Sunday 23 October 2016

'I'm mad for games' - Noel McGrath ready to move on from cancer nightmare

Tipp star keen to target more glory after difficult 2015

Published 09/02/2016 | 02:30

Tipperary's Noel McGrath outside the Marino Casino in Dublin for the launch of the Allianz National Hurling LeaguePhoto: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Tipperary's Noel McGrath outside the Marino Casino in Dublin for the launch of the Allianz National Hurling LeaguePhoto: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

It was one of the images of last summer.

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Noel McGrath, crestfallen after Tipperary's All-Ireland semi-final defeat, head bowed and listening to Galway manager Anthony Cunningham.

There's no audio to go with the clip that shows Cunningham fist beating against McGrath's chest.

Cunningham's Galway side had won an epic but McGrath was the story of the day. His recovery from testicular cancer had been bookended by his first championship appearance of the year.

His introduction saw Croke Park rise in unison. Even as war raged on the field, there was still an appreciation for what the Loughmore-Castleiney man had been through to get back to action.

The game itself ebbed and flowed and there might have been a Hollywood ending when McGrath fired over a late point.

But Galway held their nerve. All that was left was for Cunningham to console McGrath.

"It was a nice gesture from Anthony. In the heat of battle, it was only 30 seconds or a minute after the final whistle.

"He just came over to me and congratulated on me on coming back. I think it was nice of him to do it and I appreciated it because he didn't have to do it."


The significance of the day for him personally had passed him by. Being back in the bubble was all that mattered. And losing a semi-final carries its own unique sting.

"It was more afterwards that I kind of realised what was after happening," he recalled of his comeback.

"I was kind of stuck in the moment wanting to play and wanting to get Tipp over the line. I had prepared with the boys before that the same for any match to be ready for it.

"It wasn't for the few days after it that I really realised what happened when I came on, the cheer and the people were good and the support I got was brilliant."

Just a few short months earlier, everything hung in the balance for McGrath. His diagnosis put everything on the line and his life as he knew it on hold.

"I suppose last April I wasn't sure what was going to come of it, where I was going to be, if or when I'd ever get back playing.

"And I'm just delighted that I am. But people have been out for longer than me with different types of injuries, broken arms or broken legs or bad injuries like that, and spent a lot of time. I'm just delighted to be back."

McGrath was in Croke Park yesterday to launch the Allianz hurling leagues on the same day he was named Tipperary Person of the Year for 2015 by the Tipperary Association Dublin.

Inevitably, his recovery was the subject of much interest but McGrath was more focused on Saturday night and the clash with Dublin in Semple Stadium.

Having missed so much hurling last year, he's unsure if he's back to full match sharpness ahead of the league opener this weekend.

"It's hard to know," he said when asked if he was back to his old self.

"I did miss a lot of last year, a lot of tough training. I'm still trying to build myself back to full fitness and to (try) fit in with the team again. So it's hard to know.

"I'd like to think I'm back up to speed with the rest of them, but time will tell.

"I'm just looking forward to the challenge ahead, having missed nearly all of last year.

"I'm mad for games, and will be pushing myself as hard as I can to make the 26 for match day, and everyone is in the same boat."

And while he's worked to raise awareness and support the Childhood Cancer Foundation, it's clear it's a chapter in his life he's happy to leave closed from here on out.

"In the weeks and months afterwards to look back and be able to say that I was playing in Croke Park only a few months after the illness was good.

"But still that hurt and that feeling of not getting over the line was still there. We are in 2016 now and I suppose if we stay dwelling on last year we won't be able to move forward this year.

"We are looking forward to pushing on this year, there are going to be bumps along the way, whether it's for players or whether it's for the team all together.

"That happens in teams and happens in sport and happens to all teams. We just have to move through them and try the best you can to keep going."

Normal service is resumed now and there's probably no one happier to be back on the inter county circuit.

Tipperary start competitive life under Michael Ryan but - aside from the odd challenge match - there has been no Munster league this time around to help them find their feet.

They lost to Dublin in the league a year ago and McGrath is keen to avoid another slow start to the National League.

"It's still early," he offered. "The training this time of year is tough going no matter who is in charge. So far Michael has been very good with the players and driving things along with the players. It will be later on in the year when we see the style.

"We haven't won an All-Ireland in six years, so every year things will change, things will be different, no matter who is over you.

"As players we have to try change to make things better, work better, whatever the management ask us we will do. And do it the best you can."

Irish Independent

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