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Thursday 8 December 2016

Croker to China and back again for Mannion

Dub star knew he was playing catch-up last January, but hard slog was worth the effort

Elverys Intersport #BringTheColour Campaign Ambassador Paul Mannion at St Vincent's GAA Club. #BringTheColour is a campaign aimed at celebrating the individuality of players who are not afraid to stand out on the pitch through their performances and also through their vibrant selection of boot styles and colours
Elverys Intersport #BringTheColour Campaign Ambassador Paul Mannion at St Vincent's GAA Club. #BringTheColour is a campaign aimed at celebrating the individuality of players who are not afraid to stand out on the pitch through their performances and also through their vibrant selection of boot styles and colours
Paul Mannion in his first game back for Dublin this year against Kerry back in January Photo: Sportsfile

When Dublin recaptured Sam in 2015, Paul Mannion was watching from Hill 16.

When Dublin played their next match at Croke Park - against the same Kerry opposition last January - Mannion was back on the pitch.

But he was playing catch-up. And he knew it.

"January and February were tough months," recalls Mannion, who had missed out on 2015 because his UCD studies had taken him to China.

"I remember the first league game of the year. The first half I was absolutely knackered at half-time - I came in and got sick in the sinks at Croke Park. It raised eyebrows a little bit."

The irony is that Mannion had looked sharper than a razor in that opening 35 minutes. Marked by Brian Ó Beaglaoich, he gave the Kerry rookie an initially torrid introduction to inter-county football - scoring one point that could have been a goal, setting up a brace of further goal chances for colleagues and winning a converted free.

Hardest

And yet he felt physically sick at the break. "It never happened me before, even after the hardest training sessions I've ever done in my life," he admits.

"I knew after coming back from the year I had I wasn't in the best of shape. It wasn't really surprising ... it took a long time to get back up to that level. I came in at the start of the year and the rest of the lads were pushing hard in the gym, doing runs.

"I was falling behind a bit, so I said I need to pull my socks up here. I got an injury in the Sigerson final; that put me out for a few weeks which I just used to go to the gym."

The Kilmacud speedster started the league final - Kerry again! - but the build-up to championship had its own complications. And this, rather than his year out in China, partly explains why Mannion struggled to reclaim the regular starting place he had made his own during his All-Ireland winning debut season of 2013.

"It was just the two-three weeks that I missed because of exams in May," he explains. "I missed one of our training camps and a couple of weeks of training. That brought me back down again. Coming up to the first round of the championship, I wasn't at my peak.

"I got back in for a start (against Laois) by chance, Paul Flynn picked up an injury; but I wasn't really at my sharpest."

He duly lost his place and, Dublin forward competition being what it is, struggled to win it back. Yet, by mid-July, Mannion was "in the best condition of my life."

And making an impact off the bench, never more so than at the end of the quarter-final when he accelerated through the Donegal defence for a superb solo goal, with Dublin by then reduced to 13 men and holding on to a three-point cushion.

He finally got his starting chance for the All-Ireland replay against Mayo. "I spoke to Jim (Gavin) and said 'I feel ready and I feel I'm flying, and if you're thinking of making any changes I'm confident and up for the challenge' … and a couple of days before he gave me the nod," he reveals.

"As it came out, I probably didn't have near as good a game as I thought I was capable of. I felt so confident that I probably worked myself up a bit too much really."

Still, his comeback campaign did end with another All-Ireland medal. And he has no real regrets at missing out on one the year before, when his B.Comm (International) studies took him to China.

He loved his time in Beijing; Wuhan less so.

"I didn't really miss football an awful lot. I was doing a lot of other things, playing soccer in a college league, playing pool, table tennis like mad - every day," he recounts.

"I was having fun. I was doing a bunch of other amazing things so it was just another experience really.

Explore

"I didn't really expect to have played Dublin senior football for two years (beforehand) anyway. By the time it came around it was a welcome break and a chance to explore a bit of the world, learn a language and meet people from all over the world. It was a great year and I didn't have any regrets.

"I was back in on January 2 this year and felt a lot more eager, motivated, than I was January 2 the previous year.

"The main reason I wanted to go away was for enjoyment, to try something different ... but when I came back it, it did give you that extra kick."

Roll on January 2, 2017 ...

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