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Tuesday 26 March 2019

Philly falling in love with game again

'I had a bit of a lull in the last two seasons. I probably struggled mentally,' says Dublin star

BIG DAY: Tyrone’s Kieran McGeary and Dublin’s Philip McMahon contest possession during last September’s All-Ireland SFC final. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
BIG DAY: Tyrone’s Kieran McGeary and Dublin’s Philip McMahon contest possession during last September’s All-Ireland SFC final. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Philly McMahon has a perfectly understandable admission to make. Over the last two trophy-laden seasons, there were times when he just didn't want to be there.

The illness and death of his father took its inevitable toll. Phil Snr passed away on July 1 last summer after a year-long battle with stomach cancer.

At the time, Dublin were in the midst of their epic quest for the All-Ireland four-in-a-row. McMahon was at the peak of his powers for the first two years, winning back-to-back All Stars while earning a Footballer of the Year nomination in 2015 … but, thereafter, he never really got consistently close to that stellar level.

"You know what, I had a bit of a lull in the last two seasons. Reflecting back, I probably struggled mentally a lot. I kind of didn't really enjoy it, I didn't enjoy it as much as I should have," he admits.

"That would have impacted my physical attributes on the pitch. I wouldn't have got around the pitch as much, I wouldn't have enjoyed it as much, sometimes I just didn't want to be there.

Loving

"For this year I'm loving that little bit of space I've had, I'm actually enjoying running and I'm enjoying that challenge of getting to a certain level.

"That bit of breathing space has been very good for me. I'm hoping that I can express that in the games themselves, that bit of match sharpness."

McMahon was speaking at the recent launch of the Coca-Cola HBC #YouthEmpowered Programme 2019, the day after making his seasonal comeback for Ballymun Kickhams.

His damaged hand has healed (he broke his third metacarpal bone while doing boxing training in the off-season) and he is enthusiastic about one upside to his two-and-a-half month lay-off: he has rarely felt fitter ahead of any previous league campaign.

The difference, of course, is that any involvement this year will be very truncated. McMahon is the only starting player from last September's All-Ireland '15' yet to play a minute for the Dubs in this latest Division 1 adventure. That helps to explain why he is so keen to feature against Tyrone (in Croke Park tomorrow night) or in Cavan (eight days later) or even both.

YOUTH POWER: Dublin’s Philly McMahon at the recent Coca-Cola HBC #YouthEmpowered Programme launch. Check out www.youthempowered.ie. Photo: Julien Behal
YOUTH POWER: Dublin’s Philly McMahon at the recent Coca-Cola HBC #YouthEmpowered Programme launch. Check out www.youthempowered.ie. Photo: Julien Behal

"I have to get game-time in the last two games or I'd be struggling to get my jersey in terms of the start of the championship," he readily accepts. "But that's down to the management, if they feel I'm ready to be part of the squad."

It's clear from his words and his positive demeanour that he feels razor-sharp and 'ready for road' - a welcome change from the previous two campaigns.

"My Dad's situation was probably the main issue," he confirms. "I suppose I was looking for reasons not to enjoy the sport as well.

"I was kind of going to training, wanting to be with my Dad and, yeah, that was probably the main reason.

"I'd make a mistake and go, 'Sure I don't want to be here. That's why I made the mistake'. Instead of challenging that thinking.

"This year, I feel a bit fresher physically and mentally," he expands. "It has come to the stage where it's just a game of football for me. I'm getting back to enjoying it."

At 31, turning 32 in September, and even as the holder of six Celtic Crosses, McMahon is in no rush to end his days in blue.

Retirement

"I actually don't want to be talking about retirement because it pushes you closer to it," he reckons. "Any time someone in the media is talking about your age or your retirement, you're like 'Jeez, I didn't think I was that close'.

"But it's always there and it's always something that's in the back of your mind. For me, I got good game-time last season; if I was on the bench I'd be a little bit closer (to thinking about leaving). So, for me, it's game-time, game-time."

As for how long he can keep going at this elite level, he cites the "many variables" that will inform that eventual decision.

"My physical health is the big one. I wasn't at the level I needed to be at the last two years, so I'm hoping this year is the kind of kickstart to my next couple of years that I have left maybe," McMahon ventures.

"But it depends on the players coming through; it depends on if the manager needs your services; injuries and stuff like that.

"I'm very lucky, I don't drink or smoke and I do look after myself but staying injury-free is very important to keep the jersey.

"There's too many variables to say, 'I'm going to finish at a certain age'. And there's people constantly coming through; the age is getting lower and lower, I would say."

He would "like to think I can get to 34 or 35 but who knows." At which point a certain 'keeper will doubtless still be there? "Clucko will still be there, yeah!"

McMahon concludes: "If I have no adversities around me, and I'm not enjoying the sport, I'll leave. Like, last year, I didn't leave because I knew I had more to give. It was the issue of what was going on at home.

"So, for me now, it's getting to that stage where if I don't enjoy it, and there's nothing else distracting me or affecting that enjoyment part, then I'll walk away."

But not any day soon ...

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