Saturday 24 February 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Philly McMahon - Revealing a hero behind the villain

Philip McMahon admitted that sport played a large part in preventing him from taking the wrong road
Philip McMahon admitted that sport played a large part in preventing him from taking the wrong road

Eamonn Sweeney

It was Philly's year. When the going got tough for the Dubs as the season reached the business end, no-one did more to haul them over the line than the man from Ballymun Kickhams. At 28 years of age, Philly McMahon finally came into his kingdom.

Simultaneously, no-one was embroiled in as much controversy and no player seemed to so clearly exemplify the divided quality of Gaelic football as a game, its light and its dark sides, the way the athletic and the combative elements are never that far from each other.

At the start of the 2015 season Philly McMahon was just one more member of an excellent but somewhat anonymous Dublin defence, a player hard to distinguish from Jonny Cooper, Kevin O'Brien, Michael Fitzsimons, Rory O'Carroll, Darren Daly, Davey Byrne et al as he toiled away in the non-glamorous sector of a team defined by its firepower at the other end. Now pretty much everyone knows who he is and has an opinion on him. When we look back on this year's campaign his is the first name which will come to mind.

Read more: Comment: Dirty Dig at Joe Brolly cheapens a very serious issue

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McMahon had been solid if somewhat underemployed as Dublin did their annual cakewalk through Leinster. But it was in the drawn semi-final against Mayo that he emerged as a major player.

Dublin duo Philly McMahon (right) and Rory O'Carroll in action against Kieran Donaghy DAVID MAHER/SPORTSFILE
Dublin duo Philly McMahon (right) and Rory O'Carroll in action against Kieran Donaghy DAVID MAHER/SPORTSFILE

Perhaps the period of maximum danger for Dublin in this year's championship came when O'Carroll went off injured early in that game. The absence of O'Carroll's presence in front of goal left Dublin extremely vulnerable to the size and power of Aidan O'Shea and there was something panicky about their defending in the immediate aftermath of the full-back's departure.

Yet the anticipated bonanza for O'Shea never transpired and in fact the big man finished the game without a score to his name thanks to a marking job by McMahon which was a case study in how a marked physical advantage can be cancelled out by sheer tenacity and diligence.

After the game McMahon's success against Mayo's marquee player was somewhat overlooked as attention focused on the allegation that the Dubliner had headbutted his opponent. There were suggestions McMahon might even face suspension but given that he had at most leaned his head into O'Shea, a move not wise but hardly dangerous, that would have been extremely harsh.

In the replay McMahon gave perhaps the finest individual performance of the championship. Nominally at corner-back he seemed to be ranging all over the field, terrifying the Mayo defence as he appeared from deep to claim 1-2, an extraordinary total for a defender in a major match.

The moment when, with 13 minutes left and the teams level, the ball popped up as Bernard Brogan was challenged by Mayo defenders and McMahon arrived to slam it into the net summed up the effect he'd had on the game. What was he even doing up there?

This day last week his task was a more conventional if potentially more onerous one, to do what had never been done before and prevent Colm Cooper from making an impact in an All-Ireland final.

But McMahon didn't just outplay Cooper, he did so to such an extent that the Kerryman cut an utterly demoralised figure by the end of the game. And when, on the stroke of half-time, McMahon strode forward to land a massive point, that seemed like the moment when things turned irrevocably Dublin's way. "It was the moment," said Darragh Ó Sé, "that I knew Kerry's goose was probably cooked."

Yet once more McMahon found himself surrounded by controversy regarding an alleged eye gouging on Kieran Donaghy. To my mind there seemed to be a somewhat desperate effort to make more of the incident than was actually warranted. On the other hand McMahon obviously did something he shouldn't have done.

If not as guilty as the lynch mob wished him to be, he wasn't entirely innocent either. Things often work out like that in football. The quick-fire online reaction wants either an obvious hero or an obvious villain yet a lot of what happens is neither black nor white but an ambivalent shade of grey.

Philly McMahon, it's fair to say, has ascended into the pantheon of players who will always be heroes to their own supporters and villains to those of the opposition. These anti-heroes include the likes of Paul Galvin, Niall Cahalane, Mick Lyons and Ryan McMenamin and perhaps their distinguishing characteristic is that no manager in the country wouldn't like one of them on his team. They are complicated characters who resist easy judgement.

Philly McMahon (left) speaking to Kerry's Colm Cooper
Philly McMahon (left) speaking to Kerry's Colm Cooper

The latest addition to their ranks is not just a remarkable footballer: brave, tireless, athletic and unusually skilful for a corner-back, he's also a remarkable character. That's the only conclusion I could draw from his interview with Damian Lawlor in this paper last week, as fine a piece as I've read on the 2015 championship.

McMahon spoke about his upbringing in Ballymun and also about his brother John, a former drug addict who died three years ago at the age of 31 from a heart condition after being clean for two years.

But what was striking was the way he spoke about these things. He didn't shy away from the area's problems, admitting that as a kid he "hung around with a lot of lads that overdosed, committed certain crimes and are probably in prison now." But he also showed a fierce pride about his native area: "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."

You don't often hear Ballymun being spoken about like that in the media. And McMahon also departed from the usual stereotypical depiction of a drug addict when he spoke with affection of how John was "a massive influence for me. He pushed me the opposite way to his path. Even though he was struggling with the drugs he pushed me with the football . . . it's unfortunate the way people treat drug addicts or even how they speak about people on drugs. People just have problems and need help."

I found the interview immensely affecting precisely because of the low-key way in which McMahon spoke and the complete lack of self-pity or self-dramatisation. Areas like Ballymun tend to be dismissed altogether by the powers that be while no-one looms larger in contemporary demonology than the drug addict.

Yet here was someone talking about an addict as a human being and Ballymun as a community populated not by scumbags or victims but by ordinary people.

Philly McMahon makes contact with the eye area of Kieran Donaghy
Philly McMahon makes contact with the eye area of Kieran Donaghy

This is not your typical background for a GAA star and that's what makes McMahon such an important figure. He admitted that sport played a large part in preventing him from taking the wrong road and used the word 'saved' to describe what former Dublin player Paddy Christie has done for people in the area through the GAA.

Had it not been for his involvement in football, he wouldn't have gone to college. There is a lesson there for our politicians who seem so reluctant to realise the wider benefits of investment in sport. Money invested in sport now can be money saved on policing later.

It is also salutary to hear that McMahon, who's carved out such a successful career as a strength and conditioning coach that he was offered a job with a Premier League club but turned it down to stay and play with Dublin, doesn't drink, which, given that alcohol has done to many communities around the country what drugs did to Ballymun, makes him even more of an inspirational figure. As does the fact that he's involved in a scheme to get youngsters in his local area off the dole.

Yet it's what McMahon does on the field which has made him the man of the hour. Jack McCaffrey is odds on favourite to be named Footballer of the Year yet few would argue that the brilliant wing-back, who missed the closing stages of the All-Ireland final, contributed as much to Dublin's victory as McMahon. McMahon is the right choice for the award and it would be an awful shame if he missed out because of the controversies.

He's not a dirty player. But he is tough. Tough because he had to be.

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