Friday, 31 August 2012

Alan Mahon

One day in Madrid

2000 - 01 : Sporting CP (Portugal)

On October 25th 2000, the players of Portugal's Sporting CP walked out of the tunnel and into the cauldron that is the Santiago Bernebeau. It was the Champions' League First Group Stage and Sporting were in last place behind Real Madrid, Spartak Moscow and Bayer Leverkusen, having picked up just one point so far.

In Real Madrid's ranks that day were Luis Figo, Steve McManaman, Roberto Carlos, Fernando Morientes, Guti and Claude Makelele. World Class internationals and the bread and butter of top quality football. 

Pulling on his Sporting shirt for the very first time that day was a Dublin lad by the name of Alan Mahon. Alan Mahon was a central midfielder who had made his name in the late-90s with English First Division side, Tranmere Rovers. Over the course of four seasons, he had made over 120 appearances for the Superwhites and represented his country twice in friendlies at the tail end of the 1999-2000 season. 

That summer, Portuguese giants Sporting Clube de Portugal, also known as Sporting Lisbon, snapped up Republic of Ireland's experienced central defender  Phil Babb on a free transfer from Liverpool. Staying on Merseyside, the club decided to sign Babb's international team-mate Alan Mahon, perhaps as a guarantee against the more senior player becoming homesick. It was cloud nine for Mahon, who went from muddy English second tier soccer, to the sunny reality of Portugal's top flight, the 52,000 capacity Estadio Jose Alvalade and the UEFA Champions' League. He arrived on 4th July 2000 and began training with his new team-mates.

Mahon (front-row, second from right) in a pre-season picture with Sporting team-mates
Peter Schmeichel and Phil Babb can be seen to the left of the back-row.

With over 100,000 registered fans, Sporting CP are Portugal's most well supported side. They constitute one of the Tres Grandes of Portuguese soccer, along with Benfica and FC Porto. Playing at the (newer) Estadio Jose Alvalade the club have won 18 Portuguese League titles and 15 Portuguese Cups. In Europe they were Cup Winners' Cup Champions back in 1964. 

In the 1999-2000 season they were crownded champions of Portugal for the 17th time. This was their first title in nearly two decades and that summer, manager Augusto Inacio was looking to bolster his squad to defend the title. He looked mainly to Phil Babb, and also to Alan Mahon.

The season started with mixed fortunes for the Lions and they found themselves sitting in 11th place by the end of September. Phil Babb quickly cemented his place in the squad, becoming an essential part of the Sporting CP team for over two years. Mahon on the other hand was overlooked from day one. It seems the 22 year old was never intended to be seriously given a first team berth, adding credibility to the rumour that he was only signed to ease Phil Babb's settling to the area.

The Dubliner would not wait long for his chance, his one chance, however as on 25th October manager Inacio gave Mahon his first game. With Sporting effectively knocked out of the Champions' League, many first team regulars, including Babb were rested for an away trip to European heavyweights Real Madrid in Spain. Mahon was picked to lead the midfield and lined out alongside the likes of Mbo Mpenza, Cesar Prates and Joao Pinto. In front of 55,000 screaming Castillians; Mahon made his Champions' League bow.

The match started badly for the Lions however, as they succumbed to a Guti header in the 12th minute. Thirty minutes later, Brazilian international Savio finished off a sublime passing move and a Guti assist. Mahon's involvement ended at half-time, as Inacio replaced him with striker Beto Acosta.

In the second half, Sporting's defeat was compounded further, as two goals in eight minutes from Spain's Fernando Morientes sealed a 4-0 to the Spanish giants. Sporting were outplayed, out done and utterly battered. 

Alan Mahon would never wear the green and white shirt again. In early 2001 Inacio, in spite of leading to club to national glory for the first time in a generation, paid the price for the side's dismal European showing and was sacked. Replaced briefly by his assistant Manuel Fernandes, Inacio's job ulitmately went to former Romanian international Laszlo Boloni who didn't see much worth in keeping Alan Mahon. The Irishman was duly loaned out to English First Division side Blackburn Rovers for the remainder of the season. There he was instrumental in helping Rovers earn promotion back to the Premier League.

Mahon regained form with Burnley
The following summer, the Lancashire club paid Sporting 1.5 million pounds for his services on June 29th, and Mahon's Portuguese adventure was over. He had made just one appearance for the club, for 45 minutes in perhaps the most difficult stadium in the world and against the richest and (at the time) best football team on earth. Quite a story.

The following years he would play for a number of clubs, including Wigan and Burnley before ending his career in 2011 back at his beloved Tranmere. Mahon failed to make any impression on his coaches at Sporting, and was only thrown in at the deep end in Madrid because the club were already knocked out. With Blackburn, he failed to make the same impact in the Premier League as he had in Division One. Quite clearly, Mahon was never anything more than a good Championship quality player, and was never good enough to play at the top level.

His story while interesting, was and is overshadowed by the success in Lisbon of Phil Babb. 

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