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Monday 26 September 2016

'We'd taken our eye off the ball'

Mayo have emerged from Galway wake-up a more united team, says veteran star Dillon

Alan Dillon of Mayo during a press night at Breaffy House Hotel in Breaffy, Co Mayo. Photo: Sportsfile
Alan Dillon of Mayo during a press night at Breaffy House Hotel in Breaffy, Co Mayo. Photo: Sportsfile

"For a lot of people I'm still alive anyway," says Alan Dillon. "I haven't gone away."

The Mayo veteran is reflecting on his surprise recall against Tyrone - his first championship start since the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final replay against Kerry.

But as the conversation evolves into a discussion on Mayo's meandering route to another semi-final - against Tipperary in Croke Park this Sunday - we get the sense of a team itself on life-support just a couple of months ago.

June 18 was a watershed for this group. The performance against Galway, not just the result, set off alarm bells.

"Honestly, we had to do something different," Dillon recalls. "I suppose we were lucky we had the three-week break between the Galway and Fermanagh games. There was skin and hair flying from those three weeks. We were a much (more) united team after."

What about the notion, then, that losing in June was to their long-term advantage?

Effort

"That's definitely a right assessment. Some of the effort and some of the hard work wasn't evident against Galway. I suppose some lads perceived that we'll just get through this game," he surmises.

"But in championship you can get beaten on any given day. We just didn't do enough, and we had to set new goals and new standards and, I suppose, try and flush out what was happening from the league to what was happening in the Galway game.

"And it did give us time to reassess. The likes of Tony (McEntee), Stephen (Rochford) and Donie Buckley really put us through our paces."

It was Mayo's first defeat in Connacht since 2010. Dillon agrees when asked if this was the first time in five or six years he'd noticed a slip in standards. "We were miles off in terms of tackle count, aggression," he says.

"We were probably in control for some periods, but it's a small line in terms of preparation - thinking that you're in a good place and actually being in a good place. And I think that, psychologically, we were at home in Castlebar, thinking about a Connacht final ahead of us.

"And when the hard questions were asked in the second half, when Galway got level with us, we didn't have the answer to fight back.

"All credit to Galway - they had us in their sights as sitting targets for six or seven weeks. And maybe we had taken our eye off the ball. In championship football you can be put on your arse very quickly."

Afterwards there were "hard questions", individually and collectively. "So we went around answering those questions, and that's why the performance against Tyrone was definitely a highlight for this team - from where we were against Galway to where we are now, within 70 minutes (of the final)."

For Dillon, too, this summer has been a journey to embrace. The Ballintubber man won't turn 33 until late September but seems to have been around forever - or at least since 2003, when his made his SFC debut. He has started four All-Ireland finals.

And then, under Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly last summer, he could barely get a look-in: two cameos in Connacht, but not a minute in three big Croke Park outings.

"It was difficult. I will make no arguments on that," he says.

"I still felt that this year I had something to offer."

Dillon didn't feature against Galway but was called on by Rochford during all three qualifiers, leaving a big imprint with 0-2 in the comeback win over Fermanagh.

"I enjoyed it," he says. "It was definitely a change of mindset, that I still have something to contribute.

"I suppose the Mayo people probably respected that as well - that I can still definitely help the team to get across the line."

He helped them in a different way in the quarter-final, parachuted in to start as part of a tactical reshuffle designed for Tyrone's double-sweeper set-up.

He did his bit, linking the play in his intelligent way, before passing the baton to Tom Parsons at the break.

"The last day, thank God, it went well for me, I got a bit of confidence from it - but the next day I mightn't start," he stresses. Either way he's happy to embrace his role as part of the collective: "It is not always easy, but my end goal is to try and win a championship."

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