McMahon's never ending summer
GAA All-Ireland Club JFC Semi-Final
By Damian Dolan
While there may be little room for sentiment in sport, very occasionally the fates conspire just enough to allow for the possibility of a fairytale story to tug at our heartstrings. Fergus McMahon and Ballivor are one such tale.
Just 60 minutes is all that separates the Meath and Leinster Junior champions from a Croke Park final, when they face Galway’s Naomh Padraig in the semi-finals of the All-Ireland Club JFC at Pearse Park on Sunday, following the club’s meteoric rise from the ashes.
However, Ballivor’s rags to riches tale pales into insignificance compared to McMahon’s own private two-year battle, following a career threatening injury, to work his way back to fulfil his ambition to once again play for his home town club.
McMahon was at the peak of his powers when he went up for a high ball during London’s 2009 Nicky Rackard Cup final against Meath, only to land in a heap on the Croke Park turf with a serious knee injury.
The initial diagnosis was a fracture but McMahon would seek the opinion of a specialist on his return to London, and that would reveal the true extent of the damage.
It wasn’t good. Not only had he fractured the top of his tibia and ruptured the meniscus – a small capsule inside the knee – but he’d torn from the bone both his hamstring and the ligament on the outside of his knee.
Months of rehabilitation lay before him and few would have passed judgement during that time had the former London dual inter-county star, and Robert Emmetts and Tir Chonaill Gaels lynchpin, called it a day.
It would have been the easier option, but McMahon, who led Emmetts to All-Ireland Club IHC glory in 2007, battled back, and since last summer the hard work has been paying off handsomely.
First, he helped Kildalkey’s hurlers clinch their third Meath senior title in a row, before Ballivor, with former Meath star and selector Liam Harnan on board, began a run that would take them to within touching distance of Croke Park. It’s been an extraordinary journey for a club which last graced Meath’s senior ranks in 2003.
“I had a reserve game or two with the Emmetts and then I kind of had it in my head to try and go back and play with the boys at home. If I broke down or my knee didn’t hold up, then at least I’d have given it a try. I did it and it worked out well, thank God,” he said.
“It’s [knee] alright; it seems to be holding up so far. I’m doing a lot of pool work - I’m not doing as much running as the rest of the boys, even though I should be. I’m trying to do as much as I can, but not go mad on it.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be the player I was, but if I get back half as good I’ll be happy enough, or a level where I can compete anyway. But it’s been brilliant; you couldn’t have dreamed it better.”
For McMahon, the road to this juncture has been a long and painful one, while the prospect of returning to the place where his career nearly came to an end fills him with mixed emotions.
“Maybe I’ll have to walk over to the spot where I fell down in a heap and bless myself or something,” he said. “I thought when I got wheeled off the last time that was it - the next time I’d be back I’d only be watching games.
“The first thing the doctor said was ‘we’ll be doing well to get you back walking properly and running’ – football and hurling were well down the list. I’m so grateful that it did come right.
“I’m an hour away now from playing some part back there and it’s brilliant. I had a great Christmas; I was out running the roads. Last Christmas I was laid up – I wasn’t doing anything. Twelve months is a long time.”
Ballivor’s own sorry tale is no less remarkable. Intermediate champions for a fourth time in 2002, the club were immediately relegated from senior, with its very future then thrown into question.
Harvesting their players from neighbouring hurling club’s Kildlkey and Killyon, Ballivor’s fortunes suffered when Kildalkey decided to affiliate a football team in the Meath junior championship.
The experiment lasted three years and it was only with Kildalkey’s footballing demise that Ballivor’s fortunes have begun to change. They reached the Meath Junior final in 2010, only to lose to Ballinabrackery by three points, but went one better last year, beating Navan O’Mahoneys 2-14 to 1-8 in the final. McMahon contributing a point from the bench.
“No one likes to be sitting at the losing table. I don’t it was over confidence; I think they probably got to Navan and just froze a bit on the day, and they wanted to make it didn’t happen again,” said McMahon, on the club’s defeat to Ballinabrackery and the subsequent appointment of Harnan.
“Liam came in and he’s just been like a father figure to us. If he say’s jump, we say high how. Something needed to be done and Paddy Doyle (manager), Pat Halloran and a few us had a chat and they got hold of Liam’s number and thank God they did because he’s turned it around.”
Since then they’ve gone from strength-to-strength, setting off on the kind of run that every club dreams of.
“It’s been unreal; it’s hard to believe it now. At the start of the year we didn’t think it would be so good, but it just took off and we’re on a roll now. It’s great for the village and great for everyone,” said McMahon.
“It’s breathed a bit of life into it. It’s probably unique in Ireland - I don’t know of anywhere else where you have two hurling clubs [Killyon and Kildalkey] and they come together to play football. That takes a lot of management and humility – it’s not an easy thing to do. But fair play to everyone involved, it’s worked.”
Laois champions Spink were disposed of in the Leinster quarter-finals with McMahon now starting in midfield, before Wexford’s Geraldine O’Hanrahan’s were swept aside with six points to spare in the semi’s. Shifted to the full forward line, McMahon made his presence felt by chipping in with 0-4.
But when the Ballivor bandwagon pulled the Leinster final, it appeared here was where the fairytale would come to an end, with Ballivor trailing by four with just ten minutes remaining.
However, in a rousing finish, Ballivor forced extra-time, having never led during the regulation 60 minutes, and Richie Sherrock’s goal in the opening minute of first additional period turned the tide.
“It was end-to-end. We had a lot of ball but couldn’t make the scores with it. And then there were a few dubious decisions as well,” said McMahon.
“They were given a point that I thought was outside and then we were given a point that everyone thought was outside as well – it depends on what way you looked at it and where you were stood in the stand.”
While there have been many twists and turns to get Ballivor this far, McMahon attributes the side’s quarter-final win over Donaghmore Ashbourne in Meath as a turning point in their season.
“The team always had serious talent, but it just wasn’t happening. In the first half against Donaghmore Ashbourne we were just struggling and spluttering along, but we came out in the second and played football as good as we could ever play.
“The players realised what they could do and it’s now a case that they can turn it on when they need to turn it on. In extra-time against St Fechians we played some football as good as we played against Donaghmore Ashbourne.”
Following Ballivor’s Leinster success, McMahon returned to live and working back in London. Now one of Irish Ferry’s most loyal customers, he’ll make a familiar journey home next weekend for the semi-final, but he’s also hoping for a double celebration with former club Robert Emmetts in All-Ireland Club IHC action against Leinster and Carlow champions Mt Leinster Rangers.
“Leinster Rangers are tough, but I’d fancy them. Unfortunately the two games are on at the same time but hopefully if we both get to the final, they’re due to play the day before us,” said McMahon.
A Ballivor-Robert Emmetts ‘double’ would be the ideal scenario for McMahon next Sunday, and if Ballivor can do then McLoughlins will once again be the place to be.
“McLoughlins has definitely done well out the footballers’ run, but they’ve been very good to us. They’ve always been a very good sponsor as long as I’ve been involved. What goes around comes around.”
“What goes around comes around” – the same could be said of McMahon himself. Deprived of two years of his career, McMahon is enjoying an Indian summer, and there’s no need for it to end just yet.