While Brian O’Driscoll struggled to adjust to the career lights going out, Paul Mannion seems content in the ‘silent season’
For Brian O’Driscoll, the hardest thing to adjust to was the dimming of the lights.
Paul Mannion, by way of sharp contrast, seems utterly at ease swapping the tumult and theatre of a Croke Park midsummer for strictly off-Broadway playhouses.
O’Driscoll and Mannion, two supreme athletes of recent times, Dubliners who made magic on opposite banks of the Liffey, find themselves rotating in a similar orbit today on the relentless 24/7 news cycle.
The dramas attached to their leaving behind the untouchable adrenalin rush of a packed and pulsing arena, tens of thousands gathered to watch them seek out those wormholes in a defence only a superior talent can locate, are their stories’ common thread.
We speak of the sudden, radical, jolting lifestyle change that can introduce the coliseum's abdicating emperor to what celebrated American sportswriter and pioneer of New Journalism, Gay Talese, called the silent season of a hero.
O’Driscoll decommissioned his boots all of eight years ago, but a new and revealing interview with The Guardian’s Donald McRae puts a fresh coat of perspective on the walls of an old story.
“My initial feeling when I left rugby was I couldn’t get out quick enough because I knew I was massively on the wane…the upside (of retirement) were the parties and the cool stuff. You come round to the next season, and you think: ‘Well, playing international rugby is better than that.’ That’s when retirement sinks in.”
O’Driscoll went to a psychiatrist in advance of stepping away so he could be prepped for “feeling lousy, for accepting those moments where you really wish you were out there.”
A man who played like his life would be silent without the noise of battle struggled at times in the new quiet, and admits he was occasionally conflicted about Ireland’s subsequent successes – notably the breakthrough win over New Zealand in Chicago six years ago.
“For me it was bittersweet. You see them celebrating afterwards and you go: ‘I was so close to that in 2013. I should have had that moment.’ Its human instinct and I’d be bullshitting if I shied away from that,” he revealed.
Even today, he admits nothing in his busy life comes close to releasing such a tidal wave of endorphins.
“If you’re comparing highs, what’s going to match (Test rugby)? You try to convince yourself you’ve done a really good Sunday show on BT with Craig (Doyle) and Lawrence (Dallaglio). You think: ‘That was great.’,” he says.
"But, really, that’s not rolling your sleeves up and beating England or winning a grand slam or coming back against Northampton in the Heineken Cup final in 2011. It doesn’t come close.”
The O’Driscoll and Mannion stories, though very different – the former a professional athlete who retired from all rugby at 35 with his skills declining and his body crying “no mas”, the latter an amateur who walked away from an all-conquering Dublin at 27 while at the very peak of his considerable powers, but continues to play high-grade club football with Kilmacud Crokes – are not without striking similarities.
Here are two transcendent talents. On those days when they made something very hard seem so absurdly straightforward, when a ball game felt like something approaching a religious experience, miraculous and moving, there was hardly a single atheist in the house.
O’Driscoll’s retirement followed the natural cycle, he knew he had reached the last full stop of life as a competitive athlete, though his fierce desire to write his own ending saw him walk into the sunset with another grand slam.
Mannion’s story is very different.
Alone in winning a football Allstar in 2017, 2018 and 2019, a poster boy on the greatest team of all time, a hypersonic, thrilling forward with a lyrical left foot, he clocked out at the end of the six-in-a-row season.
He was 27 – and most shrewd judges would have placed him among the trinity of top forwards in Gaelic football at that moment.
Mannion, a bright, ambitious individual, with an unusually rounded world view and an interest in advancing his life beyond the narrow, sometimes suffocating coordinates of inter-county football, wished to explore other avenues.
And nobody could dispute he had earned the right. His football journey with Dublin left no unpaid debts in its wake.
So, he travelled, played indoor soccer with mates, summered in America, enjoyed abundant down time, revelled in the comparatively low-key - though still hugely competitive - world of club football.
In any of the eloquent interviews he has given, there has not been a single hint of a young man harbouring even a scintilla of regret about leaving Hill 16 behind. Quite simply, he is at peace with his decision to move on.
Just three months ago, while enjoying a summer of football and life experiences in Boston, he all but shut the door and turned the key.
“I do feel like I have kind of drawn a line under it now. I’ve been just enjoying the time with the club and as I have said a few times now, the opportunity to spend time on different things.”
If it wasn’t a definitive farewell to arms, it was very much in the parish.
Mannion has six All-Ireland medals, he has lived that other life and now, as colleague Conor McKeon points out elsewhere on these pages in a thoughtful, common-sense piece, he’d kind of prefer if people would stop asking him about the possibility of a messianic second coming.
About the only individual associated with Dublin football who seems uninterested by the possibility of a 2023 return is the player himself.
But here’s the thing: In Mannion’s absence, Dublin stopped winning. Meanwhile in his appearances for Kilmacud, he has been magisterial, that wand of a left limb the author of all kinds of alchemy.
On Sunday last, in a Dublin SFC game against Templeogue Synge Street screened live on TG4, he fired a series of jaw-dropping, stop-all-the-clocks, long-range scores.
Every time he pierced the posts, the camera seemed to pan to Dessie Farrell. If that was a little unfair, it was also entirely understandable.
Dublin’s full-forward line contributed a single score from play in the All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry. And still the Kingdom required a controversially awarded, stunningly converted injury time free from Seanie O’Shea to scrape a single point victory, one that set them on a path to a new world of achievement.
So, watching Mannion deliver scores with the impudence of a big city David Clifford last weekend, it was only logical to ask what difference he might have made in the Croker hothouse two months ago.
Club is not county but watching Mannion’s masterclass, it was easy to picture him – along with a fit-again Con O’Callaghan – as the combination that can unlock the pathway back to summer's championship hilltop.
Dessie can scour the county for new talent, he can devise radical tactical strategies, but, in terms of improving Dublin, nothing can come close to somehow persuading Mannion that he might give it one more year.
As Alex Ferguson did with Cristiano Ronaldo in 2008 – all but prostrating himself before the divine Portuguese – when he seemed intent and on the brink of moving to Real Madrid.
The Glaswegian’s powers of persuasion, the very essence of pragmatic man-management, altered the course of history: United won a third Premier League title in a row, and Ronaldo, when he flew off for a new life in Spain 12 months later, did so with the Ballon d’Or in the cargo hold.
Who knows what communications have taken place behind the scenes, whether Farrell or even captain James McCarthy and a number of his players might consider it worth their while to make one last polite approach?
In amateur sport the sensibilities are different and there will be a desire to respect Mannion’s worldview. He truly does seem to have moved on.
Of course, it was a huge surprise when Mannion, on the back of three years of towering achievement, was restricted to a substitute’s role in Farrell’s first season in charge, and speculation persists about what effect, if any, that might have had on the player’s decision.
What is abundantly clear is that Mannion is entirely comfortable in his own skin, the challenge of assisting Kilmacud in their quest to better last season’s All-Ireland club final defeat comfortably fulfilling his sporting appetite.
O’Driscoll struggled to adjust when the din of the crowd subsided, when he was confronted with the silent season of the hero.
All the indications are that Mannion is utterly content with life on the edge of the photograph.
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