mannion of Dublin in action against Brendan Harrison of Mayo during last Saturday's All-Ireland SFC semi-final match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Roy Curtis

One will be uniformed in blue, the other shaded green and gold, but in their capacity to make their own fantasies, Paul Mannion and David Clifford wear indistinguishable livery.

It is the suit of battle bestowed only to those who repeatedly brush against the upper rungs of sporting eminence.

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The robes of authentic genius.

If they sit on opposite sides of the All-Ireland final divide, still they are of the same, gilded tribe, the Dubliner and the Kerryman, twinned by the miraculous scale of their talents.

The brilliantly rapacious Dalkey predator, Con O'Callaghan, is, in the wake of Saturday's devastating nine-minute atomising of Mayo, the legitimate fancy of the odds-makers to be crowned as Footballer of the Year.

Clifford and Mannion are next in line, a September 1 of fantasy away from seizing the title deeds to summer.

One's season echoes the other as flawlessly as a face reflected through a hand glass; the flightpath of their year, like those missiles they torpedo on such unerring, elegant and murderous arcs, breathtaking in its ambition.

Both have scored 22 points in the 2019 championship. If Mannion sent audible gasps of wonder around the old church with his audacious point-taking on Saturday, Clifford filled the arena with the same delirious disbelief a day later.

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Both scored five points, nine of those from play. Tyrone and Mayo were broken on the wheel of their artistry. The fate of Sam Maguire is tangled up in their ability to again touch perfection and then, somehow, soar ever higher.

Mannion, at 26, is the elder by six years, the only forward selected to both the last two Allstar teams.

If his left-foot consists of muscle, tendon and ligament, it has the enchanting powers of a sorcerer’s wand.

The sheer ambition of at least three of the scored he delivered on Saturday evoked the awe-struck works of the late David Foster Wallace describing the religious experience of watching Roger Federer on a tennis court.

"There are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you're OK."

If Mannion was exiled onto Clonliffe Road on Saturday, blindfolded and compelled to wear a jester's oversized shoes it still would not have shook his conviction that his next cannonade would soar in over the Hill 16 terrace on killing trajectory, depositing its deadly payload between the Mayo posts.

David Clifford of Kerry celebrates scoring a late point during the All-Ireland SFC semi-final win over Tyrone at Croke Park last Sunday. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
David Clifford of Kerry celebrates scoring a late point during the All-Ireland SFC semi-final win over Tyrone at Croke Park last Sunday. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

He boasts bulging power, yet even when screeching toward goal with the urgency of a getaway car blazing away from the scene of a crime, he somehow retains the balletic elegance of a rope-dancer, a high-wire Nijinsky.

That he is tireless in tracking back, arguably the best pure tackler on this team for the ages (imagine Mo Salah also defending like Virgil van Dijk), speaks of his inestimable value to Dublin.

Clifford evokes another line from Foster Wallace's ode to Federer, the one where he remarks that "a top athlete's beauty is next to impossible to describe directly."

He does most things with natural born grace, yet watching him make magic beneath that great quiff of hair, he seems better than that again, blessed with those intangible, imperious qualities that separate the very best from the rest of the field.

Precocious, a Kingdom Mozart, composing symphonies since childhood, the Fossa phenomenon was signposted for greatness almost as early as he took his first steps.

Scorer of 4-4 in a minor All-Ireland final, Kerry's great white hope to lead a resurgence, an Allstar at 19, he appears unflappable while carrying the heaviest burden of hope, one others might find crippling.

Clifford, though, is a resident of his own bubble of calm, armed with the certainty that is gifted to the chosen few.

His talents are otherworldly: Able to whip points off either foot with magisterial ease or thread the eye of a needle with a game-breaking assist, he is the custodian, at just 20, of both a fully-formed don’t-mess-with-me physique and a beyond his years football intelligence.

The baton that was handed down by Mikey Sheehy to Maurice Fitzgerald and onwards to Colm Cooper has found a new caretaker.

The fashion in which he took a flailing Kerry on his shoulders last summer in his freshman year spoke of a player on the bullet train to high achievement.

Clifford can drift in an out of a contest as he did against Tyrone, yet, in a flash, seize it and make it his.

Each was rampant against Mayo as Dublin and Kerry each inflicted ten point punishment, poor Brendan Harrison twice left with twisted blood.

If it is the fashion is to construct a narrative around rivalries that can define and decide a sporting contest, then Mannion v Clifford offers a seductively heavyweight All-Ireland head to head.

Twin authors of wonder chasing the same imperishable prize.

Brothers, even if their uniforms are cast in different shades.

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