Darlington FC

As the curtain comes down on the 2005/06 season in the Premiership (when it was actually still called that…), Middlesbrough’s 1-0 loss at Chris Coleman’s Fulham is relatively inconsequential for a side safe in mid-table. Other than being Steve McClaren’s final league game at the helm following his appointment as England manager, the fixture has been remembered for Boro naming a matchday 16 containing 15 players (Malcolm Christie the exception) all hailing from within 30 miles of the club.

The game was a prime opportunity to rest key players ahead of the UEFA Cup final with Sevilla in Eindhoven three days later, but it was some feat all the same. Part of the squad that day was 20-year-old Tony McMahon, with 23 games already under his belt, and at the time, working his way back from injury disruption. The full-back and FA Youth Cup-winning captain would play 137 times for the club, and he was back coaching in the academy when another ex-Boro man, Darlington manager Alun Armstrong, was in touch last year.

Taking over as head of academy at Darlo, the subsequent move also saw him make an unexpected return to playing, some 16 months on from his last outing, on loan at Scunthorpe United.

“Me and Alun have known each other a long time,” he explained. “Obviously he was a Middlesbrough player – I was only a young boy then – but Alun then had a soccer school quite local to me, which my son used to go to.”

“He’s just someone I’ve known, and he rang me up and he offered me the role. It was an opportunity where I could coach every day, I could get better, and also, get back on the playing field, which I didn’t think I was going to do, to be honest.

“It was a role that I wanted to take, because I want to coach, I want to get better, and coaching every day, the more you do it, the better you get. I took the job and I love the responsibility of it, and everything about it really.”

The player who impressed on his debut at Old Trafford against Manchester United as an 18-year-old turned 35 last month, and in normal circumstances, would now still be in his first season as a Darlo player. The Quakers’ campaign was cut short in February with the team having only played 11 of their National League North games, though they did briefly play on after reaching the FA Trophy quarter-final.

The academy have been back in training in recent weeks, with Tony especially busy recruiting the next batch of newcomers for next season. In a region teeming with clubs throughout the pyramid, Darlo are one of those best placed to offer that ‘next chance’ to players let go by the likes of Newcastle United, Middlesbrough and Sunderland.

With over 400 professional appearances, the one-time Bradford City assist machine has experience of value to offer any youngster serious about carving their own path in the game. He has, though, enjoyed still slipping into his most familiar role when he has had chance this season – that of Tony McMahon the footballer.

“It fits in perfect, because I can still play for the first team on the weekends, and even midweek games in the evening I’m always available, so I haven’t missed any games through the academy stuff, which has been brilliant. I hadn’t played for a year, thought I was retired, but I ended up coming back.

“It’s football, and as soon as you play it, you just love it, don’t you? My love for football will never go away, and I’m just as enthusiastic about coaching as I am playing.

“I’m obsessed with the coaching, I wanna be a coach, I wanna be a manager.”

For all that is possible to pass on in the form of words of wisdom and helpful advice, some things can really only be learned firsthand. While still 18, Tony had played in wins over Lazio and a Liverpool side who would lift the Champions League that season. He started at Villarreal’s El Madrigal (against the likes of Juan Román Riquelme) and Portuguese giants Sporting CP’s Estádio José Alvalade in the UEFA Cup. He laughs, however, when recalling what he describes as ‘the worst experience’ in terms of opponent battles.

“It was away at the Emirates against Arsenal for Middlesbrough, and it was (Cesc) Fàbregas, (Gaël) Clichy, and somebody else kept coming over to the left-hand side to play against me. I’m still adamant to this day that they were laughing at me and talking in Spanish or whatever language, saying ‘come on, let’s take the mick out of him!’

“That was the game where I thought ‘this is another level, this Premier League’. They were unbelievable on the day; they were ganging up on me, I know they were!

“I got subbed after about 60/70 minutes and I said to (Boro boss) Gareth Southgate at the time ‘wow, that was something else’, I couldn’t get near anyone. Every week in the Premier League, you come up against world-class players, like my debut: Ryan Giggs and (Cristiano) Ronaldo.

“Chelsea away and (Didier) Drogba, (Frank) Lampard, John Terry, people like that who you feel privileged to be on the same pitch as, because they’re in the world-class bracket. We were just kids who were living a dream really, so that’s why I think we enjoyed every second of what we achieved.”

Like so many of Boro’s famed academy crop under the stewardship of Dave Parnaby, he sampled experiences that many players never get near to, and did so before his career had even really got going. The England Under-19 international’s progress was significantly hampered by injury for the next three seasons, including two broken legs, but he would make it back to enjoy a sustained career, and a loan spell in the early months of the 2008/09 campaign was arguably pivotal.

He left a roundly positive impression at Sheffield Wednesday, signing off by heading home in front of the Kop in an entertaining five-goal encounter with Norwich City at Hillsborough. Wednesdayites are a demanding bunch, as with any well-backed club, but the good grace they show to those who earn their respect is considerable (just ask Dion Dublin).

Back with Middlesbrough, Tony returned as an opposition player in the early weeks of the next season, with Boro running out 3-1 winners, though the home fans went out of their way to show appreciation for their former loanee when he was substituted.

“I remember, first and foremost, I was injured at Middlesbrough, I was coming back from a broken leg. (Wednesday assistant) Russ Wilcox came to the training ground to watch me in a reserve game, because they were looking for a right-back at the time to take on loan.

“(Wednesday manager) Brian Laws and Russ gave me that opportunity to go to Sheffield Wednesday. It was a successful loan spell for me, I enjoyed my football, played well and had a real connection with the fans.

“They tried to make it permanent in the January; I went back to Middlesbrough and ended up playing the last 15 games in the Premier League. I still look back now and that probably wouldn’t have been possible without that loan spell.

“Like you said, I went back there in the following season after we got relegated and couldn’t believe it when I got subbed and everyone stood up. I thought ‘wow’.

“I knew that I’d had a good time there and I did enjoy myself, had a good connection with the fans, but to get a standing ovation on the opposite team was special. Those little things, at the time, you probably don’t realise, but now I’ve had time to look back on my career, it was a special moment.”

While he had played for Boro in a top-flight Tees-Wear derby (v Sunderland), his S6 stint included a Sheffield derby, and Sky Sports picked a good one for the live clash. There were two red cards, with referee Mike Dean at the centre of the controversy for a seemingly very harsh dismissal for Sheffield United’s Matt Kilgallon for a high foot. Wednesday’s Jermaine Johnson would also go later on, re-emerging from the tunnel to receive a red after being substituted, having kicked a water bottle into the crowd.

There was also a penalty, as Paddy Kenny saved from Deon Burton while a slight way off his line, and a superb lobbed winner from the Owls’ Steve Watson. The sizzling undercurrent to it all is what sticks most vividly in Tony’s mind, however.

“The one word is atmosphere; the atmosphere was electric. I’d never played in a derby like that before.

“Everyone tells you ‘yeah, it’s special’, but until you actually play in it, you don’t realise just how special it is. Matt Kilgallon’s a very good friend of mine (and ex-Bradford City teammate) and we still talk about that day, because it probably was never a red!

“It gave us the upper hand in the game, and obviously Watto’s was a great finish. The whole game was unbelievable, to play in and to be part of.

“There’s games that you remember throughout your career and that is definitely one.”

Four seasons later, you could find him on the other side of the Steel City divide, though there would not be a second derby to sample. Having left Middlesbrough that summer (2012), Tony was keen to join a club he felt were primed to return to the Championship.

“It was an opportunity that I wanted to take. I didn’t think too much about the rivalry, I’ll be honest, because it was only a loan spell (at Wednesday); if it was permanent, then it would probably be a totally different ball game.

“It was an opportunity to sign for Sheffield United, which at the time I couldn’t turn down. I thought we were going to get promoted from League One and be an established Championship club again, and move in the right direction.

“Obviously it didn’t work out like that, we lost in the play-offs (to Yeovil Town in the semi-final), and I maybe should have left that summer to try and go back into the Championship, but I wanted to stay. I stayed for another six months and then in the January signed for Blackpool, who were in the Championship.”

It was over in West Yorkshire, meanwhile, that his career had some of its other notable highs. Having been on loan with Bradford City late in the previous campaign, Tony was a League One play-off semi-finalist with the club in 2015/16, and a Wembley finalist a season later.

The Bantams were beaten by Millwall on both occasions, but for Tony, who scored six goals in each of his first two seasons, his time at Valley Parade is in the thoughts when he is asked of his happiest spell in the game.

“To be honest, I enjoyed every minute of it, at every club I was at. I love football, I love playing it.

“I’ll probably be remembered most for my time at Middlesbrough, and my time at Bradford. Middlesbrough was the best time of my career, course it was.

“I was there from a young age and had a group of mates where we all stuck together and helped each other achieve our dreams of playing in the Premier League; 95 per cent of the squad did that. We had the Youth Cup run where the first year we lost in the final, second year we went and won it, and it was the same group of players.

“I don’t think there’ll be a Premier League team who field a side where every player bar one is born locally. It was an amazing achievement to be part of and an amazing time at Middlesbrough.

“We had some big European nights. I played at home against Lazio, we won 2-0, and I was playing against (Paolo) Di Canio.

“You’re just a kid, you’re just playing football, but when you look back and you see photos, ‘I’m playing against Di Canio!’ What a night.”

Whether he would have relished playing for the West Ham idol when he became a manager, we will almost certainly never know! As with most who enjoy a long playing career, Tony can reflect on time spent working with a multitude of managers, with varying character traits and preferred ways of working. Is there one that he feels particularly understood how to get the best out of him?

“I’d like to think I was an ‘old-school’ type of player; I didn’t really need an arm around me, I knew when I played good, I knew when I played bad. I was just 100 per cent, I couldn’t be anything less.

“I was pretty much left alone by managers really; they probably knew what they were getting. I grafted from a young age and I had to work hard for everything that I achieved in my career and every club that I played at.

“I always felt like I had to work harder than everyone else, and I always went in with that mentality. I always used to think everyone was better than me, so I knew I had to train better, I had to run further than anyone, because they were more talented than me.

“That was the mindset I had and I think what stood me in good stead throughout my career. Now I’m on the other side and I’m a coach, it’s totally different again, because I don’t just worry about myself now; I’m now worrying about a full group of players, who I have to know individually, because everyone’s different.

“You’ve got to weigh them up, you’ve got to know players now and what makes them tick, and how you can get the best out of them.”

Leading a bunch of players is challenging enough, but how about singing in front of them? With eight clubs to his name since his career began, surely Tony has had the initiation spotlight fall upon him at least once?

“I’ve had to do it a couple of times. The last one I did was at Scunthorpe; I think it was (Oasis) ‘Wonderwall’, but I was terrible at it.

“I’m a good talker but I cannot sing!”

Trying his hand at other talents, though, is something he knows a bit about, and he was tipped by some as having a future in county cricket growing up. There has been the odd pro footballer known to enjoy putting the pads on and having a game during the close-season, so is Tony, who played in an England win over Australia at 15, ever one of them?

“I wasn’t a bad cricketer, I was quite decent at it, but I haven’t played for years now. I’ve got three kids, who keep me mega-busy.

“My son’s into football, golf, fishing, exactly the same as me. My daughter’s into horse-riding, so we’ve always got something to do.

“My little one’s only two, but she’s hyperactive as well. Kids keep you busy but I love fishing, golf.

“We’ve got a camper van where we go away for nights, go fishing and enjoy ourselves.”

Whether training or a match day, family or football, he enjoys helping nurture those he spends time with. A reassuring word or two, like those that Boro colleague Chris Riggott saw he was in need of as he lined up at Old Trafford just before kick-off all those years ago, can go a long way for someone.

As touched upon earlier, he would love to be a manager one day, but for now, Tony feels no need to be restless or hasty, and that goes for deciding his playing future, too.

“The honest answer is I don’t actually know yet. With the season that we’ve had, I only played ten games or something, so it doesn’t really feel like a full season.

“My body feels fine, I feel fit, no injury problems at all, so it’s hard to make a decision when I don’t have to make a decision, if that makes sense. I’ll sit down in a couple of months’ time when it starts back up and see what’s there, but I’m ambitious as a coach, like I always was as a player.

“I want to go into a first-team environment eventually, but I’m not in a rush to get to where I want to be. I want to make sure I’m ready, and this is why this job at this moment in time is perfect, because I can learn, I can make mistakes.

“Sometimes I make mistakes and the kids don’t pick up on it, but I know the session’s maybe not right, I need to change something. You go into a first-team environment and put a bad session on, you get hammered!

“I write everything down, I’ve taken loads over the years from different managers, and I’m always learning. I’m not in a rush, but ultimately, I’m ambitious, and I do want to push on in my coaching career.”

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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