IN FULL FLIGHT Alan Dillon is pictured in action for Mayo during the 2012 All-Ireland SFC Final against Donegal. Pic: Sportsfile
THOUGH not altogether surprising given his age of 35, the news that Alan Dillon has retired from senior inter-county football will hit many Mayo football people hard.
Dillon was one of the best players many of us have ever seen pull on the green and red jersey, and when you think of Mayo’s search for the All-Ireland an entire county yearns for, you often think of it in terms of those who have soldiered long and hard and given so much.
Those like Alan Dillon, who would deserve it more than anyone.
It is a regret, no doubt, that he now departs stage left without that Celtic cross and being on the losing side in six All-Ireland senior finals (2004, 2006, 2012, 2013, 2016 and 2017) is a hard cross to bear.
Bear it he must, but it should not be his legacy. His legacy should be the consistent excellence he brought to Mayo over the years. Not just on the field – and we’ll get to that – but off the field too.
Alan Dillon was one of the key lieutenants in James Horan's revolution from 2011 on.
He was always a man of high standards and Horan’s appointment was music to his ears. He had seen him up close at Ballintubber and knew what was coming. He embraced it, drove it on, and facilitated the revolution within a group hurting after defeat to Longford in 2010.
Dillon was one of Mayo’s shining stars that day, just he and Alan Freeman could be happy with their individual displays at Pearse Park. That gave him a platform to tell a few home truths in The Mayo News soon after.
“In terms of team performance, we don’t seem to be fighting for each other as a team, as a unit. We lost the individual battles last Saturday evening, not enough lads were digging out the guy beside them.
“Everyone is too focussed on themselves, not the team. In championship, you have to be thinking of how the team can get better, can benefit,” he said in June 2010.
They were strong words and had the desired effect – the need for change was driven home to the players before James Horan was in the door.
HIS displays in All-Ireland finals have often been used as a stick to beat him with. It is true to say he never excelled on those September Sundays, but not enough significance is given to the attention given to Dillon by opponents.
For instance Karl Lacey rightly ended up as Footballer of the Year in 2012. Is there any shame in him getting the upper hand on Dillon in that final? It is a sign of the respect Jim McGuinness had for Mayo’s playmaker that they put their best defender on Dillon.
It was nearly ever thus.
Mayo were often too reliant on Dillon actually; he was the conductor that made an often less than stellar orchestra exceed their individual talents. For too many years the tactic was simple — shut down Dillon and Mayo would struggle.
And there is something about measuring only All-Ireland finals that rankles. It is as if all other performances to that point are redundant. Put simply, this observer doesn’t think Mayo would have made it to All-Ireland finals in 2004, 2006 and 2012 were it not for Dillon’s excellence in so many big games.
There is such an amount of top-level performances from Dillon that it is hard to pick a few out from the crowd. He was consistently very good in so many matches that the quality games blur into each other as a constant.
But special mention must go to the following: against Tyrone in the 2004 All-Ireland quarter-final where he kicked six points, including four nerveless frees, against the All-Ireland champions; the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final win over Dublin where he kicked four great points from play; ditto the 2012 semi-final win over Dublin, also kicking four points from play; and kicking seven points from play across the 2014 All-Ireland quarter-final victory over Cork and drawn semi-final against Kerry.
When this writer thinks back on Alan Dillon and All-Ireland finals, two memories come to mind, at either end of his career. First is the 2004 final and his early goal that made us all believe, all dream, of something incredible.
Dillon was 21, playing in his first ever senior All-Ireland final, yet he had the presence of mind to calmly sidestep the imposing Diarmuid Murphy in the Kerry goal and roll the ball into the net.
It was a false dawn that day but in that very moment it was something else, something that still stirs the soul.
The other memory is the 2016 final. Dillon was introduced as a sub’ and was just what Mayo needed. He came on after 55 minutes, kicked the equaliser but then was taken off, injured, after 67 minutes. His loss in those final few minutes was incalculable.
Sure, he was not the Dillon of old, able to influence games for 70 minutes. But he was a player who, with 15 minutes to go in an All-Ireland final, was a priceless gift off the bench. With the game opening up and legs tiring, Dillon could do the very things Mayo needed there and then. Play with the head up, create space with a one-two, and pick a pass to unlock a creaky defence.
He struggled with the same foot injury in the replay when he came on, trying with all of his might but unable to overcome the toll of the sheer pain.
His influence was keenly missed that day too.
Against Tyrone in 2016 he was a surprise late change to the starting team and ran riot against Justin McMahon, forcing Mickey Harte to rejig before half-time. Job done, Stephen Rochford took him off at the interval and introduced Tom Parsons to give Tyrone something different to think about.
At club level, Alan Dillon is the single biggest reason Ballintubber have won three county titles in the last seven seasons. By his creativity on the field, and his ability to handle efforts to limit his influence, but off the pitch too his influence was huge. He was their leader. Driving standards, leading in word and deed. Setting the bar for all others to follow.
You know just how good a guy is within a group when you hear him singled out by Ballintubber captain Jason Gibbons in his acceptance speech when lifting the Paddy Moclair Cup in 2014.
Gibbons praised Dillon as the players’ inspiration and dedicated the success to their centre-half forward.
Rare praise for a fellow player.
His passion for his own club is beyond doubt. As a Breaffy man I’ve seen him play on the edge in many games and particularly against local rivals. It’s a quality to be admired, not criticised. A winner’s mentality.
This writer first saw Dillon in action in first year in Davitt College in 1995 when I was lucky enough to be on the same team as him.
Himself and two Ballintubber team-mates, Con Lydon and Robert Kelly, ran the show for us en route to a Connacht final defeat to St Brendan’s, Belmullet.
Dillon was the only first year to start for the Davitt under-16 team which lost an All-Ireland final to Lisnaskea of Fermanagh (his All-Ireland woe did not start with Mayo).
In second year he was a sub who came on in the All-Ireland senior semi-final loss to Castlewellan of Down. Second years don’t normally play senior, unless they are the type of second years who could walk into a bar without being asked for an ID.
Dillon barely passed for his 14 years against 18 year-old opponents, but his quality was impossible to ignore and in he went.
The first report I ever wrote was on an Under-16 game that Alan Dillon played for Davitt College in 1998 against Ballinrobe. Born in September, and with players having to be under 16 after July 31, it was probably the only team he was ever on where he was properly at his age level.
He made ribbons of teams, and against Ballinrobe in his beloved Clogher, Dillon was played as a one man full-forward line by the coach, Tony O’Connor, father of Cillian and Diarmuid. By the end of the game he had thirteen points to his name, all from play (his cousin Martin Feeney was on the frees).
He was a joy to watch then, and that never changed.
The trademark sidestep, the head up always looking for the best option, the stylish passing of the ball over the bar, all hallmarks of a Mayo great.
He owes Mayo nothing, but that should not mean the end for Alan Dillon.
With his football brain and natural intelligence and ability to get the best out of those around him, he has all the credentials to be an outstanding coach and, subsequently, future Mayo manager.
The powers that be should not hang around. The final chapters on Alan Dillon’s Mayo career have yet to be written.
For now, we should be grateful to have witnessed a wonderful Mayo career.