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Wednesday 7 December 2016

Mayo will be the wiser from league collapse

Ballymun defender has put harsh lessons of the past to emerge a better team player

Dublin defender Philly McMahon
Dublin defender Philly McMahon

"There's very few cases you see that," Philly McMahon points out, "…someone coming in so early in an All-Ireland semi-final and then playing the final … getting that chance … so I was very lucky."

Or alternatively - depending entirely on the vantage point from which you viewed McMahon's 2013 until the All-Ireland final to which he refers - very unlucky.

It doesn't tally now with his standing amongst this team's most influential players/certain starters going into Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final with Mayo but approaching August of 2013, it looked almost as though Philly McMahon just wasn't Jim Gavin's sort of footballer.

A routine Leinster title campaign, Gavin's first as manager, was a strictly Philly Mahon-less three-game affair.

His first summer appearance came after 50 minutes in Dublin's efficient beating of Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-final and until 'Gooch' and James O'Donoghue began storming the Dublin goal at the Hill 16 end in the first half of that thrill-a-minute semi-final, his prospects of finishing a season that had already featured the trauma of losing a All-Ireland club final (with his beloved Ballymun Kickhams) on a winning note, looked remote.

As it happened, Kevin O'Brien lasted just 17 minutes in O'Donoghue's slipstream before McMahon was called for.

Battle

Which is how McMahon's first start of the summer of 2013 was the All-Ireland final win over Mayo, a one-point win after which he brandished the scars of battle to prove he had survived.

"I hope a lot of players look at that situation and say 'look, no matter how much I don't play at the start of the year I could possibly get in when I'm called'," he says.

Acknowledging his marginalisation was "a big eye-opener for me," McMahon - who was also given a somewhat sterner cold shoulder by Pat Gilroy by removing him from the panel entirely in his first year in 2009 - was as confident in his attitude as he was his ability to turn that season around on a personal level.

"I never took the foot off, no matter where I was or what stage of the season it was, I always said there was a chance I could get on."

Indeed, he goes as far to attribute his All-Ireland final performance to his "brilliant focus".

Opportunity

"I'd been training really hard, even harder than I normally would have if was playing because I knew I wasn't getting in.

"I had to do the extra bits, I had to look after the diet, that was the year I was on the verge of setting up FitFood (his healthy food distribution company) because I was getting a chef cooking for me that year and the year after that I set up FitFood from it.

"My focus was brilliant and once I got the opportunity I knew I'd done all my work to hold my stall when I got the chance."

The season was, then, a funny peculiar sort for McMahon.

He lost one All-Ireland final (club) and won another but so painfully did the former sting, he declined to say the latter made up for it immediately after Mayo were beaten.

Now, he reflects on a season wherein he was faced with adapting to the competing ideologies of his club and county roles.

Indeed, McMahon took some time to fully accept the life of a defender again post St Patrick's Day.

"My disillusionment was when I was playing with the club I was playing more out the field and I was playing a lot of football," he admits.

"I was spraying ball into the forwards, I was getting up getting goals, I was getting points.

"And then I thought I could do that when I got back to the Dublin team.

"But," he points out, "I had to realise that my job was different from Ballymun Kickhams to the Dublin team.

"So yeah, I was a bit disillusioned. So I had to, I suppose, settle back down and work on the things that I'm there for as a defender.

"Once I did that then the management then realised I was ready to go."

Restrictive

Not that playing as a defender in this Dublin team - or to be specific to McMahon's most regular role, a ball-playing sweeper - looks the most restrictive of postings.

"Yeah, yeah it's really good. It's not the main thing that we focus on as a defender.

"Once we do our job first as a defender then we can get up and support.

"The teams we've been playing, some of them have been very defensive so that's given us the licence to go a little bit forward because their forwards are going into their backs.

"It's not something that we focused on. If we get a chance to get up and support and get the extra score here and there it's an extra bonus."

Easily one of their best attacking performances of the year came against Mayo in March in Castlebar, when Dublin put 2-18 on the home side on an evening that forced the Connacht champion's management into a defensive rethink.

"That day Mayo decided to go very offensive against us and left a lot of space at the back," McMahon recalls.

"It just clicked nicely in that game."

He adds, with a warning, though: "they are not going to do that now, there's no way.

"Even though we beat them well that day, they probably learned a massive amount about how we play or they play.

"Obviously they've proved they have changed to get to the All-Ireland semi-final now so I don't think we can expect what they done that day to happen in the semi-final," concludes the Ballymum Kickhams defender.

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