From Klinsmann and co to the Lurgan Celts: The footballing journey of Gerard McMahon
NIFL Premier Intermediate League: Banbridge Town v Lurgan Celtic (Crystal Park, Saturday, April 6, 2019)
INJURIES, suspensions and the start of the GAA season have whittled the Lurgan Celtic squad down to the bare bones and so it’s a small group in green and white hoops that warms up before kick-off.
“Have you only got 12 players?” I ask.
“Aye… and Gerry,” replies a Celtic stalwart near the dugout.
“Is Gerry playing?”
“Aye, he’s doing goals. He had no choice!”
It turns out the club’s three goalkeeping options are all ruled out. One shows up on crutches, one is on holiday and the other has been involved in a car crash.
The IFA refused to let the club to sign a replacement so Celtic manager Gerry McMahon – the former Tottenham Hotspur winger who won 17caps for Northern Ireland - has to put himself in nets.
He trots out and goes through a warm-up with his mate Bubbles.
Barclays Premier League: Tottenham Hotspur v Coventry City (White Hart Lane, Saturday, May 9, 1995)
Another place, another life and Gerry McMahon sits in a living, breathing Pannini soccer sticker album.
Italia 90 winner Jurgen Klinsmann is in one corner, Teddy Sheringham is in the other, beside him are USA 94 Romania duo Dumitrescu and Popescu and then there are England’s Darren Anderton, Nicky Barmby, Sol Campbell…
The fresh-faced youngster from Craigavon with the indy-band hair-do had scored a hat-trick for the reserves the previous weekend and he’s pinching himself now because he’s just been told he’s starting on the right wing for Tottenham Hotspur against Coventry City.
“Spurs used to bring a few younger boys with the team and let them experience things before they’d even think about playing them,” explains McMahon, who works as a postman these days.
“I had gone to Anfield with the squad (he’s a Liverpool fan) which was a brilliant experience and when Gerry Francis (the manager) told me: ‘You’re in the squad tomorrow’, I thought it was the same sort of thing again.
“Then he read the team out and I was in it.
“I couldn’t believe it! I didn’t even have time to tell my mum and dad. I didn’t have time to get nervous.”
Blessed with electric pace and slick skills, McMahon played out his skin on that May Saturday in 1995. Five minutes before the end, Francis substituted him and the Spurs faithful cheered him off.
Terry Venables was the manager when the north London club had paid Glenavon a cool 100 grand for his services three years previously but he had departed after a falling out with Alan Sugar and Ray Clements and Ossie Ardilles had come and gone before Francis took over and nurtured McMahon’s precocious talent.
A couple of minutes to kick-off at Banbridge Town and the manager is giving final instructions to the Lurgan Celtic team.
“Right lads, the weak link is our goalkeeper ‘The Cat’ (his name on the team whiteboard), me, I’m the weak link,” he says.
“Protect me as much as you can.”
He goes through the defence and their roles and into midfield.
“Peter, you’re sitting in the hole, right?” says Gerry.
“Yep,” shouts a slightly-embarrassed Peter from inside the toilet cubicle attached to the tiny changingroom.
“Good man,” Gerry continues, smiling.
“Adam and Gerard, you’re up front…”
A clatter of boots and they file out to play Banbridge Town.
McMahon’s footballing roots go back to another Lurgan club - Lurgan United. The club doesn’t exist now but it also produced Neil Lennon, Gerry Taggart and his good friend Pat McGibbon. All four of them went across the water and won caps for Northern Ireland.
In his early teens he moved on to nearby Glenavon, making his Irish League debut for them as a 15 year-old. Three years later he scored the winner in the 1993 Irish Cup final against Linfield and then packed his boots and headed for London.
McMahon had been a big fish in the Irish League pond but his early days at White Hart Lane were an eye-opener and hard going for a lad from a family of six who’d never been on a plane before he took off for Heathrow.
“I was way behind the players over there and I found that out pretty quickly,” he says.
“I had only played 12 games in Glenavon’s first team so I was way behind standard-wise but I was really, really quick and my pace would get me out of trouble a lot.
“I was homesick for about a year and-a-half but I just kept it to myself, I didn’t tell anybody. I probably should have in hindsight, I suppose that’s the problem with men, they don’t talk about how they feel.
“I just tried to deal with it myself but after I got past that stage I started to really enjoy it and I picked up quick - the next three and-a-half years were great.
Germany striker Klinsmann, later to become his country’s manager, left a lasting impression on his young team-mate.
“He was a really down-to-earth person, a nice fella,” says McMahon.
“He treated everybody exactly the same no matter what age we were. A lot of the other players were driving Mercs but he drove an old Beetle he took over from Germany with him.
“Him and Teddy Sheringham really did stand out. As a wide player you would put crosses into the box and it didn’t matter where you put it, they got on the end of it.
“It made my life a hell of a lot easier! I always say that the higher up you go the easier it is to play because you’re playing with better players.
“They pass to you when you have time on the ball and they make good runs for you so you can make an easy pass. Then, as you gradually drop back down, players don’t make the runs when you play a pass and it makes you look stupid.”
A few weeks after his breakthrough at Spurs, McMahon made his Northern Ireland debut – replacing Keith Gillespie in a summer tournament against Canada.
Half-time: Banbridge Town 1 Lurgan Celtic 0
A Klinsmann or a Sheringham would have gobbled up the early chance Celtic create against Banbridge but, hey, this isn’t the Premier League, it’s the third tier of the Irish League.
Lurgan play tidy football in the first half with quick feet and creativity in the midfield and pace out wide. The Banbridge ’keeper saved that early chance and made two more good stops and the home side, physical and fit, pumped the ball into the box every chance they got.
About 13 minutes in, a cross comes in from the right wing to the far post and the Banbridge centre-forward plants a header into the far corner.
The Banbridge manager blows a gasket during the interval. Unhappy with what he has seen so far, he gets the hairdryer out and gives his men a prolonged rollicking. Meanwhile, down the hall in the Lurgan dressingroom, Gerry has his vaping stick out. He takes a drag and keeps his teamtalk nice and positive.
“We’re playing all the football out there lads,” he says.
“Let’s keep it going, shot-shot-shot… Anything 20 yards out… Don’t be scared to go for it.”
McMahon returned for the 1995/96 pre-season excited about becoming a fixture in the Spurs first team. Some of the ‘galacticos’ were gone - Popescu was sold to Barcelona and the talismanic Klinsmann left for Bayern Munich – and he featured in 24 games for Spurs.
Despite beating eventual champions Manchester United home and away, Spurs finished a disappointing eighth. He was offered a new deal at the end of the season but turned it down and when Stoke City came in with a bid of £450,000 for him he packed his bags for the midlands.
“It was my choice to leave,” he explains.
“In hindsight, should I have left? I don’t know. They offered me a new four-year contract and I hmmm’d-and-haaaa’d about it because I had played 24 games the season before and they were offering me what I thought wasn’t great so I went to Stoke and more than doubled my money.
“The season I left, Spurs had a load of injuries so I would probably have been a regular so, in hindsight, I should have stayed but I had to start thinking about my family as well, I’d just got married (to childhood sweetheart Adele) and we were expected a baby.”
Former Celtic and Man United striker Lou Macari welcomed him to Stoke but there was a lack of stability at the club and Chic Bates and Chris Kamara also had spells in charge as ‘the Potters’ pushed unsuccessfully for a place in the Premier League.
“I had good times in Stoke,” says McMahon, who famously scored in the club’s final game at the old Victoria Ground.
Kamara let him move on to the Scottish Premier League and he joined ambitious St Johnstone early in the 1997/98 season and quickly established himself in the first team.
In his second season the Saints finished third in the league behind the Old Firm but as the new millennium dawned and his contract in Scotland expired, McMahon began to see his future back on home ground.
“St Johnstone offered me to come back but my kids were at the age to start school so we came back home and we stayed,” he said.
“Colin Malone took over at Glenavon and brought in a lot of good players – Rodney McAree, Darren Murphy, Mark Glendenning, Gary Haylock, Sean Collins… A lot of people who had been about and knew what they were doing.
“He put the team together in double-quick time and we finished runners-up that year.”
His outstanding form prompted Malone to make him club captain for the 2001/02 season.
At 27 he was nearing the peak of his powers and there were whispers of an international recall (the last of his 17 caps came against Portugal in 1997) but a horrific leg break scuppered that and kept him out of the game for three years. When he eventually returned through a mixture of bloody-mindedness and superhuman effort, he had “a year and-a-half running with a limp”.
Banbridge Town 3 Lurgan Celtic 0
Lurgan Celtic roll their sleeves up and start the second half with a purpose but the home side catch them on the counterattack and break up the right. A cross from the wing is met by a downward header. ‘The Cat’ dives and gets a hand to it but can’t keep it out.
Then a few minutes later, a speculative effort comes out of the sun, bounces in front of him and bursts through his hands. No-one says a word as he picks the ball out of the back of the net and hurls it toward the centre circle.
The Celts keep plugging away and we even get a glimpse of a little Spurs style as Gerry plays the ball out of his box, but his team can’t force the consolation goal they deserve.
Despite defeat, the Celts go off the pitch with smiles on their faces because the teams below them have lost and they’ve been saved from relegation.
“That was the second time I’ve done nets and there won’t be a third,” says Gerry.
McMahon called time on his (outfield) playing career in 2009 and moved into coaching at Glenavon, Loughgall, Dromara Village and now Lurgan Celtic, taking over as manager at the start of this season.
As well as managing Celtic, he coaches local kids as part of Pat McGibbon’s TTBS foundation, a charitable club that promotes suicide awareness and currently fields 15 teams up to U17.
“I’d always want to be involved in football in some way,” he says.
“Even if I hadn’t got that break and went to Spurs I would still have played at some level and if I wasn’t involved in football on a Saturday I’d be going to watch it somewhere. “Ask my missus, she’s always saying: ‘Are we watching football again tonight?’ Oh yes! Every time there’s a game on TV I’m watching it.”
He doesn’t deliver crosses for Klinsmann and co these days, he delivers the post instead.
“Did football set me up? No, nowhere near it,” says the father of four.
“If I went over to Spurs now as a 19 year-old I probably would be set for life, especially if I broke into the first team.
“I was probably earning double what you’d have earned in the Irish League at Spurs, there wasn’t anywhere near the money in the Premier League there is these days. Fair play to the ones who are there now, they’re the lucky ones.”
All that glitters isn’t gold though.
“I remember going round the pitch at White Hart Lane applauding the crowd after we played Leeds, it was the last game of the season,” says Gerry.
“It was a bit surreal because I had been sitting there for three seasons clapping the players off and now I was one of them. It was a great feeling, something money can’t buy and something that will live with me forever.”
He rubbed shoulders with legends in the Premier League but there are levels far below those heights where football is played for purely for enjoyment. That’s where he came from and he’s back there now; still smiling, still in the game.
Maybe he’s the lucky one?