Philly McMahon: Pat Gilroy dropping me was the best thing that ever happened to me
Two All-Irelands later, McMahon can see that his Sky Blue axing in 2009 was 'best thing that happened' for his football career
PHILLY McMAHON was barely out of his teens when he became a Dublin senior footballer under Paul Caffrey. The Ballymun defender savoured that first year of exposure to a different world and, when a new manager took over for the following campaign, he was giddy for more game-time.
Then Pat Gilroy jettisoned him from the Sky Blue ship.
Axed, culled, dropped - whatever your verb of choice, it felt the same. McMahon was 21 and now a 'former Dublin footballer'.
Countless other wannabes in numerous other counties have suffered a similar fate and disappeared without inter-county trace. Six-and-a-half years on, this 'current Dublin footballer' is the owner of two Celtic Crosses and will embark on the journey in pursuit of a third when the All-Ireland favourites host unheralded Longford in this Sunday's Leinster SFC quarter-final at Croke Park (4.0).
"The year Pat came in he cut me - and it was the best thing that happened, I suppose," McMahon recalls, harking back to his 'lost' year in 2009. "I suppose the big thing I've learned is to take nothing for granted. That was the big eye-opener for me.
"From the first year with Paul Caffrey, I played a championship game - came on against Louth. I played a lot of the O'Byrne Cup and a couple of league games.
"So, coming into 2009 I was 'Can't wait for this season to start with a new manager' … and it didn't happen, didn't get picked.
"And also then throughout the years, there's been a couple of seasons where I've struggled to get in the team - whether that's injury or coming back from club championship with Ballymun Kickhams when we got to the All-Ireland. A few things that have affected me playing.
"So I always like to," he pauses, "... be very humble towards your players who are on the bench, because you were there at some stage. And your career is so short."
McMahon is now 27; he will have just turned 28 if Dublin meet expectations and reach September.
He has always been a ball-playing defender but he has always carried a flinty edge too, so his reaction to that unforeseen omission was - in hindsight - typical. Asked if he had wondered would he ever make it back, he replies: "I don't know if I can say this but you're that pissed off - yes, you do know you're going to get there.
"When you're a little bit older and you get dropped, it's a little bit tougher.
"But I was young and had so much aggression - for everybody," he says, to a chorus of laughs.
"And I loved marking Dublin players when that happened, because I had a point to prove! It was great because I had the best year at club football and in fairness to Pat, whether he meant it or not, it made me a better player."
The 2009 season ended disastrously for Dublin against Kerry - the day of the 'startled earwigs' - and the manager set about a radical overhaul in the off-season. He organised a regional tournament that December, casting his net far and wide in search of the players - and characters - that Dublin needed.
"They were really good battles," says McMahon, a willing participant. "Because, no matter if you were playing with senior Dublin players, you were giving it into them. So it was really enjoyable - I didn't realise what the outcome was going to be from that tournament."
It was positive: McMahon was back. He recalls Gilroy telling him: "You've been the best defender in the county and you've used me dropping you in the right way."
An admission that he got it wrong?
"Well, not that you got it wrong. I could have played that year and played really poorly. Who knows? But it was a fresh manager, a fresh start, and I was willing to give it a go - and it didn't happen that year, it's a year that got away from me."
Several others, either previously overlooked or discarded, also became part of that new Dublin in 2010 - a squad that laid the foundations for the subsequent elevation from perennial Leinster kingpins to serial All-Ireland contenders and two-time champions.
McMahon, a strength and conditioning coach, explains: "I don't know how many soccer players or sports people I've worked with and I've explained my situation … you can never just give up and you have to keep going at it." Does the fear of being dropped ever disappear?
"No, it never does - because I didn't realise I was going to get dropped in 2009," he points out.
"That's the great thing about Gaelic football. You look at soccer, you have a player that goes to Shamrock Rovers and they think 'If I play poorly, I'll go to another club next to them' … and you keep bouncing around clubs until you get to the top team or whatever it is.
"Gaelic football, if you don't perform you're gone. You're competing against your opponents; you're competing against your teammates; you're competing against players that come in … and that's the really enjoyable thing about Gaelic football. You're always on your toes."
THE PHILLY McMAHON INTERVIEW