On a sunny Good Friday at a table in a rooftop bar, Paul Mannion stirs his coffee and settles in to talk about whatever you want to talk about. We can talk football or we can talk real life or we can do both or we can do neither. So let’s do neither, for a minute. Let’s talk about Twitter.
It’s obviously wrong to say you can tell a lot about a person by their Twitter account. But then again, let’s not pretend some clues aren’t hiding in plain sight. Who you follow, what you like, where you go when you want to plug into the world.
Scroll through the list of 189 accounts Mannion follows and you’ll get around halfway down before coming across anyone connected to the GAA. Or to any sport, in fact. Instead, you’ll find climate change activists, politicians, podcasters, journalists, academics. Everyone from Carole Cadwalladr to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, from Greta Thunberg to Steven Pinker. The LedByDonkeys lads are in there, so are Politifact, FactCheck.Org, Brexitshambles. And, of course, Trump.
“Twitter is a great source of information,” Mannion says. “It’s also a place where the truth can go to die. I love digging into it and deciding for myself, following people you can trust. I always want to retweet and respond and give my two cents on whatever’s happening but then I go, ‘Shit, I have lots of people following me here. I can’t really do this’.”
Presumably the Dubs’ backroom politburo might be having a word?
“Yeah!” he laughs, launching into an imagined bollocking. “‘What are you doing making all these political statements on Twitter? What are you talking about Brexit and Trump for?’
“I do get really into it. Sometimes I’ll be with my friends and one of them will crack and go, ‘Will you put your phone down?’ They could be playing Fifa or whatever, meanwhile I’m scrolling through someone’s feed about the Mueller Report or something.”
As we’re talking, the Extinction Rebellion sit-in is gathering on O’Connell Bridge, the Dublin leg of the week of action around climate change. Of all the world’s ills and spills, nothing exercises Mannion the way the impending climate disaster does.
“That’s what alarms me most. It literally keeps me up at night. It’s something everybody should be concerned about. We need to do something about it now. Right now. People tend to think of it as something going on in the background but it’s here and now and we need to be worried about it. Have you seen this young Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg? She’s so right – it isn’t a climate change, it’s a climate crisis.”
So far, so hipster, says you. Another millennial revolutionary playing at changing the world, one Twitter like at a time. If that’s unfair to him now, it wasn’t always. You can think it, you can talk it, you can do it or you can be it. Eventually Mannion had to examine himself and decide where on that spectrum he was going to be.
“Friends of mine love slagging me about this kind of thing,” he says. “I have one who I always go back and forth with over it and one day she said to me, ‘Right, well, what are you doing about this? You talk about it all the time, you read all these articles, you give out about Trump appointing a climate change denier as the head of the EPA, all this stuff. But what do you actually do yourself?’
“And she was right, it was a fair point. I had to do something. So I gave up meat and dairy last January. The net effect of one person doing it is almost nothing, it’s so fractional. But I think everyone needs to do something. And it’s been fine.”
Mannion will be 26 in a few weeks. He made his debut for Dublin in February 2013 but you’d best describe his first five seasons in a senior jersey as stop-start. His hamstrings came calling most years at some point during the league, he wasn’t a regular starter most of the time, he’d taken a year off to go travelling and found the re-entry taxing.
Yet by January 2018, he was coming off the back of his best championship, his first All Star, his first genuine spell of being an established Dublin forward. To decide there and then that he was going to overhaul his diet, to go full veggie in the protein-hungry world of intercounty football, shows a certain level of gumption. A commendable walking of the walk, at least.
Maybe it’s not that surprising, either. Mannion’s career has often mirrored his playing style, frequently galloping off in unexpected directions, generally at a pace. He walked into the Dublin dressingroom at 19 and had the full stars-in-your-eyes experience. His heroes, the players who had won the only Dublin All-Ireland of his lifetime, were lacing boots and strapping welts beside him.
Even his debut bit a chunk out of him that took a while to replace
The slog of it took some getting used to. He was in first year in UCD, gathering up a few quid between lectures serving Twixes and cans of Coke in the library shop before heading across the city to training in the evenings. He was constantly tired, only learning how to eat properly, relying on lifts from Rory O’Carroll and Mick Fitzsimons. Even his debut bit a chunk out of him that took a while to replace.
“Yeah, the first time I started in the league was against Cork and I got knocked out! I collided with Paul Flynn’s hip. So that didn’t last too long. I was stretchered off and I just remember waking up and going in the ambulance and getting sick on myself in the back of the ambulance with a neck brace on and going, ‘What the hell happened here?’ And then being told later on that I had been playing a match in Croke Park and I smashed into Paul Flynn’s hip.”
And yet despite the false start, he sluiced through that first year. Brilliant in the Leinster final against Meath where he scored 1-4 and laid Dublin’s other goal on for Flynn, scorer of a vital goal against Kerry in the semi-final just when the game seemed to be skating away from them. Though he pulled up lame early in the final against Mayo, he still ended the season on the shortlist for Young Footballer of the Year.
He looked like a made man. He wasn’t. He did his hamstring early in 2014 and never properly got his feet under the table for the rest of the year. Then, six days after the defeat to Donegal, he went to Beijing for nine months along with a dozen classmates.
It was an epic trip, hands-down the time of his life. The classes were intense, the downtime equally so. Back home, everyone assumed it was a gap-year kind of thing, something to get out of his system before he handed over the rest of his 20s to the Hill and all who sailed in her. But that wasn’t how he saw it at all. Not as it was happening and not for a long time after.
“When I came home, my first thought was, ‘How do I get back?’” he says. “I had to finish out my last year in UCD but the initial plan was to go straight back and teach English or even just wing it, essentially. A lot of people go to Shanghai and Beijing and try to network themselves into a job – there’s big Irish communities in both cities. So that was the plan.
“When I came back, Jim asked me to rejoin the panel and I got sucked back into everything. I started to remember that this is what I loved doing. By the end of that year, I knew I would regret it forever if I left again. But it was genuinely only late on in that year that I decided for sure.
“It was that  semi-final against Kerry that did it. That was a mental game, back and forth, coming back from six down or whatever it was. And at the end of that game, I was so buzzed that I just said to myself, ‘I can’t leave this’.”
So he didn’t. Problem was, deciding to stay and play for Dublin was only partially within his gift. Another February hamstring meant he’d missed a lot of the 2016 league. By the summer, a handful of so-so displays saw him play his way out of the team.
Though the year ended with a full house of league, Leinster and All-Ireland medals, it was a diet of empty enough calories, truth be told. Mannion was a double All-Ireland winner but drill down into it and what had he really contributed?
Including that year’s replay against Mayo, he’d played in three finals without completing a full 70-minute game. Worse, he hadn’t registered so much as a point in the biggest games of his life. Add it all up and in nine knock-out championship games for Dublin, he’d been scoreless in seven. Some he didn’t start, some he didn’t finish. But in most of them – the vast majority, in fact – he had come off the pitch feeling he ought to have done more.
On the face of it, he was flying. There wasn’t even any major dissatisfaction with him among the higher-ups. Jim Gavin and his merry men had gradually started to change his game, turning him into more of a worker-bee wing forward, tackling back and covering ground. That wasn’t who he was. And if it was who the Dublin management saw him to be, then he needed to mark their card for them.
I just wanted to let them know that I really wanted to play in the full-forward line.
“The league final of 2017 and actually that whole league campaign was a big thing for me. I got injured again early that year – in the Sigerson final in February. I lost my place in the team and couldn’t get in for the rest of the league. In the games where I was coming on, I was playing wing forward a lot. And I was just like, ‘I’m not a wing forward’.
“I said it to Jason Sherlock. ‘I know you guys kind of see me as able to play both but I don’t feel I’m being considered as an inside forward, which is what I want to be’. And he was like, ‘You can do both, you work hard, that’s a big plus’. And I just wanted to let them know that I really wanted to play in the full-forward line.
“So in that league final against Kerry, I was on the sideline and I was just really frustrated. We were losing and other lads were starting ahead of me and I just wanted to get on and show what I could do. I came on, had a good game [he scored 1-2] and then after that I was like, ‘Shit, I can do this. I am good enough’.
“After that, my whole thing was, championship is coming, this is the year that I have to step up. I wanted to be the go-to man, I wanted to be the forward that players look to when the game is in the melting pot. I wanted to be a reliable, regular starter. I wanted to be a leader in the team. I was 24, it was time to do it.”
In the two years since that league final, Mannion has blossomed. Nobody in the game who is faster than him is a better shooter and nobody who is a better shooter is faster. He has scored in both All-Ireland finals – 0-3 in 2017 and 1-1 in last year’s decider, including the penalty that nixed Tyrone’s fast start. He is the only forward in the game to be selected on the last two All Star teams. Dublin don’t see him as a wing forward coming in off the bench any more.
“Some players have that moment when they’re 18, 19 or 20. I just had it later. That was the moment for me. I just felt I hadn’t shown my best at all yet for Dublin. I hadn’t given my best for the team. And it was frustrating me. It was like, ‘are you going to do this or not?’
“You have moments like that. The county final last year [when he scored 1-6 from play and won the game more or less on his own] was another one. The day after it, I remember thinking, ‘Shit, okay, I need to do this more’. Like, why can’t I do that more often? I need to push on and be like that in games loads of times instead of just here and there.”
Think it. Talk it. Do it. Be it.
Not a bad code for any of us to live by.