Back in 2012, on the eve of the first Dublin-Mayo epic of this decade, James Horan was the guest on the Coach’s Couch, a weekly feature this sport section ran that summer.
Sitting where the likes of Liam Griffin and Sean Boylan had also made themselves cosy, the Mayo manager took off his baseball cap and shot the breeze in a manner that wouldn’t have been his custom with the media at the time, probably because it was a rare chance to talk about sports other than his own.
The best ref around? If an extra ticket fell into his lap for his favourite sports event, what sportsperson would he bring along? LeBron James — “I’d like to hear him talk about his path to becoming a champion.”
His dream coaching assistant? Pep Guardiola. The one player in any sport he’d love to coach? Brian O’Driscoll, for his willingness to do the grunt work as much as conjure moments of magic.
When asked though who he considered the most underrated sportsperson in Ireland, Horan’s reflex was to turn to someone from his own sport, his own team, his own club.
“I think Alan Dillon is completely underrated,” one son of Ballintubber said of another. “He’s the first person that comes to mind when you ask that question. He’s been one of the best half-forwards in the country for nearly 10 years now, yet you’ll hardly ever him described as that.”
The following Sunday in front of 82,500, Dillon would justify Horan’s high regard for him. With Mayo down their captain Andy Moran who had done his cruciate in the previous game, Dillon, with a man of the match performance, guided a young, unfancied team to a memorable win over the reigning All-Ireland champions, his three points from play ultimately proving to be the difference between the sides.
And yet though he’d follow that up with other stellar performances in Croke Park over subsequent seasons, Dillon would remain underrated both inside and outside his own county, right up until he announced his retirement yesterday morning.
Compare, for instance, the reverence that is held for Ciaran McDonald to any acclaim that befalls Dillon. Almost every poll picking a best XV from the last 20 years of players never or yet to win an All-Ireland invariably includes the Crossmolina man, while Dillon never features.
Even the national paper Horan writes a column for didn’t rank Dillon among the top 10 Mayo players of the last 30 years in a list they drew up this past summer: McDonald, meanwhile, was in at number one. You won’t have Second Captains craving to have Dillon on their couch. You won’t find any link on YouTube mirroring his highlight reel and speculating what if Alan Dillon had been left footed.
But ponder this: What if Alan Dillon had been left-footed? Displayed tattoos, bleached or braided the hair, or chosen to give every few championships and leagues, let alone media interviews, a miss?
Like McDonald, he was a highly stylish footballer; “probably the most stylish I played with or against”, Alan Brogan, Dillon’s former NUI Maynooth team-mate, would tweet yesterday. His capacity to swivel on a dime, then pick out a team-mate with a sublime footpass was remarkable yet rarely remarked upon. He could bomb, or, as was his trademark, curl them over from distance. And he would produce plenty of big moments in the big games, even when McDonald shone brightest.
As inspirational as McDonald was in the 2004 All-Ireland quarter-final upset of reigning champions Tyrone, a 22-year-old Dillon was righty voted man of the match, kicking an immaculate six from six on the day, three from play. While McDonald kicked the winning point in the 2006 win over Dublin, Dillon scored four points from play and again was man of the match.
The trouble for Dillon was he was no trouble. In Mayo they tend to like a bit of drama about their folk heroes: No drama, no mythology, or enigma. With Dillon, there was no drama. No ‘What if he hadn’t gone to America?’ No ‘What if he comes back?’ While McDonald only started the opening game of four championship campaigns, Dillon was there at the starting line and in the starting line-up for nine. In only five of McDonald’s 14 seasons with Mayo did he play both league and championship in the one year — for the other nine seasons, he either didn’t play the league or the championship. From the opening round of the 2004 championship in New York to the 2012 All-Ireland final against Dublin — 17 consecutive league and championship campaigns — Alan Dillon played in 96 out of a possible 103 games for Mayo. McD was the prodigal son, Dillon was the son who never left.
If the public didn’t quite appreciate the worth of a Dillon, however, James Horan did.
As he’d remark upon stepping down as Mayo manager in 2014, his goal was to “take the bullshit out of Mayo football”. Before his reign, the county was perceived as “all flash and no substance”. By the end of it, he and everyone else could see “guys with huge honesty and integrity and no little skill”. Dillon was literally the poster child to help that change “in the psyche”.
During Horan’s tenure the dressing room wall featured various photographs. A constant was the team that started the previous year’s championship opener: Come May, would you be in the picture? But it wasn’t enough to be just good enough to make the team. Good was the enemy of greatness. Were you pissed off for greatness, ready to be the best you could be and the best of Mayo? So, taking the leaf out of the book of a prominent rugby team at the time, that’s why there were other pictures on the wall: Those of individuals, to signal individual responsibility.
The first such two players and photos up on the wall were of Alan Dillon and Andy Moran, each having won a dirty ball, looking up.
The Horan era could nearly have been over before it began. In that first year they diced with relegation, only for them to squeeze a win over reigning All-Ireland champions Cork thanks to four points from play from Dillon.
In the championship opener they came within seconds of losing to London but survived, in no small part again thanks to another four points from Dillon. In March mud, April wind or August sunshine, Dillon was always there, ready to give and take the hit, win and use the ball, the good pro.
He would continue to be for several more years, with club as well as county; Dillon would succeed McDonald as the outstanding club player in the county, bringing Ballintubber from intermediate to three senior county titles, along with one of his greatest legacies, Cillian O’Connor.
Insiders fondly recall when he was a major fitness doubt before the 2013 All-Ireland quarter-final against Donegal, a game, had Mayo lost, would probably have ended the Horan reign. In the end it would be the team doctor, Sean Moffatt, who would be the one left pulling his hamstring from the fitness test, while Dillon would grit the teeth and fight on and set the tone: Two minutes into the game, he’d boot one over from range, the roar of anticipation as it curled in triggering that roar and that sense from the crowd: You know, it’s going to be Mayo’s day.
There were so many other days he’d stave off any possible execution: The four points he’d kick off Cork in the 2014 All-Ireland quarter-final; the stunning second-half comeback against Kerry in that year’s drawn All-Ireland semi-final that he’d inspire; when he was parachuted into the starting line-up against Tyrone in the 2016 All-Ireland quarter-final to stump Mickey Harte; and, then, in that year’s drawn final against Dublin, the late point he’d kick from his customary pocket, though he was injured at the time.
It would turn out to be his last great act in Croke Park. He would not get to play in the replay or in this year’s final either. The body finally couldn’t do what the heart and head yearned. And so for all the times he made you feel it was going to be Mayo’s day, he never got to know what it’s like to be Mayo’s year.
But he did everything else, which means it’s kind of nonsensical for him not to be on those best XVs never to have won an All-Ireland — no other forward candidate outside his clubmate Cillian O’Connor has illuminated so many All- Ireland quarter-finals and semi-finals. He played in an era when not a single Galway player won a single championship game in Croke Park while he rolled out of there 16 times on the winning bus on a summer’s day.
Dillon, just as is the case with McDonald, is not the best Mayo player of the last 30, 40 years. In time men like Keegan, Higgins, O’Connor, Boyle, Moran, and O’Shea will finish with a better scorecard. But for now he is the leader in the clubhouse, just as when this Mayo revolution under Horan began he was one of the leaders in the dressing room. Over the years some of them would get themselves up on that wall, just as they continue to strive to get up those steps.
They followed because Dillon led.