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McMahon relished his battles in Tir Chonaill’s backyard

By Frank Craig

Joe McMahon’s own recollection of entering the lion’s den with the intent of taking its head gets his heart pumping.

It’s an inadvertent flick of a now suppressed head switch. But old habits die hard and like some sort of cerebral muscle memory, it kicks in and he’s right back in one of his favourite settings.

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That happy place is the MacCumahill Park tunnel. It’s a low, narrow concrete vortex – like something you’d see in some prison movie where the destination at the end of it all is never good.

There is swinging room and plenty of comfort in most other grounds’ tunnels, there certainly is in Omagh. We witnessed that a few weeks back.

But in Ballybofey, it’s moving room only. It’s single file for units like big Joe. Players have to edge themselves through. The wee breeze catches your cheeks as you cross the dark threshold and begin to rise back up into the light.

Then bang, the heat, noise and verbal venom hits you all at once. It’s a unique atmosphere. And McMahon says there is no better away arena as a Tyrone player than a partisan Ballybofey in the Ulster SFC.

May 17 is still nervously circled on the GAA calender. But given the current global uncertainty surrounding Covid-19 and coronavirus, there is no guarantee that provincial opener will now go ahead.

The situation will most likely deteriorate even further before we see any kind of semblance or return to what we might accept as ‘normality’. 

Sitting down with the Red Hand legend, that’s exactly where the conversation has to start.

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Joe, these are worrying times.

They are. You knew it was getting serious when the phone started hopping. There were club WhatsApp groups, the Fermanagh one and it’s a really worrying time. Fixtures are pulled until at least March 29 and that’s a sensible decision based on what’s ahead.

We’ve seen what has happened elsewhere. The reality of what is going on out there is obvious now.”

In terms of sporting fixtures, we really can’t afford to look too far forward. But we can certainly look back. Ulster counties owned the beginning of the 90s. Down twice along with Donegal and Derry’s breakthroughs are still so memorable. As a youngster watching on, did you expect Tyrone to continue that tread in 1995?

I remember that so vividly against Dublin. I was standing in the Canal End. Peter Canavan for me, and he’d say this himself, he didn’t pick the ball off the ground. Paddy Russell felt he did and even though Séan McLaughlin kicked an equalising point, it was taken away from us. I was only a young lad in Primary 7 at the time. The Tyrone people around me were cheering and ecstatic at the time. They thought we’d drawn the game. I was so young and the magnitude of what had just happened was a little lost on me. But the huge disappointment of losing an All-Ireland final hit Tyrone hard that day. But it was the start of what was to come. The underage structures that had been put in place were coming to fruition. And while a senior title didn’t land until another eight years later, a corner was definitely being turned. The quality and as a group, it was a really special bunch of players on the rise. The likes of of Canavan, Brian Dooher, Collie Holmes and Chris lawn to name a few were there to guide the whole thing along. That bit of heartache and even seeing us on the way through, it probably reignited their hunger to get back to another All-Ireland final. The likes of Down, Donegal and Derry, they showed it could be done. There was a realisation there and it opened the floodgates as far as Ulster teams were concerned. It didn’t always have to be a Dublin, Kerry or a Meath.”

Armagh in 2002 and then Tyrone the season after, that upset the status quo for some and it ruffled certain feathers. But you seemed to thrive on it…

Absolutely. But that young group stepping up certainly didn’t lack in confidence. They’d had their own success. There was always questions about Ulster sides are the type of or quality of football they brought. Ulster sides might have had a chip on their shoulders about that kind of criticism. To go down there and take scalps… some people weren’t too happy. But to me it was a gameplan. And it certainly wasn’t all negative. You still had to get up the field and get the scores to win the matches.”

You were a talented group of players but you were also very tight…

Yeah. And any time we do meet up there is this sense, you know you have battled with these lads. We all gave up huge parts of our lives for what we achieved. Any event or chance you get to meet up it’s always a great chance to look back, reminisce and just appreciate the years gone by. Stories are shared about what went on on and off the pitch! Some of those stories grow legs! But there is a sense of real satisfaction and it all comes back to you. As a young lad growing up it was what I dreamed of. I listened to Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh on the radio and the All-Ireland final was always blaring on the radio out the kitchen window. I can still hear it now. You’d be out the back visualising kicking that winning score or making that decisive block. For that to come to pass, and to do it with my brother Justin in 2008, made it extra special. I’ve always wondered what it felt like for my parents at the time. I’m a parent myself and the happiness you get from seeing your kids achieve is so nice. It’s not until you step away from something you were so heavily immersed in that you actually can reflect and really appreciate what was done.”

Stepping away is one thing but when that decision is taken out of your hands because of injury, is it hard to accept or come to terms with?

As a player, you’re caught up in a bubble, a sort of time warp. I came in in 2004 as a young lad. Tyrone had just won the All-Ireland and there was me sitting in beside all these heroes of mine. There were all these leaders, Cormac McAnallen was there. The years go by and lads begin to step away. In no time, you’re one of the fellas expected to lead and be an older head. You’re the one that has to encourage and guide. You’re seeing a new generation come in that you hope are going to lead Tyrone onto more success. Injuries did begin to take their toll and it was getting harder to compete at that level. It was disappointing and when it’s taken away from you like that it is hugely disappointing. You do miss the big days like Clones and Croke Park. You don’t miss elements of the training but being there with the group, the lads, of course you miss that. I don’t think anything will replace running out in front of 80,000 people in an All-Ireland final. That buzz is so unique. To me, that was so special and it’s something I’ll never forget. Stepping away in 2017, it did allow me to go back to my club. I was lucky enough to captain them to the county championship and that did soften the blow a bit of leaving the county set-up. I know in 2014 after that county final I did say it was the happiest day of my footballing career. Up until that point I’d never won a club medal. It took me over 30 years to win a medal for my club. For that to finally happen, the connection that brings to your friends, your family, your local community – the place you grew up and learned your trade. You’re on loan from your club to your county, essentially. Coming back into the club then it does make it that little bit extra special to achieve and win something.”

Do county players feel guilt sometimes that they can’t or couldn’t give more to their clubs?

If a club hasn’t been lucky enough to get success then yeah, that could be there. It goes back to the structures. You need defined county and club seasons. When we won the club championship in 2017 we won it inside 23 days. That says it all – the disrespect that is there for club players. The sound bites coming out of the GAA saying it’s all about the club, the volunteer. They say that but then they are releasing fixtures and structures that just does not support that narrative. People will sometimes try to put that back on the players and say sure you wanted to go and play at that level. Absolutely we did. It’s the top of the game. You’ve worked hard and are deemed good enough to get to that level. Why would you not? But that doesn’t change the fact that the opportunity is being taken away from players to represent and achieve with their clubs. It’s something the GAA will have to look at.”

International Rules has its knockers. Did it mean something to you?

Without a doubt. It’s another element of recognition. I was reading Kieran Donaghy’s book the other day and he was telling a story about Australia and the experience of going out together with lads you’d usually be battling against. But once that is done on the pitch, joining up with Ireland you soon realised these lads are quite similar to yourself. To play at that level, to go to Australia, there was a real sense of pride that you were representing your country. To pit your wits against professionals was a great experience. And to spend three weeks away as a squad, in the company of fellas from other counties; you got a great insight into what they were really all about. To me they were always special occasions. I took great pride in representing my country.”

Was there anyone in that environment that really stood out. They were all good players but who from outside of Tyrone, training beside them, made you think ‘he’s extra special’…

There were a few. The two that immediately come to mind are Michael Murphy and Stevie McDonnell. I remember training in Croke Park and Murphy was just exceptional. At that level he was brilliant. I’m sure the Aussies were thinking how did they let him slip through the net. McDonnell was also class. He was one of the players that adapted so quickly because he was so naturally talented. Lads that had that touch, a soccer touch about them or a wee flick here or there. The flair players, they always shone through in training and then in games. That’s why is was so competitive. You have supremely skilled Gaelic footballers up against professional AFL players. They were so physical. But Ireland could also present that. It was telepathic sometimes, off the cuff and some great things happened in some of those games.”

Does some of the negativity around International Rules come from Gaelic football players leaving Ireland for the AFL?

The view within the GAA would be that it’s all take from the Aussies. They put in all the work at club level to develop these lads and that is the platform for the reason he’s been chosen by an AFL club. For me, and I know a lot of players I’ve talked to; the question was asked around the time Cathal McShane was linked with a move. If you were offered the chance would you go? Alot of the lads I spoke to said yeah, of course. To go out there, the climate, to live as a professional would be a serious experience. I would have liked that opportunity. And others have said they’d have liked it. Cathal had the chance to do that. But there was also a pull coming from Tyrone and that was understandable. Unfortunately, he’s picked up an injury and we hope he comes back sooner rather than later. If the Australians gave something back to the club or county it might soften the blow a little. But there are other sports players do go off and play and there isn’t as much said about it.” 

And what about Donegal and that massive Ulster opener?

It was always hot, heavy and intense against Donegal. Everything about it is fierce. Tyrone had been on top and gotten the better of Donegal for a while. I remember reading Jim McGuinness’ book and addressing that was a large part of the early tone if it. Once they did that in 2011, I think it was the Brick Molloy that grabbed a crucial goal, the roles reversed. It was a monkey off their back. And they went on to win the All-Ireland in 2012. Donegal were up and coming, they’d a really nice blend. So there was a real sense of hunger. Tyrone had plateaued and were maybe going a little in the other direction. We were going for three in a row in Ulster but Donegal put a stop to that. We were in a transitional period. I’m not taking away from Donegal, I just mean I’d have loved to have seen both sides going at it when they were at the height of their respective powers.”

MacCumhaill Park has its own unique charm. Tell us a little about your experiences there!

It’s certainly an experience! Travelling down on the bus, I’ll always remember Donegal were All-Ireland champions. Sam somehow appeared on our journey. Someone was also holding an actual door, with ‘hold the back door’ on it! That was how they viewed us that day in 2013. Obviously, that’s exactly how it played out as well. As a player, preping yourself ahead of a game like May 17. You are so determined to get the result, to beat your neighbour and biggest rival. You had to really work at holding all of that emotion in and not letting it get the better of you. It did manage to get the better of me in 2013. I got sent off that day. As a player, while it’s a small, tight pitch, the atmosphere and energy is massive. You just feed off it and try to respond to it. My heart is racing here now just thinking about those days down there.”

And the infamous tunnel there…

I think if you actually got into the tunnel there’d be no room to swing the fists it’s that tight! There is that real sense of claustrophobia. I can only envisage what it was like going through tunnels in Vietnam. This felt like you were going to war. It’s like that scene in Gladiator. The thumping and banging as they’re calling for Maximus. You come up and you suddenly hit the wall of sound. The row in 2015, I remember the fallout. I was on the bench. Things were heated and with both sides going the one direction at half-time it kind of came to a head. Words and a few pleasantries were exchanged and things spilled over. To be fair, it was more pushing and shoving really. It settled down before we went into the tunnel. But I think that was due to the sense of respect too between the two sets of players. I remember going down to play in Pat Shovelin’s game last year. I played alongside some of the Donegal lads and against them in Ardara. It was great fun and no baggage is ever really carried thankfully.”

The current football landscape, outside of Ulster at least, has it become too predictable?

Leinster is a done deal. Meath have shown some form in Division 1. They haven’t taken any hidings. But they still haven’t got the results. It will stand to them come championship. Still, Dublin will again come out of it. Cork were going well in Division 3 but with respect to the sides there, it’s not the level Kerry will be at in Division 1. It’ll be the usual suspects IN Munster. Connacht should be a good battle. Galway are going really well. They tore Tyrone apart and they’re playing nice, expansive football. Mayo and Roscommon will have something to say about things there though as well.”

Do you give Dublin their dues or do you, like many, feel the deck is stacked unfairly in their favour.

It’s up to the rest of us to get up to that level. It’s a winning habit they have. I wouldn’t knock them. You can have all the money and facilities or whatever in the world but you still have to have quality players. The big thing is with the likes of ourselves, we didn’t do it consistently or in a row. There were always gap years in between. You can see that Dublin, and I might be wrong saying this, but they are coming through a province where it’s easier for them than say it has been for the likes of ourselves or Donegal. It can stand to you sometimes, you may feel battle hardened winning through in Ulster. But if you pick up injuries along the way it can dent your All-Ireland prospects.”

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