Philly McMahon fighting negative perceptions on and off the field
Wednesday afternoon in Dublin's northside and Philly McMahon sits down to chat about today's All-Ireland final. The funny thing is, it never once comes up in conversation.
That's a good thing. McMahon is one of the most fascinating characters in Gaelic games and it would be a waste of his time - and ours - chatting about football. There is a lot more to McMahon's life, and he's happy to go there.
Not many young men could talk openly about their brother's drug addiction and untimely death or discuss the obstacles he had to hurdle as a kid growing up in Ballymun. But McMahon is comfortable with anything thrown at him.
He loves where he comes from. It's old school, one of the few places in Dublin where there is a community, he reckons. As recently as the early 1990s, Ballymun Kickhams GAA club didn't even have a pitch or dressing-room and players togged out in an old truck container. The locals rallied, however, bought land near Dublin Airport, got two fields, paid for 80 per cent of them and set about developing the first all-weather pitch in the GAA.
Back then Ballymun was defined by its towers and little else. Once heralded in the 1960s as a visionary development, the towers were ultimately seen as one of the worst planning fiascos in the State's history. Unemployment was rampant, poverty, crime and drugs too, and the flats became an iconic image of Irish culture. For all the wrong reasons.
"There was no escaping labels and perception," McMahon admits. "But I was lucky. Paddy Christie found us as kids and brought us to the GAA club - an outlet for anyone who wanted to play sport."
Christie mobilised a team of under 10s and brought up the ranks. McMahon was part of it, Davy Byrne too.
"It was easy to practise because we had the tower and flats to kick a ball against," McMahon smiles dryly. "I lived in the four storeys, but you have to live there to experience how good a place it is and how tight a community it is. There's very few communities like it nowadays unless you go down the country where there's a parish. Just give the people and the community a chance. They'll always come good."
Yet, Ballymun could have dragged him down a different road; a rockier path that many others stumbled down.
"Ballymun has two different areas," McMahon explains. "There would have been a trend of Glasnevin players going to college but there wasn't many Ballymun players going on."
McMahon says the GAA club was also responsible for him going into third level education. Byrne too. "Davy's doing a masters degree now. It's great to see."
Two years ago, McMahon helped identify ways for 18 to 24-year-olds to come off the live register. The Ballymun-Whitehall partnership aimed to get participants doing a fitness course. Out of 20, seven found employment and more continued their education. Funding was cut so McMahon will soon launch a private institute to help support such scholarships.
"Instead of us going back to the government all the time, it's self-funding. Part of the fee will go to running the business and part will go to a scholarship in my brother's name. The John Caffrey Scholarship," he says.
He doesn't blink when he is asked to recall John's story. John died three years back, two days after the Dubs lost their All-Ireland semi-final. He was 31 and passed away from a heart condition.
"John had an addiction problem most of his life and he didn't have any opportunity like this, that's why I'm trying to provide it for other kids," his brother explains.
"Two years before he passed away he was clean, he came off drugs. He lived in London. He missed the 2011 All-Ireland final and when we reached the 2012 semi-final we were hoping he'd come home because he was clean and doing great. Unfortunately, he passed away a couple of weeks later. You don't realise how much an influence he had until he passed away. Now I want to explain to people how they should treat people who are on drugs, show them that there is that extra bit of support that my brother didn't have.
"John has been a massive influence for me. He pushed me the opposite way to his path. Even though he was struggling with drugs he pushed me with the football."
If he saw you straying from the road you were on? "He'd bash me, yeah!"
McMahon says that the perception of drug addicts quickly needs to change.
"It's unfortunate the way people treat drug addicts," he says. "Or even how they speak about people on drugs. People just have problems and need help. It's getting that awareness out there that's important. If through my brother's story we can help others we could see hope."
McMahon remains grateful that his peers saw him so entrenched in sport and never put any undue pressure on him to experiment with drugs. He doesn't even drink; he took a sip of beer once and hated the taste.
Christie's role in his safe development is massive. There was a boredom factor for kids around the area and confidence was low. Ballymun's youth were vulnerable. "That's why Paddy was the biggest influence on my career," McMahon adds. "More of my friends would have taken drugs than did not. I've lost some good friends to drugs.
"I hung around with a lot of lads that overdosed, committed certain crimes and are probably in prison now. Out of that group I'm probably the only one that went to college and it's thanks to Paddy taking me up to Ballymun Kickhams.
"When your peers are doing all that stuff you're surrounded by it. How do you get away from it? But the only thing I could think off was sport when other lads were drinking on the blocks.
"Paddy doesn't get the credit he deserves. The amount of kids he's saved is massive."
McMahon is often invited back to his school to talk about returning to do his Leaving Cert and becoming the first person in his family to get a college degree. He repeats the mantra: "If I can do it, so can you."
Not that Gaelic football was always plain sailing. He remembers being dropped by Pat Gilroy in 2009 and never wants that hurt again. This season has seen his best by far but to hold his place McMahon says he needed to become more aggressive.
"I always had a bit of aggression but it was more so to turn that into a skill. How aggressive could I go for the ball or tackle the man? It doesn't mean I'm going to batter someone, it just means that I'm working on my defensive duties smartly. I've worked on it in training, can I tackle someone without fouling them? I'm on the borderline of dispossessing them and making sure I don't foul and conceded an easy score."
Life on the edge suits him. His replay performance against Mayo was the best of his career. Marc Ó Sé is the only corner-back to win a Footballer of the Year award but McMahon could be the second. Considering he was a bit-part player in 2011 and 2013, it's some rise.
"But I don't take anything for granted. I got dropped in 2009; a year I'll never get back," he says. "When you love something and it gets taken away from you it's a massive drive to get back. But it was probably what made me the player I was in 2010."
That mental resolve was needed again recently when Mayo's Aidan O'Shea publicly stated that McMahon head-butted him in the drawn semi-final.
"I was surprised by that but everyone saw I didn't do it and it was good to be cleared of something I didn't do," he adds. "Was I worried? No, because I know I didn't do it. The angle that the camera showed, I was maybe a bit worried about that! It didn't show him actually pulling me."
The fall-out from that stormy affair continued to rage. Referees chief Pat McEnaney's comments about "the way they walk in Ballymun" had the community up in arms, but not McMahon, who made light of it on Twitter.
"I don't think Pat meant any malice with it," he says. "We are a proud people in Ballymun. People put us down all the time. In football you get it a lot. You get called all these different names and it motivates me. It was just a bit of banter. "
In the TV analysis McMahon's name kept coming up. He was lambasted for an alleged dive, with Dublin legend Ciaran Whelan stating he should be embarrassed about it. So, was it a dive and were you embarrassed?
"I wasn't embarrassed, no. You can see there was contact from the camera but I don't come out after games and say I've been hit," he says.
"If I dived it was a great dive, I suppose. I was alright, I just got a whack in the face. I got a worse bang in the second one and nothing happened, so what do you expect?"
"I don't watch The Sunday Game or anything like that, but everybody was dying to tell me I was mentioned!
"You get used to that as a defender. You're always getting that. It's not our culture to come out after the game and say anything. If it's what other players do, that's fine. You have to live on the edge but you must go by the rules, that's the most important thing. You're constantly reacting to a forward's run and there will always be hands on and vice versa. Once you make sure that you live on the line that's how you're going to have a good game."
The formula is certainly working so far.
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