Inspirational Philly McMahon busy leading by example

Philly McMahon: “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.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Philly McMahon: “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.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho


“What I love about the league is that every game is different,” says Philly McMahon, anticipating tonight’s under-lights extravaganza in Castlebar against Mayo. Dublin road trips attract attention; they are the team that all the others target.

In Croke Park last weekend, McMahon played at centre-back on a night when the Dubs were befuddled by Tyrone’s unabashed conversion to defensive impregnability and typically sussed counterattacking in the grand Mickey Harte tradition.

Predictions that the Dubs would sweep the spring games with their attacking verve have not yet materialised. They cobbled a draw against Tyrone through a well worked if slightly larcenous goal which Dean Rock finished brilliantly. But escaping from Croke Park with a draw is not the customary way for Jim Gavin’s Dublin.

Still, on a bright Monday lunchtime in Parnell Park, where both Gavin and McMahon appeared to announce Dublin GAA’s new partnership with Bavaria’s non-alcoholic beer, there was an unspoken sense that the league champions aren’t overly concerned by struggles in the springtime.

“Look, yeah, when you get beaten by any system you have to look at what worked and what didn’t,” McMahon says, sitting on a bench in a spotless dressing room and resting for what you suspect is the first time since dawn broke.

“Take Kerry . . . they beat us a few weeks ago and we had to look at that. And then you go play a team like Tyrone that has a totally different way of playing. And we didn’t win that either! The big thing for us is to keep doing the basics right. This is what the league campaign is for. We have a big group of really hungry, good young players coming through and Jim is giving them a chance. We have players coming back from injury and they are getting game time.”

Old Firm

His father calls him “the half-breed” because the McMahons are scattered around west Belfast and Philly and his siblings have a curious combination of strong Belfast and north Dublin influences. His mother’s was the voice of caution and reprimand growing up while his father was easy-going.

“Same time, you wouldn’t want to cross him with the big Nordie accent on him,” he says brightly. He visited his cousins often in Belfast as a kid but once he made it as a Dublin city footballer, he was surprised by just how much it meant to his extended family In fact, he was surprised by how much the GAA meant in his father’s city.

“My da is a Dub now,” he says doubtfully. “But then, we’ve never played Antrim so . . .”

McMahon is a wonderful contradiction. He has cut his cloth as an indispensable defensive element of the all-conquering side which Gavin has engineered. He is a true ball player, as evidenced by his expansive displays at midfield for Ballymun Kickhams and by his ability to contribute to the scoreboard – he was among the quartet that landed outrageous points from distance against Donegal last August.

But he is primarily a close-marking and uncompromising defender with an abrasive edge: cut from the cloth of the late Mick Holden. If he has developed the reputation of someone not to be messed with on the field, he is a disconcertingly open and positive presence in everyday life.

Like most intercounty players, he manages his time with an accountant’s precision and puts in Thatcherite working days, as owner and personal trainer of three boutique gyms, BKfitness, around the city as well as developing Fitfood Ireland, a company which prepares healthy versions of everyday meals. He was always fascinated by the food industry and followed the food shows on television but since he started his company, he is always on the lookout for tips and ideas.

Bounty bar

Dinners, Drive-Ins and Dives Cake Boss

“They are all sugar, dairy and gluten free. The biggest downfall of owning the company is that I keep eating them. I’m always saying I have to stop eating these. But then, why do I? They are all perfectly good for you. So, okay, another cupcake. I’ve always had a sweet tooth. I don’t drink alcohol so sweet stuff is my downfall.”

McMahon grew up in Ballymun. There is hardly a corner of Ireland where alcohol isn’t easily obtainable by determined adolescents but his childhood in Ballymun coincided with a period when the drink and drugs were not so much available as almost impossible to avoid.

Many of the group that McMahon came up with became entangled with drugs, several fatally so. He tried beer once and hated the taste of it and swore off it. It helped that he became hooked on football at an early age and had a mentor in Paddy Christie. It helped also that his older brother John Caffrey was there to threaten and cajole him and make him promise not to get mixed up in any of it.

“John had his struggles with drugs and it was an embarrassing thing that I used to try and hide,” he says. “It’s just not nice. You want your family to be perfect and drugs have a massive effect, no matter where you are from. But John would always say to me: you see what I’m at. If I catch you at any of that . . . he just warned me. I only realised when he passed away how important an influence he was on me. 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.

“A big thing for young people is that they need confidence and alcohol and drugs is a way of gaining that. I never needed it. I’d have no problem just socialising or going dancing and having the crack. I’d say people thought I was drunk sometimes, the way I went on. But alcohol – I just didn’t like the taste of it. I tried it and didn’t like it.

“My friends knew I was into sport from a young age and they knew not to put any pressure on me. But it can happen so easily, anywhere. There is the thing of boredom for kids as well. What do you do of an evening? That is why I was so happy to come along and support this today.

“You know, wouldn’t it be great if you can have the whole thing of having a beer without the side-effects that go with it? There is that placebo effect. In Ballymun, more of my friends would have taken drugs than did not. I’ve lost some good friends to drugs. But I was lucky. I had John and I had sport.”

John Caffrey died at the age of 31 in his home in London; he had a heart condition and passed away in September of 2012.

“You kind of take things for granted, that someone close will always be there. When it happens, it is a real big shock. It is terrible, yeah.”

His younger brother’s response was to vow to live as productively and positively as he could. McMahon is sometimes invited back to his school to talk about how he persevered, returning to do his Leaving Cert and becoming the first in his family to get a college degree. His message is simple: “If I can do it, so can you.”

He opened up his gyms, first in Ballymun and then Drimnagh and Tallaght both to prove to himself that he could do it and because he is fascinated by strength and conditioning and by the benefits of healthy living.

“The market has changed a lot in the six years. I’m not doing any of this to become a millionaire. I’m doing it because I love it.”

He is up and out the door by 6am most mornings to give personalised classes to members. Between classes and Fitfood and his Dublin football schedule, the days are hectic.

Energy source

“So this fella walks in and I nearly started crying. This was after my brother passed away so the whole thing was very close to me. And when this fella walked into my gym, my thought was: how did you do it? His response was: ‘Have a fight with Mike Tyson every morning you wake up. And then one morning you say: Mike, I’m not fighting you anymore.’ And you drive around most areas in Dublin and see people fighting with drugs. And you want to go up and give them a shake. But you can’t know what they are going through.

“We did the training and now he is going on to do a fitness course. Amazing! So I would love any recovering addict to come and train in my gym. Even if he is just going to rehabilitation. Because I think it is amazing that someone can change their addiction into something positive.”

That alchemy is central to the way he lives. Growing up, he was fascinated by what his father’s adolescence had been like, growing up in the violence and turmoil of nationalist Belfast. His Dad boxed a little bit but sport wasn’t a big priority.

“I’d like to tell his story some day, love to tell it to my own kids. It is amazing to see the turnaround up there. When you go through the Border when you are young and you see army men with guns or guys with balaclavas doing blockades. It was strange. My dad was always good at explaining it all to me. He grew up in an era that was rough and in fairness, he is very pro peace.

“I have massive respect for people in the North who lived through the Troubles. Because I think Ulster teams . . . those lads have gone through a lot. Especially the older lads. They would have seen trouble growing up and I respect that. If you don’t have a connection to the North, you wouldn’t understand that. But I have a lot of respect for what the Ulster counties went through because in a way, it was no different to the difficulties in Ballymun.”

McMahon wears the perks and privileges of being a Dublin footballer lightly. He knows the profile that comes with being part of the most intensely scrutinised teams in Ireland helps in terms of business and in making youngsters sit up and listen to what he has to say.

Ballymun has backed him and if he has any kind of influence he wants to use that. Last year, he got involved with the Ballymun-Whitehall partnership in a scheme to take people off the live register by doing a level four fitness course. Of the 20 participants seven found employment and as many went on to further education.

“It was brilliant but it wasn’t supported the following year,” he says, striking a rare note of frustration. “So that’s where the Government comes in: where you can point and say that we need to keep things going. . . I just want to support the community because it has supported me.”

Somehow, in the midst of all this, he manages to put Dublin football at the centre of his life. He shook his head when he was substituted in the second half against Tyrone. The competition for places is relentless and ferocious and none of them can afford to show up with blunted desire.

Tonight in Castlebar, they will scrap for league points but also so they can be in the shake-up for places in the summer.

“You are competing against the fellas coming up behind you and against your opponents too because they can have an influence on who wears the jersey,” McMahon says. “We know that Jim is going to play the best players – as in the players that are showing form. It doesn’t matter who you are.” Except that it does, too.

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