EVEN as his giddy team-mates revelled in the glory, Philly McMahon’s thoughts were already drifting toward 2012. He wanted more. He felt he could do more.
It’s not that McMahon views last year’s deliverance with mixed emotions. He lives for football and loved every minute of Dublin’s long-overdue return to the summit. But it was also an injury-truncated campaign for a player who, just 12 months earlier, had made the GPA team of the year.
You ask how he enjoyed the All-Ireland celebrations and he replies: “It was strange, that’s the word to use.” How so? “I always had one eye probably on the following year. Without sour grapes, I felt that |I could … do more. And it’s definitely the motivation.”
A non-drinker who by his own admission is “probably messier” than the ‘carousers’, McMahon clarifies: “I’m sure a lot of the lads who were involved a little bit more than me would feel different to the way I feel. But it’s not taking away from it – there are lads out there dying to get All-Ireland medals, so for me it was a huge, huge achievement.
“I suppose it only sinks in a few months later when you can say, ‘Jesus, I actually have got an All-Ireland medal.’ It’s crazy.”
Now for the hard part: defending Sam. This son of Ballymun is just 24 and obviously has yet to fully encounter the year-two pitfalls that come with coronation, but he’s ready for them.
“This year, as a player, you can’t think you’re an All-Ireland champion. Because if you do think that, a lot of negative things will come into your game,” he suggests.
“I know personally, I’ve a lot to improve this year. I got two bad injuries last year and missed an awful lot of football, so I don’t look at it as I’m an All-Ireland champion; I look at it as if I’ve something to improve on this year.”
It may seem a slight contradiction but, in the same breath, McMahon gives a refreshing insight into his own motivations.
“I don’t play football to win or lose. I just play for the enjoyment of it. If I lost against Armagh, would I give the game up? No,” he declares, speaking ahead of Sunday’s Allianz League Division One outing in Croke Park. “Obviously the enjoyment of winning is really important. It’s a competitive sport. But some people have problems in life; some people are in a worse situation than I am today.
“When I played last year in the |All-Ireland final, I could have taken the huff and said, ‘Aw, I’m not starting’ … but when you look around and you’re playing in front of a full capacity in Croke Park, you’d say, ‘Jesus, you could be in a worse position than this.’”
IN one sense, there is no surprise in McMahon’s elevation through the Dublin defensive ranks. He’s part of a decorated lineage of Ballymun Kickhams clubmen to excel with a single-digit number on a Sky Blue back: Gerry Hargan, Dermot Deasy, current selector Ian Robertson, current wing-back James McCarthy and, of course, Paddy Christie.
Christie was McMahon’s underage club coach from eight all the way up to U21.
His former ‘pupil’ charts the history of |a group that reached its medal-winning pinnacle as U21s, but whose real achievement was producing a raft of players now populating the current senior team at the ’Mun.
“A brilliant manager,” McMahon recalls. “The way he coached, everything was always positive … and because he had the reputation of being the Dublin footballer from Ballymun, a lot of kids aspired to that.”
Was it hard getting those kids to play GAA? “Definitely,” he confirms. “I’m sure it’s no different than any other areas. There are always bad things in areas and good things in areas. I know that I’d a bunch of friends who went the opposite way to where I went, and I put it down to Gaelic football and being around a lot of lads that were doing well in school, and playing football and enjoying it.”
He graduated to the Dublin senior panel during Paul Caffrey’s swansong campaign in 2008. Enter Pat Gilroy. Exit McMahon.
“I was looking forward to a new year, new changes,” he recounts. “No matter what manager came in, there was going to be a sweep-out. To be honest, I was young and I didn’t think I was going to be one of those players to be dropped down.
“Then it was up to me to answer a few questions,” McMahon adds. “It was probably the best year of club football I’ve ever played (2009).
“I suppose a lot of anger went into my game … a lot of the motivation playing that year came from being dropped from that Dublin team.”
Gilroy promptly recalled the player for 2010. Moreover, McMahon became a mainstay of his all-new full-back line, entrusted with the role of defensive sweeper whenever Dublin faced a twin-pronged inside attack.
His first full championship campaign was the ultimate rollercoaster. They leaked five goals to Meath, |partly, he believes, because “we changed our system”. Then, having stayed upright for their banana skin qualifier against Tipp, the turning point came against this weekend’s opponents, Armagh, crystallised into one 62nd-minute watershed.
Brian Mallon pulled the trigger to put Armagh two points clear … only for the back-pedalling McMahon to make a spectacular goal-line clearance. He had moved back on “instinct” and was “lucky” to be in the right place, but the resultant buzz was amazing. “It was probably more satisfying to knock that ball off the line that it was to score a point as a corner-back that day,” he admits.
McMahon is hoping for a few similar magic moments in 2012 – and less of the freakish injuries. Early last season, he chipped a bone in his toe when somebody (not himself!) accidentally dropped a barbell on it.
Then, in Dublin’s Leinster SFC opener against Laois, he was blocked down with traumatic consequences – he played on with a bandaged knee but scans later revealed a fracture plus a grade-two tear to his lateral ligament.
He eventually returned with a stoppage-time cameo during the quarter-final demolition of Tyrone. Against both Donegal and Kerry he was first sub in, and thus was on the pitch as Stephen Cluxton delivered |All-Ireland history at the death.
Six months on, McMahon is in the final semester of a degree course at DCU, studying education and training. Having worked in the gym industry for a couple of years, he went back to repeat his Leaving Cert: cue DCU, where he has won a brace of Sigerson medals.
All the while, he has been developing a blossoming gym operation – BK Strength and Conditioning, operating out of Ballymun Kickhams and Thomas Davis in Tallaght, with Good Counsel a likely next branch.
Into this busy schedule you can add the full-on pursuit of playing for the Dubs. “The competition in the team has increased this year. A lot of lads that were on the ‘B’ team like myself last year are really, really pushing hard,” he confirms. “The competition is going to bring us on hugely, but it’s all about thinking this is a new year – we’ve only won one.”