THE picture paints a thousand words but only two men know what it felt like to share the moment.
Hughie Mahon looks close to tears but he couldn’t be happier. The man to his right is his Athy clubmate David Hyland, but this moment means more to Mahon. It is written large across his face. In Hyland’s heart, he is as happy for his best friend as he is for himself.
“Hugh’s had a very hard time of it lately. He was suspended last year and not many people would have expected him to be where he was. Many people at the start of the year would have had him bottom of the panel. I was just as proud for him now as I was for myself. He’s come a long way, as have all of us. “Hugh’s always been a good talent. He’s just got it good this year, he’s always had it in him,” said Hyland, with remarkable maturity for a 19-year-old.
What Hyland and those in Athy knew wasn’t apparent to the rest of the county because Mahon didn’t make a Kildare team until he appeared as a substitute in the Leinster under-21 quarter-final against Meath last month. A broken ankle in 2009 ruled him out of football for the guts of a year and while he came back from that injury to win a county minor title with Athy in 2010, he never made it as a county minor. He turns 21 next month, which means this is his last chance with the under-21s.
“That drives you on when it’s your last year. You want to push on. You’re only 21 once. The other lads have another few years. It makes you hungrier to try and get in there. You just want to do everything in your power,” says Mahon.
It was only against Laois in this year’s semi-final that Mahon served notice of his intent. He bagged 1-1 off the bench in the second half, making good on his promise to make the most of his opportunity. It wasn’t enough to force his way into the starting 15 for the Leinster final but he was the first man in when Kildare made a substitution. When the final whistle sounded, he grabbed the nearest man in white, Padraig Fogarty, and then he happened upon his friend from home.
“He was the first Athy man I saw. When I saw him it was just a special moment. He’s one of my best friends, always has been,” says Mahon of a friendship with Hyland that dates back to when they were both just boys dreaming about playing with Kildare.
“I wasn’t actually crying, I was fairly close to it now alright,” he says, referring to the photo below that captured the moment him and Hyland embraced. “I can’t even remember what we said to each other – we just both knew we’d done it. We knew what we’d done.”
“It didn’t really sink in for a minute,” says Hyland. “Once I met up with my teammates, I knew what we’d done. I knew the road that we’d come. We worked very hard and there was just more relief than anything because Longford were coming back at us.
“I was out around wing-back, I was making a run up the pitch when we were keeping the ball and Hughie was there around half way and we just caught each other there. It was great timing.”
As the moment washed over him, Mahon felt the greatest high of his life.
“I was just feeling ecstatic, absolutely over the moon. Best feeling I’ve ever had on a Gaelic pitch.”
On the pitch afterwards it almost felt like being at home.
“Half the town were there. Every second person you talked to was from Athy,” says Hyland. “It’s as much for them (supporters) as it is anyone else.”
Even though he couldn’t sleep for three nights beforehand, the Kildare full-back was far from feeling tired. The celebrations took them to Maynooth, where Hyland goes to college and shares an apartment on campus at NUIM with fellow panellists, Tony Gibbons and Shane O’Hagan. After the obligatory visit to Copper Face Jacks in Dublin, the night ended back at the apartment.
“It was a good night. No one’s been out since Stephen’s night and even before that it was another two or three months. We’re after becoming a bit of a family there,” says Hyland.
While Mahon and the rest of the under-21s headed to the Gables leisure centre in Newbridge the following evening for a recovery session in the swimming pool, Hyland was back on the training field with the Kildare seniors.
“We’re mad to play football, we’re only young,” he says. “We’re trying to get as much as we can as young as we can and build up the CV.”
Mahon was still working the previous night out of his system but any pain was dulled by the memory of what happened on the pitch in Portlaoise.
“It’s still an unbelievable feeling, it’s still there with you and hopefully it’ll be there with me for the rest of my life,” says Mahon and when he thinks back to the scene in the dressing room after the game, he knows there is a desire to achieve even more.
“What stuck in my head was the sense that we’re not finished here.”