McGrath boys determined to write new story for Tipp
After a difficult time for the family, three sons of 1980s stalwart Pat are going for glory on hurling's biggest day in Croke Park
Published 03/09/2016 | 02:30
On Wednesday evening, John McGrath took himself to Holycross, escaping the tricky hypnotism of All-Ireland final week by slipping back to the intimacy of club.
A man might leave comet tails in the summer sky, but nobody clears a space around them on local fields. So McGrath was in the dressing-room and on the line for Loughmore-Castleiney's Cahill Cup semi-final, just another voice making itself heard in a GAA story that, effectively, has no end. Tomorrow week, the club plays Drom-Inch in the Mid-Tipperary final.
Whatever Tipp-Kilkenny has detonated before then, there'll be nothing gentle coming their way in Templetuohy.
David Kennedy was one of those hurling on Wednesday, now into his 40th year yet more besotted with what a club jersey can mean in the tiny, lost villages of rural Ireland than he's ever been. Kennedy knows all about the teeming glamour of Croke Park on the biggest day, having been Tipp's centre-back for the All-Ireland win of 2001.
Yet few things define him like the sense of place still tugging him so relentlessly back to a field in Cuguilla.
Kennedy lives and works as a garda in Sallins, yet will soon be relocating home having successfully applied for a job in Templemore's training college. It is a move motivated by the simplest of energies. He wants his two sons to, at least, have the option of growing up as Loughmore-Castleiney men.
The GAA's deployment of parish cartography can give lives a purpose in small-town Ireland. Think about it. Without hurling and football, what else would knit two small villages nestled south-east of Templemore with such compelling force?
Three years ago, Loughmore-Castleiney became the first Tipperary club ever to win a senior county hurling and football double, Pat McGrath's two boys, Noel and John, having key roles to play in both. Tomorrow, they have their jobs to do in Hollywood as does a third son, Brian, captaining Tipp's minors against Limerick.
But the McGraths won't be calling attention to themselves before or after.
In this, they are cut from their father's cloth. Pat won an All-Ireland with Tipp 27 years ago, an unused sub in the final defeat of Antrim, having lost his place and the captaincy during that year's Munster Championship. The demotion of Tipp captains would throw up its share of angst back then for 'Babs' Keating, most notably in 1988 and '93. But, in '89, Pat McGrath and Loughmore-Castleiney took their disappointment on the chin, simply nominating Borrisoleigh's, Bobby Ryan, as replacement.
The club had won its first county hurling title in its history the year before, Pat and three of his brothers having their hands in history.
And the McGrath name saturates Loughmore-Castleiney's story now with the offspring of four families still necklaced to the memory of Pat's father, Mick, who himself had three brothers alongside while winning a county football medal in 1955.
Yet, of all the McGrath boys, Noel was probably the worst-kept secret.
Brendan Cummins recalls going to the '07 county final simply to catch a glimpse of the remarkable 16-year-old pulling the strings for Loughmore-Castleiney. Lar Corbett remembers "the country raving about him since he was 14". And Kennedy's memories reach back even further, to glimpsing an innately gifted boy in junior infants whilst on work experience as a primary school teacher in Templemore; to watching him as, maybe, a nine-year-old striking adult-sized sliotars back out to Pat during free-taking practice with a purity that - even then - had people talking.
By the autumn of '07, that talk had turned to giddiness.
For maybe a year, Noel had beseeched Pat and Mary McGrath to let him loose as a senior hurler, the parents refusing until one Sunday lunchtime and a challenge match in Burgess. As it happened, that game would be held up for an hour because of a team-mate's broken leg, but those present remember it - above all - for the performance of Noel McGrath.
Kennedy remembers: "I knew he was good but, to watch him up close now, you could see he was utterly outstanding. He just looked so far ahead of everyone else on the field that day. He'd been known throughout the county at minor level (All-Ireland victories with Tipp in '06 and '07), but we didn't really know what he was going to bring at adult level. But in '07, Noel became our go-to-man straight away. His presence on the field was just amazing. It was as if we had signed a superstar."
Liam Sheedy, Tipp's minor manager in '06, quickly recognised that stardust and - by 2010 - Noel McGrath had secured a senior All-Ireland medal, two All-Stars and a Young Hurler of the Year award. Yet, he did so against a familiar GAA soundtrack.
"Think he's good, wait 'til you see the brother..."
Like Noel, John McGrath would hurl for Tipp minors at 15 and win an All-Ireland (2012) in that grade. But for all the physical similarities, he was a very different hurler. If Noel was all wristy elegance, John was a little less decorous.
Yet, in Fitzgibbon, he has been all but untouchable as attacking leader of a star-studded University of Limerick team for the past two seasons. Davy Fitzgerald, whose LIT team was narrowly beaten by them this year, describes him as "one of the best I've ever seen hurl in the competition".
Nicky English, whose UCD team has lost in successive seasons to UL, suggests that McGrath has beaten them "almost single-handedly".
He might have had a role to play in Eamon O'Shea's final year as Tipp's senior boss, but a bad groin injury limited the opportunity to assimilate him into plans. That injury was sustained playing football and has, since, led to a dramatic recalibration of his dual commitments.
Were John McGrath available to Liam Kearns, he would almost certainly have started for Tipp's footballers in the 2016 championship.
But it has been Michael Ryan's blessing to have call on a starkly single-minded 22-year-old this year. Indeed, one who seems to represent a perfect prototype for the directness Ryan has been trying to stitch into Tipp's forward play.
Recently, Eoin Kelly suggested that Tipp's manager had perhaps grown "tired of looking at six Noel McGraths". The clear suggestion was that Tipp's calloused history with Kilkenny especially might have been rooted in an over-reliance on attacking craft whilst all about was barely controlled mayhem.
"There was nobody there who'd kill a fella for you," said Kelly. John McGrath may not especially answer to that calling, but he can win an awkward ball and is armed with the bull strength to break tackles. He scored 3-2 in the Munster final destruction of Waterford and set up Tipp's fourth goal by catching a high delivery over Tadhg de Búrca's head. His profile is precisely that of the forward Tipp have conspicuously lacked on so many bad days against Kilkenny.
True, tomorrow is a big ask, given his relative inexperience. But it's fair to say Tipp folk see more than hopeful promise here.
Fitness permitting, Noel, John and Brian will all be in Templetuohy tomorrow week and no matter the storylines unfolding these next two weekends, you have to imagine they will be easily resolved in Pat McGrath's head. Sixteen months ago, Noel's diagnosis with testicular cancer triggered shock that almost defeated description.
The news came as team-mate, Eddie Connolly, was deep into the second year of his own battle with brain cancer, a battle he would tragically lose just five months later. Kennedy remembers hearing of Noel's illness immediately after a challenge game against Doon in Cappawhite.
"Just coming off the field and Ciaran, his cousin, called me over with one or two others. 'Don't know if you've heard, but Noel is after getting bad news...'"
The unreality of that moment remains vivid in recall, grown men just staring at one another, speechless. "Ciaran was upset just saying it," recalls Kennedy. "Even now thinking about it... it still sucks the wind out of your sails.
"And Noel being Noel was actually at the game. Probably a case of 'What else do I do?' It was a bitterly cold night and he was sitting in the corner of the dressing-room, a woolly hat on. You could see that he was quite stressed. I wasn't going to go over and give him a pep talk.
"I just gave him the thumbs up and he gave me the thumbs up back across the room. That was it. Nothing said. But I remember having this sickening feeling, knowing what he was going through, what he was facing.
"A lot of the guys were coping with Eddie's illness at the time, an illness very far advanced at that stage. So this felt a low blow. Nobody could believe it."
Noel underwent surgery within four days of the diagnosis and his introduction, four months later, as a Tipp substitute in the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway would draw great thunderclaps of acclaim. But Tipp were beaten and not even Anthony Cunningham's thoughtfulness in the aftermath could soften that blow.
Thirteen months later, Noel McGrath returns with family reinforcements. Pat says that something has shifted inside his eldest son. "He'd be more philosophical about life now," he said this week.
Not that it will show come throw-in time in the big house.