Mo Mahon is approaching four years with Derry City FC. Picture courtesy of Jungleview.
Derry City U19 coach Mo Mahon celebrated an amazing milestone on Saturday past when he reached 12 years sober.
Each year on February 26, Mo has been content with a single post on Twitter, acknowledging his journey. Turning down numerous requests to tell his story in over the years, Mo has instead been content to work quietly behind the scenes, helping others through their own battles with addiction.
The former Foyle Harps man is now in his fourth year at Derry City, managing the U19s with Donal O’Brien and Ritchie Stewart.
With the club now putting a lot of significant work into its Academy, the effects of Mo and Donal’s work with the young players at the club can be seen both on and off the pitch, with a clear pathway now emerging into the first team picture.
Not everyone knows of Mo’s battles with addiction in the past however, and for the most part he has been fine with that. Those single-lined tweets have been an acknowledgement of his past and how far he has come, but, urged on by family and friends, he has come to realise the importance of sharing his story.
By opening up on this occasion, he is hoping that he will be able to give even one person the encouragement and hope they need so that they too can rebuild their lives, one important day at a time.
Despite enjoying great success with Derry City and then both Porters and Abercorn in the D&D when he was in his late teens, Mo made the decision to leave the local footballing scene to get away from what he describes as a ‘drinking culture’ at the time. He moved to Carrowmena in the Inishowen League before moving on to Greencastle. It was a necessary adjustment at a time when he just started to realise that he may have a problem.
“That was part of the process I had to go through to get away from the culture in Derry,” he explains.
“When I played with Porters on a Sunday, we would drink after the games and that would be us right through before we headed to the Metro about 10 o’clock that night.
“Then we won the league and it got worse because I would have started drinking on Friday after work with a few players. We would have drunk on a Saturday night and gone to games the next morning half-tubed. We then would have drunk through Sunday. It was the culture, it was a social thing for people and it was the same for most of the clubs there because I played with Abercorn for a while and it was the same there. It was part of that era and everyone drunk after games and that was it.”
Still, it was difficult to get out of the habit for Mo, who took great enjoyment from the social side of drinking as much as the alcohol itself.
“From the age of 18 I knew that something wasn’t right with my relationship with alcohol,” he admits. “It wouldn’t have been one night drinking, it would have led on to three or four days. My two best mates in the world have never touched a drink in their life, Gareth Stewart and Kevin Murphy. They identified that my drinking wasn’t normal, so from 18 I knew. I knew that they were saying it from their heart and I never, ever took it personally.
“At 20/21 I went to London to live with Gareth for a while to get away from Derry hoping it would help get me away from drink. I was sober for three months. He went to Newcastle with his father and I got a drink and ended up getting lost in London. I ended up travelling around London on a bus drinking and I got lost and he had to come and get me. We came home soon after that and that was when I knew something wasn’t right and I couldn’t drink.”
A huge turning point in Mo’s life was meeting Louise Stewart, who just happened to be the daughter of Liam Stewart, who had been helping people locally with addiction for years, and someone who knew Mo well. Mo and Louise started dating, and he clinged to the hope that the new relationship could help him focus on something other than alcohol.
“It was five or six years of trying, but when I look back, I wasn’t ready,” he says. “Louise and I were going out and socializing and I thought it would take me away from the drinking side of things, but it didn’t. We would go out and I would put her in a taxi and make sure she got home safe and that would have been me for three or four days.
“She stuck it for the first year but she eventually said enough. From 22 on when I met her, I genuinely did want to get sober but for whatever reasons I just couldn’t get it. I thought I was missing out. It wasn’t peer pressure, I was probably the ring-leader; I loved my football and I loved going to get a drink after.
“Louise left me at that time and to be honest that was great news for me. I continued to drink for two weeks solid, and thought she would be back, but there were no texts or phonecalls or nothing. I called to her house when she was at work to speak to her mammy Sally. The only way to describe here is a saint on earth. She told me Louise has had enough, please just leave her alone because she hadn’t been happy for six months.
“I made the decision then that I wasn’t going to drink. After six or seven weeks I contacted Louise and said I was sorry and asked her to meet me. The meeting we had was really emotional. It was before Christmas and was three months before I took my last drink. I told Louise that I knew I had a problem and I would understand if she wanted to go her own way. She asked for time and I knew then I needed more help.”
"I have always had great support from my mum, dad, brothers and sisters who have always been there for me through good times and bad."
As well as an ongoing battle with what he now recognised as addiction, Mo also had the unenviable task of telling Liam Stewart, a man who he had known and respected for years, that he was dating his daughter. Liam, who had overcome his own addiction problems years earlier, had been there time and time again for Mo, helping as much as he could in the preceding years. It was an extremely difficult moment for Mo.
“I felt like I had crossed a boundary and while I knew I needed help more than ever, I thought there was no way Liam was going to help me,” he admits. “He knew everything about me, and who would want that for their daughter, someone who would go out drinking for four or five days and miss work?
“I remember going to see him at his house and I was shaking. I said to him ‘You’re going to want to sit down, you’re not going to like this’. I said ‘Liam, there’s only one way to say this – I have fallen for Louise and she has fallen for me’. He stood up and I thought the worst, but he looked at me square in the eye and told me he would be delighted for his daughter to go out with someone like me. That was the start of my growth.
Not at all religious at the time, Mo also agreed to go on a Catholic pilgrimage to Medjugorje with both Liam and Louise, but admittedly for selfish reasons only. While he was willing to try anything to help his battle with addiction, he also had a new born nephew who was struggling in hospital,
“I thought ‘I’m not going there to be a hypocrite’, but I decided to go and told Liam I wasn’t doing all that holy stuff. He asked me only for one thing, and that was to go to 10 o’ clock mass every day.
“My reason for going was that there is a mountain you walk up in your bare feet. You usually do that as a penance for someone. I thought I would keep an open mind but from a selfish point of view I said ‘If there’s a God then he’ll help my nephew’.
“Whether it’s coincidence or God answered my prayers, I walked up the mountain on the Tuesday and I came home on the Sunday and my sister got news on the Thursday or Friday that the operation that they couldn’t previously do, they could now do. She believed and I believed that he answered my prayers. Since then, you wouldn’t think there was anything wrong with my nephew, he’s been brilliant. As well as that, my relationship with Liam grew with that as well, and that important in breaking that cycle I was in.”
It hasn’t been plain sailing at all for Mo, who admits that he has been tested, especially early on
“My last ever drink was on a boys’ holiday; my mate Barry Doherty’s birthday,” he recalls. “I had a sip of beer on the Friday night and I couldn’t drink it, I just didn’t want to. The next night I had a cocktail and took four or five mouthfuls of it and I didn’t want it. I knew then that I wanted to have a right go at this for me. I decided then ‘This is it’.
“I then got a big test by going to Magaluf on a lad’s holiday, with some of my best mates. I thought I was ready and I would be grand but one night I was struggling and felt I would have a drink. This was four years in. Unbeknownst to me, they were looking after me and they stayed in the hotel room playing cards and they locked the door and didn’t tell me. I phoned Liam and he talked me through it. I woke up the next day and I never had as much relief in my life. I wanted to get home. That was the biggest test I’ve had. I’ve been on holidays since but there’s never been a problem.”
The relief at passing those tests is tempered with the knowledge that he is not immune to temptation, even now. Mo recognises that fact and understands how quickly things can change.
“I just know I can never touch it again,” he insists. “Some people think they can even if they have gone two or three years, but they don’t realise once you go over that line, there’s no turning back. Nearly everybody you meet in recovery just want to help others and pass on what they were given. I have met a lot of great people on my journey who have helped me massively and I can never help them enough. The more you pass on your message, the more people you’re affecting and if you can help one it’s a job well done.”
As well as helping as much as he can in his local community, the opportunity to work with Derry City has give Mo the opportunity to make a real difference to others’ lives. He first started coaching at Foyle Harps with John Shiels back in 2010, but eventually joined the Candystripes in 2019, taking charge of the U17s before moving on to manage the U19s.
“Coaching to me is a way to build relationships with young people and help them,” he explains. “Putting on a session is the easiest part but I want to help people in their life, help them be better people, whether that’s through my coaching or work. It’s just being someone that they can trust, signpost them if necessary, you can be there to help them, forming relationships is vital for help and guidance in football and in life.
“I pride myself in being a role model it doesn’t matter what age they are, I just want to be a positive role model for everybody. Over the years I’ve had loads of people come talk to me because there is that trust. Confidentiality is massive to me and I wouldn’t break anyone’s trust. Coaching young people drives me, because I want to be a role model to everybody I’ve ever coached. I pride myself on just being a good person really.”
The recent Covid-19 pandemic brought new challenges for everyone, and Mo, along with Donal O’Brien and other fellow coaches at the Brandywell, worked hard to ensure that the players’ mental health was properly addressed at a time when no-one was allowed to play games. Coaching teenagers who have their own challenges in life, it is clear that being a football coach is about so much more than the footballing side of things.
“My biggest skill is getting the best out of people. That’s how I go about my coaching and my job,” Mo says. “Everything I do is person-centred. I explain to the players that when I am giving instructions that’s for the player, but we are also there to help them as people.
“Football is a cruel, cruel industry. We all have dreams of becoming professional footballers and it’s about showing these young people that there are not just opportunities in football, but there are opportunities in life to become a better person, to educate yourself on and off the pitch and the effort you put into your football to put that same effort to better yourself in life whether that's through studying or working your way towards a personal achievement. I know what I bring to the table, I know my strengths, and I knew going into Derry City that I was going to make a difference.
“We’re all football people and we all know the game in our own way, but it’s how we can improve these young footballers' mindsets, understanding that they are all individuals with their own individual way of thinking, learning and behaving. So I am driven to be open and honest about their development. Being realistic with their individual goals and plans and providing a person centred approach and helping them take responsibility. My coaching style is to be realistic but be creative, go and express yourself, and I don’t mind if you make mistakes. I’m really forward thinking and I have always been really confident in my ability.
“Helping young people is a massive strength I have, whether it’s through football, education or addiction. I’m just very, very passionate about it.”
Saturday past was a milestone date for Mo and his family as it marked 12 years since his last drink. They say hindsight is a wonderful thing, and Mo is open enough to admit that he had convinced himself that he was ready to stop drinking when it was clear he wasn’t. There is no simple answer he says to the question ‘How do you know when you’re really ready to stop’?
“This is a question I have been asked frequently,” he admits. “Sometimes I genuinely thought in my heart I was ready. Some people think they are ready and they believe they are ready. I would have tried every six months to get sober and every time I failed I would have been hard on myself. If it was that easy everyone could do it. I would love to say you just know when you’re ready, but it’s hard. You have to recognise yourself that you have a problem.
“I went to a number of places and I found that Liam’s programme was good for me and one that I needed. Liam removed my ignorance to alcohol. For instance, I might have used an argument with Louise or used losing a football match as a reason to go to the bar. He took that away from me – no more excuses. Once that ignorance was removed for me, I had no more excuses. If I went out drinking I had to hold my hands up. That was part of my recovery. When that happened that’s when I started to realise I can do this.”
Mo is now looking to the future, but not too far ahead. Taking things just one day at a time, he will not hide from his past, knowing just how important it is to help others in their own journeys with addiction.
“12 years have flown in,” he says. “I have definitely become a better person, I know that. Genuinely, the last eight years of my life have been the best of my life. I got married, we’ve had two children after that. You have to love and forgive yourself and when you can do that, it really helps.
“I keep getting stronger and stronger watching my two wains grow, but I never get ahead of myself. This is one day at a time. I’m bursting with pride. I never thought I would have seen 12 years. I’m hoping with this, people genuinely get something from it. If you can help one person, it’s a job well done.
“There are days you will find it tough but it’s so important that on those days you have to reach out to somebody. I remember them all too well.
“I’m privileged to be in the position I’m in. I’m coaching with Derry City and I’m helping influence the next generation and the future stars of the club. I take pride in the work I do with schools, Derry City FC and addiction and alcohol in the community, that I'm helping to influence so many people and that I'm a positive role model for everyone young and old."
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