GAA Football

McMahon: defender driven by desire to claim Sam Maguire

Philly McMahon of Dublin with the Sam Maguire Cup at the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship 2015 launch at the Gap of Dunloe, Killarney, Co. Kerry

If you've ever thought about Philly McMahon, you've probably written him off as a stubborn defender destined to trade not in silk but steel.

That in the car showroom that is Dublin's gleaming defence, you figured McMahon as the reliable old German diesel to Cian O'Sullivan's Rolls Royce.

That myth, of course, was shattered in Dublin's All-Ireland semi-final defeat of Mayo when the corner-back, whilst simultaneously neutralising Aidan O'Shea, collected a 1-2 bounty from his various raids forward, turning the game decisively in Dublin's favour.

Mind you, if it took until that incredible performance for you to change your perception about Philly McMahon, then you've already missed an awful lot of the story.

Now 28, he is a highly regarded strength and conditioning coach with an entrepreneurial spirit as the owner of BK Fitness gyms and the developer of Fitfood Ireland, a company providing nutritious meals to busy consumers.

That still isn't what he's all about though, not even close. If it was then he would have listened to the business side of his brain this time last year and accepted the offer from a League Two soccer club in England to be their strength and conditioning coach.

To do that would have meant sacrificing his Gaelic football career with Dublin, however, so he knocked it back and followed his heart.

Mind you, there appears to be far more again to McMahon than just his love of Gaelic football. In fact, if you had to boil this son of Dublin down to any one thing, you might suggest he is all about his love of people and of place, specifically, his native Ballymun.

The troubled north Dublin suburb was beset by all sorts of social problems while McMahon was growing up; poverty, drugs, crime, you name it. Its high rise flats, visible from miles off, weren't so much beacons of hope throughout the 1980s as temples of doom for many.

And that's where the McMahon story gets really interesting because while he kicked a ball against the concrete flats for years with his pals and witnessed many of their lives spiral out of control, he stubbornly follow his own path.

A teetotaller, he never liked the taste of alcohol and sidestepped drugs.

His own brother, John Caffrey, who suffered from a heart condition, passed away at the age of 31 in September 2012, having abused drugs during his life.

At first, that lifestyle was an embarrassment that Philly tried to hide.

But with maturity has come all sorts of realisations, principally that John was actually a huge influence for the good on him.

"I only realised when he passed away how important an influence he was on me," said McMahon in an Irish Times interview earlier this year.

"I said to a friend there recently, 'For someone to come off drugs is the most inspirational thing a person can do in life'. Because it takes...unless you have experienced it, you can't really know. And you don't want to experience it."

The young McMahon could so easily have fallen into society's same cracks. Playing with his local Ballymun Kickhams team, he observed a trend of the Ballymun players rarely going to college while residents of nearby Glasnevin, a leafy Dublin suburb, who also played for the club, generally did.

Statistics piled up all around McMahon in those early years though he managed to knock them down like dominoes, improving both his mind and his body with a relentless zeal.

He feels he's in a position to help others and in recent years has been active in a local partnership aimed at getting 18-24 year-olds into employment.

Vital funding was cut, so this year he's come at the same problem from a different angle, organising a fundraiser for later this year to generate money for a scholarship to be set up for young people coming off social welfare.

All of which probably explains why there is so much resolve in McMahon the Gaelic footballer. The funny thing is, he wasn't actually interested in the game growing up.

"I don't really watch the game, I'm not really a spectator," said McMahon without a hint of irony as he chases his third All-Ireland medal. "As a kid, I never watched GAA. I played soccer when I was younger, just that."

Yet the Gaelic football bug bit hard and when McMahon was dropped off the Dublin panel by Pat Gilroy in 2009, he refused to accept his limitations. Privately, he concluded that to be a better defender he needed to bring much more aggression to his play.

It's why the man who engages in MMA training in his spare time makes absolutely no apologies for the way he plays now, on the edge.

In recent weeks, there have been allegations of him diving and head-butting. He denies both claims though, more significantly, accepts that he's in those compromising situations in the first place because of the ruthless streak that has got him to where he is today. As he chases a third All-Ireland winners' medal, McMahon, in life and sport, simply refuses to go back to the dark days.

What's truly driving him to overcome Kerry is a desire to win his first All-Ireland medal as a first team regular. He started just one game in 2011 and 2013, their Sam Maguire winning seasons, but has been an ever present this season. Whisper it softly but another big performance could even put him into Player of the Year contention.

"You win an All-Ireland and then you think, 'Well, what else could I have done?'" said McMahon. "'Could I have played all them games and that's something that hopefully this year I'll get the chance to do. I'd like to play all the games throughout a campaign and win an All-Ireland. I haven't done that yet so that's a big thing for me."

 

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