Having moved to England at the age of 16, signing for Hull City, Kealan Dillon’s story is a familiar one among Irish footballers. Two years of the Midfielders footballing education was spent with the ”Tigers” but the breakthrough was not to come, instead a move to Scotland and SPL side St Mirren was calling. More heartbreak was to follow as Dillon’s undoubted potential failed to materialise in Scotland leading to the move home.
Mick Cooke was the first to put his hand up and ‘take a punt’ on the youngster for want of an old football saying, and despite a dreadful start to life in the Premier Division with Athlone, losing their opening ten games of the season, Dillon would soon flourish under new boss Keith Long. A defiant end of season run of form, of which Dillon played a key part from midfield, saw Athlone go into the final day of the season with a chance of pulling off one of the great escapes. However, it wasn’t to be as Bray Wanderers sunk the Midlanders to end their brief return to the top flight. To rub salt into the ‘Blue and Black’ wounds, local rivals Longford Town were passing them by in the football pyramid as they secured the First Division title, which Athlone had piped them to the season before.
Manager Keith Long had done more than enough to enhance his reputation despite the end result of relegation and a massive opportunity at Bohemians was presented to him. One of the former Bray bosses first signings was that of Dillon as the famous old Dublin club built a squad capable of restoring pride to a club in the financial doldrums for years beforehand.
A famous fifth place finish for the Dublin club was to follow as Dillon made 21 appearances and scored a goal of the season contender in a match away to Derry City. However, having been an ever present during his time in Athlone, Dillon felt the urge to play more regularly and this was spotted by Town boss Tony Cousins who Dillon told Between the Stripes, in fact approached to sign him last season:
”Tony had shown interest in trying to sign me last season but the move never happened. So at the end of last season Tony rang me to meet up to have a chat with him about coming down to play for Longford.”
In fact, the level of interest Cousins showed in trying to bring the 21 year old to Longford was one of the driving forces behind Dillon putting pen to paper in the end as he told ”BTS” here:
”After we met I liked what he had to say about the direction he wanted the club to go in and the ideas of what he had in mind for me personally. With the level of interest he showed in me it wasn’t a hard decision to make to sign for Longford.”
Looking back on his time in England and subsequent brief spell in the SPL, Dillon admits he may not have fully appreciated the environment he found himself at the time, although the experience is one he still cherishes today:
”At the time no, maybe I didn’t realise what I had and probably didn’t appreciate it enough. Playing first team team football where the 3 points really matters and peoples jobs are on the line was definitely a jump into the deep end. Reserve football isn’t really taken seriously enough in England so results don’t really matter. So it was a big change and a steep learning curve.”
When League of Ireland fans read quotes like this they often question if perhaps young Irish talent would gain more from staying at home longer to play competitive action prior to moving to England. When this was put to Dillon he answered with this:
”Whether I think one experience was better than the other I don’t really know. I don’t regret going to England at 16 and I would never give back what I learned during my time there. I feel I got to experience a lot of what football was about at a young age and it has helped me now as a player.”
Looking back at his time in Lissywoolen, Dillon credits the week in week out football a lot for his recent development within the league, but he is keen to ensure his new club don’t suffer a similar fate to that of Athlone in 2014.
”The season at Athlone was a big season for me because coming home from Scotland I wasn’t sure if I was going to keep playing. So getting a chance to play week in week out for probably the first time since I’ve left schoolboy football was great for me. The season didn’t finish the way we wanted but from the position we were in it was an acheivment in itself. As a young player in that season I learnt a lot about the way to win in football. That playing good football all the time wasn’t always enough. I’m not even considering a relegation battle for ourselves this season. We have put a good squad together and I don’t feel we will be at that end of the table come the end of the season.”
While some Longford fans have expressed their fears that this seasons squad in fact looks weaker than that of last years, However, Dillon is only looking in one direction for 2016 and that’s up as ”De Town’s” new signings look to build on last years fantastic 6th place finish.
”We have made some very good signings this season who will only help build on the season that was had here last year. There’s always a surprise team every year who finish higher than was originally expected and there is no reason that can’t be us this year. We will be pushing to finish as high up the table as possible.”
With midfielders John McKeon and Mark Hughes arriving at the club from Cabinteely and Drogheda United respectively, Dillon can expect a battle to secure a starting berth at City Calling Stadium but even Dillon was quick to admit there have been question marks over his best position on the tactics board.
”There has always been a question with myself on my best position. I have played in both full back positions everywhere across midfield and as a striker. I’m happy to play anywhere but I feel my best position is when I’m playing centrally so I can be more involved in the game. Tony has brought me here as a midfielder but I will play anywhere to help the team.”
That impressive attitude and desire to do well with his new club should make Dillon a hit with the ‘Section O’ faithful and the former Athlone man admits he has taken some stick from the other side over his Midlands move.
”I got a bit of stick from the Athlone fans after signing but it didn’t affect my decision too much. With the way things change in this league you could never move anywhere if you didn’t want to play for a rival team. I played in a few derby games against Longford when I was at Athlone and you can see what it means to both sets of fans.”
Dillon is in fact more understanding than most of the intensity of the derby as he has lived in County Westmeath since the age of 7. That in fact makes the new Town man one of the squads more local men and when asked if that makes the local clashes mean more to him he responded with:
”I do live in Westmeath so I’m probably more local to the derby than a lot of the players in the league. Nobody wants to disappoint the fans and lose a derby game. Players go out every week to try and win but there is always that extra edge to a derby game whether the players are local or not.”
As mentioned already, Dillon and his new team-mates are aiming to improve on a top half finish from last term as well as a heart-racing run to the semi-finals of the FAI cup. However, on a personal basis Dillon is also aiming to continue his development as a player with a few targets for 2016 in mind as he explains:
”I got 4 goals for Athlone and 5 last season for Bohs so hopefully I can build on that this season and get a few more. The most important thing is getting game time and getting better as a player.”
That quest for development will start on March 4th as ”De Town” travel to the newly promoted First Division champions Wexford Youths. With Danny Furlong looking to continue his fine scoring form recent years, some may be forgiven for thinking getting anything on the board away from home on the opening day might be a good start for Longford. However, Dillon insists they will only focus on the big 3 points come the big kick-off.
”Our next 5 or 6 weeks of pre-season will all be gearing towards going down to Wexford to get 3 points. Getting off the mark early and gathering some momentum will put us in a good position continuing on through the league. We won’t be worrying too much about who is or isn’t playing for wexford we will be focusing on ourselves and going down there to win.”
Having not lost to the Youths in almost six years, the ‘Section O’ faithful will travel in numbers to Ferrycarrig Park for the opening game of the season. Should Dillon manage to get off the mark early for his new club it would certainly help ease the levels of expectation placed upon him for 2016. Of course, when a player joins Longford having represented rivals Athlone, one instantly thinks of the success Mark Salmon had following his switch over the divide with the midfielder going on to captain Town to First Division glory as well as racking up the 8th highest numbers of appearances in club history. Dillon is certainly keen to experience such history:
”I definitely aim to try and make the club as successful as possible which in turn will get the fans on side. It always helps at a new club if the fans take a shine to you early in the season. It definitely makes settling in a little bit easier. We will do everything we can to please the fans. Hopefully Section O are happy with what they see.”