Sunday 26 January 2020

'If a team tries to wind me up, I'll welcome it' - Philly McMahon still relishes a mental battle

Philly McMahon at the Gibson Hotel for the Dublin football press conference. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Philly McMahon at the Gibson Hotel for the Dublin football press conference. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Think you can get a rise out of Philly McMahon. Think you can trigger a reaction to something you might say by playing on the perception of dormant chinks in his temperament ready to spark.

Go ahead and try it then because, he feels, it's just not going to work for you. In a Dublin career stretching back to 2008 he reminds you that he has only once been sent off (against Derry in the 2014 league). There have been a couple of retrospective suspensions (after the 2015 All-Ireland final and this year's league final for different infractions) and, let's face it, he's had a few close shaves.

In that context he accepts he is a target for opponents but considers it an act very much on his terms.

"I'd like to be a fly (on the wall) in the changing room of the opposition. I think it would be a stupid thing to do because it's kind of my bread and butter," he reminded his audience at Dublin's press briefing ahead of next this weekend's much-anticipated All-Ireland semi-final with Tyrone.

"I've never failed to, you know, to fall into that trap, so if there's an opposition team that are thinking of doing that to me, I'd welcome it. Because I don't think it works," he said adamantly.

McMahon has tailored his game for such 'give and take' engagement. If it comes his way he instantly knows he's on to something.

Philly McMahon arguing the toss with Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea during their 2015 clash. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile
Philly McMahon arguing the toss with Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea during their 2015 clash. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile

"You have to remember, as a defender you're looking to change the mindset of the forward because all you're doing is chasing them around the pitch. If they're thinking of me, whether that's marking me going up the pitch or trying to get into my head or trying to ruffle me up, that's great. They're thinking of me, not the game. That's the way I see it."

It's a type of battle he just doesn't expect to lose. "I suppose I'm equipped to deal with it really well. It's very hard to say you're going to win a battle mentally, unless you outperform the player that you're marking. I would like to think that if a man says something to try to put me off my game, it draws more out of me.

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"And if I do the same to the fella I'm marking, it draws more out of him. I want to mark the best players, I want to mark them on top form and I want to see what I'm like. If that draws out a little bit more, great.​"

His experiences with mixed martial arts (MMA) has, he feels, helped with his ability to react in a more controlled way.

Conor McGregor. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile
Conor McGregor. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile

"I can only think of one occasion where I've lashed back (against Derry). And it was just there was a man hanging out of me and I was putting my arm back to get him off and hit him in the face and it was a red card. So, apart from that, one incident in nine years.


"I'm very lucky that I've done MMA a lot so when you're getting punched in the face and you're not just reacting, you're responding I suppose to the situation and it just becomes a habit. It's something I've done all my career.

"It's experience, it's being able to bring your brain through those little compartments and make sure they don't happen."

The concept of MMA remains appealing to him and something he tries to do in the off-season.

"I like the challenge of all the different styles within the one sport. And I like that you can channel the aggression into a sport like I do with football as well. But you can actually hit people in that sport, which is a little bit better," he laughed.

In a week where MMA's profile will rise once more on the back of Conor McGregor's boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, McMahon, a fan of McGregor, knows the scheduling precludes him from watching it live."I suppose I'm like every Irish person. We want him to win but I think it's a big challenge.

"You just never know because it's like us playing Tyrone next week, we don't know how well we're prepared for it. We don't know how well our attack is going to work, the same with them.

"But this fella has so much self-belief that anything can happen. He can just catch him with one shot. He's definitely the bigger man and has freak power and freak movements. It's like the Donegal game we played in 2014 - we didn't know they were going to come out with them sort of tactics. Mayweather won't know what McGregor is going to come out with. His movement is so different to an orthodox boxer," he pointed out.

Talk of that watershed Donegal match almost three years ago prompts comparisons to what Dublin may face on Sunday with Tyrone routinely deploying just one forward, Mark Bradley, up front at all times.

"I have to say, I love it, I love it," McMahon said. "Normally, when I am attacking, I've to drag a man with me but now I don't! But in terms of preparation, Monaghan would have similar defensive structures although they probably didn't go as defensive as we would have thought.

"Tyrone would be a little bit more defensive than them, they lock it down. It is nothing that we haven't come up against before, tactically, but we know the intensity they bring is another notch above the rest of the northern teams."


After the Donegal defeat, McMahon felt the players took more "ownership" of what to do on the field in a crisis such as the one they faced that day.

"The players have to take ownership and make sure we make the decisions and if we see something that needs changing, to do that. The management team have helped us adapt in training with different scenarios and prep us for different opposition so again like last year we haven't seen anything different just yet but we're making sure that we're able to adapt. 2014 was a prime example of that because we didn't adapt on the pitch. Donegal broke, we left gaps at the back and conceded three goals."

At 29, McMahon feels he's at the peak of his career with solid back-to-back seasons earning him successive All-Stars on top of his third and fourth All-Ireland medals. Mixing a gym and health food business with football has demanded better use of his time and adherence to a colour-coded 'default diary' that informs of what his priorities should be at a certain time of the week.

"When I was younger I was always looking for the extra edge, the extra gym session. But now, instead of the amount of time I'm spending in certain areas, I'm just trying to condense it down and have better quality in those areas. Making sure that my gym is done 100 per cent, my runs, making sure I'm not dropping a yard or too. Nutrition is on point. Because I don't have that time."

Time away from football is better spent too. "I have actually now started to work around my family members. So I go down and see my dad a good bit. Every day. Then I'd work around those hours instead of going to work and then my family working around what I'm doing."

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