Ex Dublin star still giving back to the local clubs that made him
IT was a raw night in Ballymun. The young Setanta players were busy at the floodlit Ball Wall.
The adult hurlers were out on the grass. Upstairs, there’s a music session and an Irish class.
The children arrived for training. Some on their bikes. There’s pictures on the wall of the clubhouse. Of many figures that have been the backbone of Setanta.
There’s a sign over the doorway – ‘Small club, big heart.’
Philly McMahon appears. “It’s a cold one,” he says.
He steps out onto the astro. The children gather around him. He signs autographs and poses for pictures. He has time for the kids. All the time in the world. Even though he soon has to go training with Kickhams.
His visit brings good tidings. And a cheque for the juvenile section from a fund-raiser he organised.
Three clubs will benefit from the initiative – Setanta, Ballymun Kickhams and Ballymun United.
He steps inside and recalls the days when Poppintree Park, and the streets of this locality, were his playground. The ball at his feet. Or in his hands.
He points in the general direction of the park. All the happy hours he spent there. He feels a deep sense of gratitude.
“I was very lucky growing up and to have such brilliant sports clubs in Ballymun,” he remarks.
“I played for Setanta, Ballymun Kickhams and Ballymun United. I’ll never forget what the people in those clubs did for me.
“The opportunities they gave. The life-skills they instilled. Sport is so important. And making sure that sport is available to all the young people in Ballymun is the message we want to get across.”
He was 14 years with the Dubs. “I was fortunate to be a part of such a group that achieved so much. Success that I could never have imagined.
“It’s nice now to look back on it all. And, for my own part, I like to use whatever sporting profile I have to give back to the community here.”
He now owns the BeDo7 Fitness club. Sport has been the central theme of his life. “He was an excellent hurler,” notes Pádraig Ó Maoilstéighe, the man they call Sonny, one of the best hurling judges of all.
“I went over to Nottingham Forest for a trial when I was 14. It was a great experience. I loved it.
“But it made me decide which sport I was going to fully focus on, so when I came back from Nottingham, I picked Gaelic football.”
He grew up with Ballymun Kickham’s. Paddy Christie’s team. Rising through the ranks in Dublin. Paddy’s guiding hand pointing the way. Investing so much time in the young lads, even though Paddy was playing for Dublin at the time.
“Paddy was such a massive influence on me. He did so much for the area here. He was such a role-model for us all.”
Several of those Ballymun boys went on to play for the Dubs. And to earn Dublin championship honours with Kickhams. And Paddy was ever the giant at their shoulder.
“As I got older, I began to appreciate how blessed I was to have the role models that helped me so much.”
He recalls the kindness of his brother John. And the day John bought him his first Dublin jersey. The old Arnott’s one. John would also buy him all the soccer jerseys.
Philly follows Everton. He’s hoping that Sean Dyche can keep them in the Premiership. It was on Merseyside that he got the idea of the fund-raiser to help the local clubs.
“It was during the lockdown. A DJ played music on an open-top bus and people followed the bus on their bikes. We brought that idea to Ballymun. People donated their entry fee to the club of their choice. And it worked out very well.”
Back outside, Gareth Foxton and Daragh Breathnach are watching the Setanta juveniles train.
“It’s marvellous what Philly has done,” says Gareth. “It’s a big boost to the juvenile section here. And so welcome.”
Gareth is from Thurles. He plays on Setanta’s top team. He knows the importance of the first touch. “There’s no better place to practice than at the Ball Wall,” he states.
“The players can work on their control, and their striking. They can improve their skills so much.”
Daragh adds: “It’s wonderful that we have these facilities. Everybody in the club, and locality, looks up to Philly. If you want to get kids involved in sport, he is such an example for them all.
“And here he is tonight, coming down here, giving his time and helping us out.”
The Setanta chairman, Seán Ó Connachtaigh, looks on. Happy to see the Ball Wall being used so much.
His mind goes back to the big day last June – the official opening of the Ball Wall. GAA President, Larry McCarthy, was due to cut the ribbon. His flight from New York was delayed by three hours, but he still showed up.
“I made a commitment. And I was determined to keep it,” explained Larry.
That’s the type of attitude that ran through the spine of Dublin’s six-in-a-row team. The utter conviction of not letting anyone down. Playing for each other. Team before self.
These days, Philly is a columnist for the independent.ie. “I really enjoy it. It’s a chance to share some of the stories from my own days with the Dubs, and to give my opinion on things. Ok, not everyone is going to agree with me. You can’t please everybody all the time. But, hey, that’s life.”
It’s time to jump in the car and head for Páirc Ciceam. Val Andrews’ fields of dreams.
But before he goes, Philly shares his appreciation for the town he loves so well.
“There’s great clubs here. And those clubs have great local champions. People who have made, and are making, such a massive difference to the people of the area.”
He himself has become the People’s Champion. Continuing to help so many to jump the fences along life’s highway.
Philly for President.