hero departs | 

Philly McMahon on the highs and lows of a stellar Dublin career

Retired Dublin defender Philly McMahon says his uncompromising style caused him problems with his team-mates and cost him the 2015 Footballer of the Year award, but the eight-time All-Ireland winner is glad he never changed his ways
Dublin's Philip McMahon with the Sam Maguire Cup following the 2019 All-Ireland SFC final replay victory over Kerry. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Dublin's Philip McMahon with the Sam Maguire Cup following the 2019 All-Ireland SFC final replay victory over Kerry. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Conor McKeon

Philly McMahon gives an example of how he became football’s most feared and reviled player.

He’s withholding names, teams, dates etc. But the gist is this.

On the day in question, McMahon was geared to mark a particular player. The opposition’s star man.

An unexpected late change to their attack meant he was switched on to someone else. Already hyped for his initial brief, McMahon decided he’d rattle the big dog’s cage anyway.

“This player had been marked by the fastest, the tightest, the most technically good corner-backs,” he recalls. “But had he been tested psychologically?”

So McMahon stood in where he was supposed to and then, across half the length of the pitch, began berating the other guy.

By the end, he had them both beaten; the star man, wondering why he’d incurred the snarl of someone he wasn’t even marking, and the direct opponent McMahon barely bothered with.

“That’s my game,” McMahon confesses. “I can say that now because I’m finished. People can call me what they want. A scumbag, whatever.

“Is it wrong for me to go after that psychological aspect of my game? Am I a scumbag because I went after that?”

Good question.

Rather than let that very pertinent question hang in the air, McMahon answers it himself: “I’d rather do it than regret not having done it.”

So there you go. No regrets.

And look, he knows what you think.

He’s on Twitter. He’s on Instagram. He has ears.

If it’s designed to offend, you may as well be throwing confetti trying to hurt him with paper cuts.

“The abuse, it didn’t bother me,” he insists. “I knew the way I played, there was going to be all this noise. If it affected me, I would have changed the way I played a long time ago.”

This is Philly McMahon. Footballer. Pantomime Villain. Entrepreneur. Author. Activist. Hard man. Paradox.

There isn’t a footballer of the past 20 years so notorious for his expertise in what are euphemistically called the ‘dark arts’.

And yet there might not be another Irish athlete who has had such an active and positive societal impact on his own downtrodden community.

But then, we know about that already, thanks to his award-winning autobiography, his media profile, his occasional Late Late Show appearance.

The freedom of retirement allows him now to shed some light on Philly McMahon, The Enforcer.

For the record, he’d like to point out he was only sent off twice for Dublin.

And whatever the perception of his methods, McMahon’s ability to get inside a fella’s mind was much more powerful than anything he could physically do to prevent someone from playing.

Once he carved a little perch for himself inside their head, he knew his football could do the rest.

“I wanted players to fear me,” McMahon confesses. “I wanted them to be thinking, ‘I can’t get this fella out of my head. He’s going to do anything in his power to put me off my game’.

“If there was a forward on another team who was shooting the lights out and tipped for Player of the Year and all that noise, I’d just think, ‘He’s mine’.

In his autobiography, Colm Cooper – who McMahon marked and outscored in the 2015 All-Ireland final – wrote about being “serenaded” by McMahon. Sledging isn’t among Gaelic football’s nobler arts – McMahon didn’t invent it either – but he’s open now about how and why he became such a noted practitioner.

“I have so much respect for inter-county players,” he says, a little surprisingly.

“I don’t give a s**t what county you’re from. I know what it takes to get to that level. I know what you have to do.

“But when you walk across that line, I have too much respect for the jersey not to try and do everything in my power to help the team to win.”

‘Unashamed’ seems like a good word to use here.

McMahon, as he admits without reservation, did everything he could to win. It’s what made him. He was, very simply, willing to go further than most.

In the early throes of retirement, he’s still very much OK that he often went over the line of rule and more frequently again, against public taste.

He might give the impression of revelling in his infamy, his reputation, his aura even. But it didn’t come without consequence.

After 14 years and eight All-Irelands, there are bonds that can’t be broken. But McMahon won’t pretend now to have been universally popular with his own team-mates.

“It’s a difficult style to play,” he explains. “When you play sport, there is an element of connection with your team-mates. And at times, it can be very lonely playing the way I played.

“You’re going in saying, ‘I don’t give a s**t about friendship. I’m going to try to get the best out of you. I’m going to do everything I can to do that. You either like it or you don’t.’”

He and Diarmuid Connolly went at it like Tasmanian devils.

Bernard Brogan, another who McMahon was only too delighted to take chunks out of whenever the chance arose, paid him the ultimate back-handed compliment last week when he said he was “glad he (McMahon) was on our side”.

“That impacts friendships,” admits the Ballymun Kickhams clubman.

“It impacts relationships. When I first went into the squad in 2008, I’m sure they were all saying, ‘Who’s this little s**t throwing his weight around?’

“You definitely don’t go in there to make friends. As a player, it’s the ultimate sacrifice.”

McMahon reckons his reputation cost him the 2015 Footballer of the Year. Not without reason.

That was the season he overwhelmed and outscored both Kerry’s Cooper and Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea. From Dublin’s last league game against Monaghan in Clones to the All-Ireland final, McMahon scored 1-11, ostensibly from corner-back. He scored in eight of his last 10 games.

Had a Seamus Moynihan or a Kieran McGeeney submitted such a portfolio of performance from defence, no debate would have been necessary.

But the same year, McMahon also faced accusations of head-butting O’Shea and of eye-gouging Kieran Donaghy, while Cooper initially refused to shake hands with him after the final.

“How is a player of my style going to win that?” he asks. “Everybody hates me!

“Some of them might respect me to an extent,” McMahon adds. “But they’re not going to vote for me for Player of the Year. I came up against Jack (McCaffrey) and Bernard (Brogan)! Who were they gonna vote for in a popularity contest?”

His family copped some of the backlash too, though not to the point where he felt it was worth changing how he played.

To say that McMahon is headstrong would be to understate it in the extreme. At a time when the Dublin football team were like a group of high-performing mutes, erecting blackout blinds to keep any chink of unwanted glare off their business, McMahon wrote an award-winning autobiography.

Even last year, he was frequently on to Dublin manager Dessie Farrell requesting a bigger role, feeling he had been typecast as simply a player who could wrestle with a target man for a few minutes when the opposition resorted to desperation.

He saw something in how Colm Cavanagh played in his last few years for Tyrone that he felt might have suited his own skill-set and compensated for his advancing age.

Now, though, McMahon’s war is over and he has a confession. Something he’d never have admitted at any stage over the past 14 years.

“The lads I went to war with are the ones I had the most respect for,” he says.

“They were the ones that were going to bring the best out of me; tactically, physically, psychologically,” adds McMahon.

“So all those boys, at inter-county or at club level that I went after, they can take that as a compliment. Because I needed to do that to have any chance against them.

“If you were a player and I didn’t ‘give it to you’, it’s because you weren’t good enough.”

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