Alan Dillon: Bring our people home

‘Our county is nothing without its people within it.’ Having toiled for 16 years to bring Mayo football within sight of the summit, Alan Dillon wants to move mountains to keep the Mayo brotherhood within the county bounds.

Alan Dillon: Bring our people home

Just when you thought he was out, they’ve pulled him back in.

Last Monday, only three months after he announced the end of a 15-year senior inter-county career, Alan Dillon was co-opted onto the Mayo GAA games and coaching committee.

Coaching officer Liam Moffatt wanted a few respected former players involved so when it came to helping out something that has essentially been family, it was an offer Dillon couldn’t refuse.

He’s already shared plenty of cuppas and ideas with Moffatt about how Mayo can remain competitive when more and more of this remarkable golden — well, silver — generation part from the stage.

How there should be regular workshops with academy players and coaches around the county to help raise awareness of how they can improve their weaknesses and build on their strengths. That they come to appreciate there’s more to football than just football — there’s time management, mindset, eating, and recovering properly.

They’ve spoken about how the county junior team should be used more as a development squad, like Kerry do; too many good U21 players who weren’t quite ready at 22 for a senior squad primed for September have slipped through the net for good.

How revered stars of yesterday like Ciaran McDonald, David Heaney, and Trevor Mortimer can mentor the potential stars of tomorrow. That the county has to fully tap into the cracking new sports facilities being developed on the Mayo GMIT campus in Castlebar.

And crucially, that Mayo prospects are aware of the courses such a college and others in the Connacht region offer.

“Lads coming out of schools, where are they looking to go to college? Especially if they’re likely to be getting involved with Mayo. But if a fella is looking to do, say, a science or commerce degree in Dublin, they could be made aware that there’s an alternative course to that in Galway.”

There have always been Mayo players studying or working in Dublin; back when Dillon started out in 2003, playing alongside Moffatt, he was studying in Maynooth himself, where James Nallen worked and would ferry him either into Belfield on a Tuesday night for a split session or back home to the rest of the group at the weekend.

But there was only a handful of them up there. The furthest anyone else was away from home was Athlone — and even then the likes of Trevor Mortimer and James Gill were expected to make training back home.

“Nowadays,” Dillon says, “it’s completely changed. The amount of lads we have studying and working in Dublin is absolutely frightening.”

A recent Irish Times survey showed that up to 18 of the current squad fall into that category. Dillon looks enviously — and admirably — at how Kerry tend to keep their players working and studying in Munster — Cork, Limerick, all just 90 minutes away. A Tyrone player based in Belfast is just 75 minutes away from Garvaghey. Good road most of the way.

Castlebar to Lucan is two-and-a-half hours. By the time you get back to wherever it is you’re living in the city, it’s past midnight and you’ve been on the go for basically three hours. Donegal are about the only other county so logistically challenged.

“You look at the current players who are travelling home. It’s harder for them to get the balance right between recovery, college work, and performance, because there’s such demands and stresses being put on them. It definitely compromises the national league in terms of preparation.”

That in turn, Dillon contends, compromises championship preparation because nothing beats having a string of league games and wins in the confidence locker heading into the summer.

In what’s essentially a battle of inches with Dublin, Mayo are yielding yards, miles. To give Mayo the best chance to bring Sam home, the county needs to keep and bring more players home.

“It’s something that needs definite focus. We’ve got to start identifying where we can put in some actual solutions.

"And that’s something Moff and myself are very passionate about. Keeping our students closer to home. And also in terms of offering jobs in the west of Ireland. Our county really is nothing without its people within it.”

Keep And Bring Our People Home. If that almost sounds like a political slogan then maybe it’s because you’ve heard Dillon has recently entered that arena as well.

Next month, on March 25, he will contest a Fine Gael selection convention, seeking to be the party’s new general election candidate for the Mayo constituency, following Enda Kenny’s decision not to seek another term in Dáil Éireann.

Dillon is well aware that he could initially be perceived as a celebrity instead of a conviction politician but he’d like to think if you spent any time with him you’d quickly change your mind.

“Unless you can articulate a topic, people will see right through the footballer,” he says. “You’ve got to have a lot more in your artillery than just your reputation.”

This isn’t about a job for one of the boys. This, he says, is about jobs for all the boys and girls.

Dillon has long had Fine Gael connections — his aunt Kathleen was Kenny’s secretary in Castlebar for decades while her husband was Kenny’s driver as well as a county councillor — but it’s not as if his family would hardly fit the stereotypical profile of the party’s core constituency.

His father Gerry is a self-employed plumber and electrician whose business was badly rocked by the recession. His mother Eileen is a special needs teacher. His brother Gary, whom he’d have won a couple of county titles with, emigrated during the recession before returning home in recent years.

It’s his hope and his plan that other former Ballintubber teammates who left home might return as well.

“I think there’s a need and opportunity to represent a lot of my generation that 10 years ago would have been 24, 25, and try to get them back home. Because if you talk to any Mayo person, they have such a passion for the place and would love to have the opportunity to move back home again.

I mean, the quality of life it offers, to raise a family, build an affordable house or get a mortgage. But it depends on opportunities regarding work.

“We have the multinationals with the likes of Allergan, Baxter, Hollister but I think we can attract more foreign direct investment. We can diversify our hospitality, our tourism. We’ve an airport. We’ve national parks, unspoiled beaches, all blue flags. Hidden treasures. But our biggest resource is our people.

“Take my teammate, Donie Vaughan. For me there is a spirit of Mayo out there and he has it, in buckets. Graduated from college at 21 with a degree in business, opened up his first shop in Ballinrobe. Wasn’t happy with that — opened up a second shop in Claremorris.

Wasn’t happy with that — rescued Hynes Shoes in Castlebar. Now he employs over 20 people across those three stores — and has an online store as well.”

Dillon’s own wife Ashling has started up her own beauty clinic business, so he’s well familiar with the local enterprise and women’s business groups that are there to help startups like her’s and Vaughan’s. But are other people? That’s something that he’ll be looking to improve and increase should he get the nomination.

Alan Dillon during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay match between Dublin and Mayo in 2016. Pic: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Alan Dillon during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay match between Dublin and Mayo in 2016. Pic: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

If he were successful in that bid, it wouldn’t be the first time that Dillon’s identified when Mayo has needed fresher, more vibrant leadership.

In 2010 the county team went winless in the championship, suffering humiliating defeats to Sligo and Longford.

With the wrong appointment, Mayo could have gone on to have had a decade in the doldrums, much like Meath and Derry have, the three counties sharing a similar ranking at the time; a Keith Higgins retiring disgruntled and disillusioned like a Paddy O’Rourke the other week.

The candidates the county board seemed to be favouring had all enjoyed a glorious past but showed little inclination to tweak their methods to promise a glorious future.

For Dillon there couldn’t be a repeat of the John O’Mahony experience. And so he sent out a tweet, expressing his disapproval, and creating the climate and pathway for his club manager James Horan to secure the gig.

Dillon was also forthcoming to the local papers about the challenge and the task ahead. “We don’t seem to be fighting for each other as a team, as a unit,” he’d tell the Mayo News after the Longford defeat.

“Not enough lads are digging out the guy beside them. Everyone is too focused on themselves, not the team.”

And so that’s why he can now retire with a huge sense of pride, if a nagging ounce of disappointment that the Mayo redemption hasn’t yet the ultimate silverware to show for it. They became more than a team but a brotherhood.

Pre-Horan, they were anything but.

“There were people in the squad that weren’t as ambitious as the rest of us. You’d be cut up after a stupid loss in a quarter-final to Tyrone or Meath and couldn’t personally wait to get back on the bike, and would train all the way through the winter, getting ready for January, while other lads, they’d winter well. I couldn’t understand that. That was totally frustrating.

“I don’t think we had everyone’s full focus at the time. Johnno was involved in a lot of other stuff as well and only making one night of training. There was a lot of stuff that was wrong.

"For us to win the All-Ireland — seriously challenge, which should have been everyone’s priority — we just weren’t drilled or geared to do so because there was so many crutches around. They were lost years.”

Part of the culture predated O’Mahony. Dillon grew up idolising Ciaran McDonald and then as a teammate modelled his work ethic on him. When McDonald was there, he was absolutely there, 100%. But once he was gone off that field, he was gone.

Dillon would like if he’d been around more to provide the kind of mentoring he’ll be doing now with the Mayo academies. Sharing some of his wisdom and his time would have done a lot for the younger players and panel in general.

“I had a good relationship with McD. He was outstanding in training. You’d watch and study how much effort he’d put into training. He’d empty the tank every session. That’s the one thing I always took from McD — how he’d give absolutely everything in every session.

“He probably had more friends outside the Mayo panel, which was fine, but there were times in order for the team spirit where — because it wasn’t just McD — we needed more lads rolling in together. There were more cliques, the younger lads weren’t as integrated.”

Under Horan, all that changed. The likes of Dillon and Moran welcomed and mentored every newcomer and soon the younger brigade like Cillian O’Connor, Aidan O’Shea, and Vaughan were doing likewise. In the past, they could all go their own separate ways after a big championship game. Under Horan, that was a no-no.

The group always gathered and stayed together. Even after a championship defeat. They’d all be hurt but they’d all be mad to get back on the bike.

Win or lose, the process went on.

Dillon personified it. The January after an All-Ireland semi-final or final, on some wickedly wet and cold January night in windswept Ballyhaunis, a Cian O’Neill or Donie Buckley might throw some massed defence up for a group of attackers to breach, and Dillon would be there, thriving in figuring and finding out ways to beat it.

Colm O’Rourke has often compared Mayo to Sisyphus, who was sentenced to continually rolling a stone up a hill only to find it always rolled back to the bottom. But for Dillon that doesn’t mean it was all in vain. He relished nothing more than putting his shoulder to that boulder.

Would love if it had gotten to the summit instead of merely close to it, but there was a satisfaction in the grind.

“Every session I enjoyed going out and trying to get the best out of myself. If you think about it, you only have a short window of a career. The most you can hope to get out of yourself is eight, nine years.

"I was lucky; I got 16, though the last three I was not near the peak of my powers. But it’s the journey. It’s every season, every session, every match. It’s seeing how the team evolves.

“That’s the one thing I take the biggest pride in — when we got the group of lads together, around 2011, and seeing how the younger lads integrated and bought into the setup.

"The trust, the unity, the honesty; from talking to other people who have played with Mayo teams, they don’t understand the bond that squad had — and still has.

“It’s been a great time to be playing for Mayo. I mean, the county went 38 years without reaching an All Ireland final. They didn’t win a single Connacht title in the ’70s. And I was very conscious of all that, every time I could play or train for Mayo. We were in a privileged position.

“I mean, the craic we’ve had, the places we’ve visited, the stories we’ve told. We’ve had some unbelievable days and wins…”

He’s thinking of days like the 2006 win over Dublin when they went to the Hill. And when they beat them again in 2012 when he was again man of the match. Or the 2013 quarter-final against Donegal. In truth, he probably shouldn’t have played but Horan knew that Mayo couldn’t do without a dog of war like Dillon for that one.

Five minutes in, Dillon kicked Mayo’s second point of the game with a boomer from 45 yards. After that there was only going to be one winner.

“I had a small nick in my calf and it consumed me for three days up to it. I was getting intensive treatment all around the clock. But it was a case of ‘if it blows on 20 minutes or in the first minute, it blows — whatever time I have out here today, I’m going to absolutely empty it.’

"So when I got that first ball from Donie and got half a sight of the posts, I just went for it. And sure once I got that, it’s amazing what adrenaline does to your system.”

There’s a tear in his eye now. “I suppose it’s a bit raw,” he continues, “being out of it now and thinking back on it, but every bit of it I enjoyed. Pushing yourself in training. The intensity in training. Getting the best out of yourself. Helping each other all get the best out of ourselves.”

He couldn’t go on forever. He tried. In 2015 he didn’t start a match and in 2016 the only time he did was that brilliant first-half cameo against Tyrone in the quarter-final. But in the drawn All-Ireland final he hobbled on to kick a crucial point from the famous Dillon spot before hobbling off again through injury.

He’d miss the replay, which Mayo would lose by a point. Believing he might provide that crucial point, like he had in the drawn game, brought him back for one more year.

“I probably chanced my arm a bit in 2017. I knew the gas and the legs were gone in 2016 but I had an inkling that we were very close. I could still read one or two steps ahead but the body couldn’t react quick enough to get there. I still felt if an opportunity presented itself, I could definitely do a job but I knew midseason that it was definitely the last year.”

And so, he’d sit and watch them lose by another agonising point. From his vantage point, there were too many other big names in the dugout with him when it came to crunch time. Mayo have won plenty of close games through the years but not enough against other big guns, especially Dublin.

“Mayo have to target the end of games more. Be more daring and creative if needs be. If it means bringing off and then bringing back on a few star players and risking offending some unused subs, so be it. Whatever it takes. But Mayo needs more players who’ll look to build a lead, not hold it.

“I remember in the closing minutes [last September], there was Boyler [Colm Boyle], Seamie O’Shea, Keith Higgins, [Kevin] McLoughlin, Andy [Moran] and myself sitting there and I said to myself, ‘We don’t have enough lads out there to win the game, boys.’

“We just don’t seem to be finishing games strong against the top teams. We seem to always be coming from behind in those games and never actually go ahead. OK we beat Kerry, but we were well ahead, Kerry ran out of time.

"So how do we get ahead and go further ahead in those last 10-15 minutes? Your bench is your only option. Who’s going to be a game-changer coming off the bench?”

It can’t be him now; the only football he plays now is with the club, who he’d help get to a county final last October. He still meets up with a good few of the gang — Aidan O’Shea, Barry Moran, Donie Vaughan, Rob Hennelly, Mickey Conroy from the Horan years.

Every Saturday morning they’ll meet in a Castlebar spot for some breakfast. The New York City Raiders they call themselves, after an escapade in the Big Apple a few years ago.

This past autumn they were the Chicago Raiders, making their way over to the windy city and taking in a Notre Dame college football game. When they meet up, Dillon respects the bubble, with the talk tending to be less about Mayo and more about them Warriors and Patriots.

And should they win it all? How will he be?

“To be honest I know the lads too well for that to get in the way of me or everyone joining in the success of winning it. Because I know I played my part. And that is the most important thing you can take from it.”

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