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Dublin: 15 °C Monday 13 July, 2020

From Mayo football to national politics - 'I was conscious that people would say he's just the GAA man'

Former Mayo footballer Alan Dillon is adjusting to his new role in Leinster House.

FOR A LONG stretch of Alan Dillon’s career the spring was about preparation and building up to the summer and autumn ahead.


Those were the seasons where the biggest tests would take place and the biggest prizes would be at stake.

Still that was when he was recognised as the Mayo footballer. Times change. For the aspiring politician, February 2020 was the moment of judgment.

A fortnight ago the Green and Red football community were largely focused on Navan to assess the early league form of James Horan’s squad. If score updates from Páirc Tailteann were of interest to Dillon, there was a more pressing set of results to monitor that day in the Royal Theatre in Castlebar as the votes were put together in the Mayo constituency.

In late November 2017, Dillon pulled the plug on his time as a senior county player. The switch from the sporting to political arenas had taken place over the 26 months until the 2020 General Election when he stood as a candidate for the first time and attempting to win a Fine Gael seat.

He had partaken in his share of major occasions under the national spotlight but the tension of seven All-Ireland senior deciders contrasted with the pressure of an election count.

“It was extremely tense,” says Dillon.

“I suppose in a game scenario at least you can be in control. You can dictate the pace of the game, you have some input in how things work. In the political arena it’s completely out of your hands.

“It was probably difficult because I wasn’t in the count centre until after the first count, got the tally figures back. Once the dye is cast on the Saturday, it’s up to the people then. You’re hoping that you’ve done enough.”

He got over the line in the end. On the seventh count he was deemed elected, transfers sweeping him past Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers and taking the final of the four seats up for grabs.

Life in Leinster House began last week. He’s treading a well-worn path. Sean Flanagan remains the last Mayo captain to lift Sam Maguire and filled various political positions after that Croke Park feat. Henry Kenny performed a similar double act, it was his son Enda’s seat that Dillon has now filled. His former Mayo boss John O’Mahony served as a TD for almost a decade.

In Mayo circles the two spheres have been long intertwined.

“It’s a football mad county. It’s one of these counties that are fanatical about their sport. It’s part of life here in Mayo. Everything around my career was focused on playing for Mayo. I worked in Mayo for the majority of my life. Galway was probably the furthest I went work wise outside of the county. You see a lot of players who put their careers on hold to represent the county. I think it’s just something that I was so committed to, it was maximising my time playing for Mayo and ensuring I was available all the time, for every training session and game.

“People who do that, and I see them now when I’m outside the bubble, you have to commend them because it’s not just them. It’s their families who put their lives on hold and sign up to something that’s very time consuming. Sport is tough at the best of times.

“Not all the time will it go in your favour. You get injuries, you get setbacks, defeats. I suppose I had that drive to keep going no matter what. I think it’s given me a lot of resilience and determination. You’re going to need that too in politics. It’s a case of dusting yourself down and keep going.”

When Dillon decided to go down the political road, he was conscious that 134 appearances for the senior side, eight Connacht medals and a pair of All-Star awards were not going to sway his constituents on their own.

His exploits on the pitch did not make him immune to scrutiny and he knew that he could not rely on them, even if it did help with the small talk on the canvas trail.

alan-dillon-celebrates Alan Dillon in action for Mayo in Croke Park Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“There’s that opener, it’s easier have a knock on the door and people recognise you. I suppose in politics it’s sometimes name recognition that goes a long way throughout the county even though you mightn’t have visited people before. They would think they know you especially from your football days. It’s an easy opener but then we get into the real issues of day to day life for people.

“It’s hard to judge how strong the GAA link is in terms of preference votes. Alan Dillon wouldn’t just get elected because he’s a footballer, have to go out and earn it. There’s nothing given in life. To earn the trust, we’ve done that over the past two years.

“It hasn’t been a campaign where you’re just parachuted into a position. I had to run through a convention, earn the trust of the Fine Gael grassroots members. For people to think it’s just because I had a football background, I think is disingenuous for the people that actually voted for me.

“There’s a lot of me that aren’t probably football people but want to lend themselves to a new voice in a county. You still have to go out and meet people on the ground. I was conscious that people would say he’s just the GAA man. Rather than people thinking he’s the fella that’s got a lot of potential.

“What I was conscious was ensuring I was a candidate with policies that were progressive, that I wanted Ireland to move with the times and I wanted Mayo to be central to that. It’s not going to win you votes if you knock on the door and talk about where Mayo are going in the next 12 months. People can see through that.“

So his focus and energies now are being ploughed into his role in Dáil Éireann. Still it’s not like it’s been long since he stepped out onto a pitch. Last November he was part of the Ballintubber effort that again came agonisingly short against Corofin in Connacht. Seeing the Galway powerhouse push on to another day of All-Ireland glory did not alleviate their pain.

alan-dillon-and-dylan-wall Alan Dillon in action for Ballintubber against Corofin last November in the Connacht club semi-final.

But Dillon is reluctant to cut playing ties. He was part of Ballintubber’s maiden Mayo senior football crown in 2010 and they rounded off the decade with five to their name.

“We’ll see. Listen the way this club structure is put together now, it lends to a longer season so championship doesn’t start until August. It could be a factor of just getting a couple of weeks or months training done over the summer and trying to have quality over quantity in your sessions and be available at some stage for the club.

“I don’t think I could completely switch off and turn my back on it either. Ballintubber itself is going for a historic three-in-a-row. Disappointed to lose out to Corofin the last two years and see what they’ve done on the national stage. Yeah it’d be fantastic to win a Connacht but we understand that navigating through Mayo brings its’ own dangers because it’s very, very competitive. I’d like to stay involved at some stage and just enjoy it.”

And the county side’s fortunes will be monitored as well, Monaghan in Clones today the next challenge.

“I’d still be in contact and friendly with a lot of the guys in the squad. I’d bump into James regularly around Castlebar. It’s patience really that Mayo people need at this stage. It’s a work in progress.

“Listen the sooner Mayo get their main players back. I think Cillian is nearly there, Mattie Ruane. You see Dublin playing a very consistent team, nearly 11 or 12 of their starters are playing consistently week in week out. For any of the teams especially Mayo, they need to get their main guys match ready for the summer. So they have the football in the legs and they’re not trying to play catch up.

“Once you’re in championship, it’s very hard to get fit and go week in week out without a good solid base. I would have known that back in my day. No matter what hit you in the championship, if you had it in the legs and in the lungs.

“You can only build that stamina during a tough league campaign. It does stand to players. If anyone says different, you just see what Dublin have done over the last number of years. Most of them guys have played high percentage of the league games.”

A new way of life but still connected to the old one.

Andy Dunne and Murray Kinsella join Gavan Casey to tee you up for Sunday’s big one. The lads try to figure out where the winning and losing of the game will be, field a The42 member’s question as to what extent the media plays a role in Ireland’s performance, and Andy explains why Henry Tuilagi haunts his dreams at night.

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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