Time comes up against every man at some stage, for Alan Dillon who turns 34 this September it is catching up on his inter-county career a lot quicker than he would like. The Ballintubber play-maker had been a mainstay of Mayo sides going back to his championship debut as a 19-year-old back in 2003 against Sligo. But last year he found himself kicking his heels on the bench and not getting much game time at all, something that he was not used to, but he always had faith in his ability to do a job for the team. "I suppose last year was disappointing. I was competing in training, I don't want to dwell too long on it, it was one of those years that you more or less write off. But I always had belief in what I was doing. I was performing and putting pressure on the As in training," he told the Mayo Advertiser this week.
Having more miles on the clock in the inter-county game than most, it could have been easy for him to decide enough was enough and throw in the towel, but that's not the mentality of a man who has won seven Connacht titles, two All Stars, and played in four All Ireland senior finals in his senior career. Dillon was always a prodigious underage talent, so much so that he jumped straight from minor to the U21 team that was captained by his current senior manager Stephen Rochford and managed by Kevin McStay many years ago now. But after last year he did have to think about coming back he says. "For 2016 I had to reassess, I spoke to Stephen and was ready to go. I've worked hard the last five or six months, as the lads said I've been pushing strong in training and I was delighted to be rewarded the last day and contribute and play my part."
Playing a key roll and making an impact
For someone who has been used all his footballing life to being one of the first names on the team sheet, playing a smaller part no matter how integral, is something that you have to get used to, but it is a role he has come to embrace. "My role has changed from when I first came on to the squad, where for the first 10 or 11 years I was a first team starter. The last two years it has changed with newer players coming into the squad, your role has probably changed to more of an impact sub because of how we set up and I'm happy. There is a stage where there is a bedding in phase of where you don't like it, but you have to accept it, that's the ultra competitive side of you saying it, but you know you're probably not a 70 minute man, but you know you're definitely going to contribute to it."
The victory over Fermanagh, and the part he played in that win coming off the bench to calm things down and see out a tough and tetchy encounter, was a moment he pinpointed as when he knew he could still contribute in a major to the Mayo cause, even if it was not for 70 minutes on the field. "I think that's important at the latter end of most players' careers, that you understand you're still a vital cog, that this game can still be won and you know that belief was seen when I was brought on in the Fermanagh game, and we were in a tricky situation, and that game gave me the confidence to say Jesus, you know what, I'm still able to do this. It was a great feeling and from there you bring it back to training and you focus and you keep working on it and talking to Stephen. The way they set up against Tyrone it was something I was very comfortable doing in Croke Park, playing a role where Tyrone may have offered you a double sweeper, the wide open spaces and kick passing, floating into pockets I felt comfortable, I was delighted just to play my part in the performance."
Getting back on to the field in Croke Park and having a major impact in the outcome of the game is something that makes all the hard work worthwhile he said. "You're training at the high end with the lads, but no matter how many training sessions all you want to do is to get out on the field and express yourself and play, and I'm no different from when I first joined the panel at 19 to where I am now. I'm just delighted we're back in another semi-final and have a chance to get back to a final."
From dark places come big things
The loss to Galway in the Connacht semi-final knocked the Mayo public for six and it affected the team even more, but the three weeks between that loss and their next outing against Fermanagh saw the squad dig deep and put everything they had into getting back on the horse for that game. "We were in a dark place after the Galway game and personally, I didn't know where this group was going to go from there. But we had three weeks of unbelievably hard training, more character building training in terms of what we needed to do. We were in the abyss of going out of the championship against Fermanagh or really throwing the kitchen sink at this, they were some of the toughest training sessions I've ever done. As a group there was a sense of unity when we came through those weeks, as much as the struggle was against Fermanagh. The harder the struggle the sweeter the victory, that was a big one in terms of the way the draw panned out with Kildare and Westmeath. You needed those three weeks and then you're on a roll and we're fine tuning things, lads coming back from injury, some lads getting more game time, that culminated with a big performance last weekend."
When the book on the past 25 years of history of Mayo football is written the part that Dillon has played in the struggle to get Mayo over the finish line finally, will be a big part of it. The years may be catching up on him, but his desire and appetite for the game is as straightforward as when he first togged out with the Mayo seniors all those years ago.