Thursday 24 August 2017

'The record shows we overperformed back in 2013' - McGrath expecting fireworks in Munster final

Conor McGrath fears last few years may be a fair reflection of Clare's level but he feels there is more

Conor McGrath, pictured here in action against Limerick, feels there is more to prove for his team. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Conor McGrath, pictured here in action against Limerick, feels there is more to prove for his team. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

A signature moment from the hurling championship of 2013. Conor McGrath, momentum firmly with Cork in the All-Ireland final replay, scoops the ball up 45 metres from his opponents' goal.

In a second, he is gone. In five seconds, he is on the 13m line. He shortens his grip, takes ball back in hand and then, with Shane O'Donnell free to his left, goes for broke. The money shot. Top left-hand corner. Goal. 

One second you have a cluster of bodies haggling over a ground ball on the Cork 45m. A few seconds later you have one of the decisive moments in a match that until then was constantly changing its mind.

The clock showed 61 minutes played. The teams were level. That was not the end of Cork but, in some spiritual sense, it felt like it was. They had healed the wounds inflicted by O'Donnell's hat-trick inside 19 minutes. They were on top. And then McGrath magicked a goal out of nothing.

O'Donnell, understandably, attracted most of the attention afterwards, mobbed by supporters everywhere he went, but since coming on to the Clare team in 2011 McGrath has been their most electric forward.

He made a name for early impressions: still a minor in 2009 when he got on the county under 21 team that won the All-Ireland for the first time; still a minor when, the same year, he won a county title with Cratloe, the club's first, scoring 2-1 of his team's 3-5 against the holders Clonlara in the final.

This was not a player waiting for things to happen. He goaled less than 40 seconds into his senior championship debut against Tipperary, then reigning All-Ireland champions, six years ago.

Won the first ball that came his way, turned his man, raced away and finished brilliantly. But slippery as he is, he has also had to play on a leash in recent years in a system which reduced the numbers committed to attack. At times he was more likely to be found around the middle of the field. If Clare are to win today, and perhaps go on to win another All-Ireland, they need him thriving in his natural habitat.

He is conscious of time moving on, having always seemed to be ahead of it. There are many worse off. He has All-Ireland medals at under 21 and senior, and also a National League medal that no Clare player had won for 40 years. But this is his seventh season as a senior player, and his first Munster senior final. The All-Ireland win in 2013 didn't break the Kilkenny/Tipperary stranglehold.

"Everybody has revised what people were saying at that stage, that Clare and Cork would go on and be very good," he admits. "Cork, in fairness, went on to win the Munster final the following year and have been back in an All-Ireland semi-final - we haven't been anywhere near that. The record shows that we over-performed that year. We would like to think that we didn't and that we can get back to those heights."

Clare goalscorer Shane O'Donnell is lifted by his team-mates as they celebrate with the Liam MacCarthy cup after the game. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Clare goalscorer Shane O'Donnell is lifted by his team-mates as they celebrate with the Liam MacCarthy cup after the game. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

McGrath expects today's match to be played in the same cavalier spirit of the two games that concluded the championship four years ago. Some of this, he knows, is based on a degree of assumption. Heading into the Limerick match, Clare had the same hopes and expectations. The game revealed flashes of their old brilliance and periods of staleness which leaves the jury still deliberating. Cork have already shown their hand. Can Clare still weave that spell?

"The two matches Cork have played, they have been so attacking, great to watch," says McGrath. "We would like to think we could play in a similar fashion. We haven't shown that really since 2013. We're hoping we can. Both teams like to attack. It could develop into a high-scoring match.

"We were happy to beat Limerick but we're all aware that it will take a couple of steps up the next day. Until we go and do what we did in 2013 again, you can't argue with anyone who says it was a lucky win, or that we didn't beat Kilkenny or Tipp (on the way). It's not that we didn't train hard in the meantime; we simply haven't produced the results. We would like to think we've underperformed. Maybe that's not the case. Maybe that's the level we're at.

"The Limerick match was a long way off the standard Cork have played, in terms of intensity and excitement. We were delighted to get over the line and get to a Munster final but if we don't improve a good bit it won't be anywhere near good enough based on what Cork have done so far. We're mindful we need to improve a lot."

Injuries have curtailed parts of McGrath's career. In 2013 he missed the earlier part of the year while recovering from a hip operation. He played no part in this year's National League after undergoing an operation on a troublesome right shoulder, having suffered several dislocations. The shoulder popped again ten minutes from the end of the county semi-final against Clonlara last October. By then he had scored 1-7. Cratloe ended up losing by two points. He needed six months of rehab after surgery.

With his club finished in both championships and a three-year training contract in Deloitte complete - where he is now employed as an accountant - he went travelling for a month to Asia with his girlfriend Emma. He returned home in January and started back training in April. While McGrath and his girlfriend were in Vietnam, his Clare team-mate David McInerney was also in the country. "He was a couple of days behind me so we never actually met. He was flying down the country on a motorbike after me but never caught up with me."

They also took in Hong Kong and Cambodia. It gave him a much-needed break from sporting activity that has consumed him since he was a boy. "Yeah, especially with Cratloe, we've for the last seven or eight years run into October, November . . . December some years. I'd never been to America on a J1 or anything like that. So it was a good opportunity."

For club and county he has experienced 'difficult second album' syndrome. Cratloe won the Clare title unexpectedly with a young team in 2009 and were favourites in the years that followed, but couldn't repeat it until 2014 - when they won the double in hurling and football.

"For me, 2014 was far more satisfying," he says. "Even though 2009 was the first one ever. To come back and do it again was far more satisfying."

Fitzgerald’s parting gift to Clare is to walk away without a dragging the county into a divisive row. Photo by Paul Mohan / Sportsfile
Fitzgerald’s parting gift to Clare is to walk away without a dragging the county into a divisive row. Photo by Paul Mohan / Sportsfile

It would be the same were he to win again with Clare. Not winning again, while possible, will leave a legacy he'll not try to butter up.

"I would like to win a Munster and an All-Ireland again. If you had said at the end of 2013 that you wouldn't win a Munster title or another All Ireland in the next ten years, you couldn't but call that a disappointment and a failure."

He is 26. Time is finite. He has seen Colin Ryan already withdraw in his prime. "I don't know if it's the demands. I'd never complain about the demands on an inter-county player. Maybe when I was younger I'd have thought it was a burden. But it's a great privilege to be part of a high-performance set-up. You realise it's going to be gone shortly.

"Colin got married last year, building a house and things like that. Other priorities take shape. He would have been on the Clare panel from 18. It's a long old stint. To face into the tough winter training year after year after year . . . I wouldn't begrudge anybody stepping away. It's tough to be here if your heart isn't 100 per cent in it."

The players have been adjusting to a new management regime under Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor, whose fingerprints are over numerous underage titles. "How long was the last management there? Five years? That is long enough in current times, I think two or three years is probably the average in management at the moment, but the majority of the panel have worked with Donal (Moloney) and Gerry (O'Connor) for years at underage," he explains. "Gerry was my Forristal manager at under 14 all the way through until under 21 and Donal joined then at under 16, so I would be very familiar with them. I think that helps."

He refers to good lines of communication. "They are very clear on what you need to do to improve, what skills you need to develop more, and where you're strong and what you need to do if you are not on the panel, the 26, or if you are on it and not coming on, or if you are coming on but you are not starting. They communicate very well with players and let us know where they are. They are generally sensible about most things."

Cratloe was part of a shifting hurling demographic that took place over the last 15 years, seeing new champions arise, or ones that had laid dormant for generations. The club has promoted both codes equally, without discrimination, rewarded with the county double in 2014.

"When we had a smallish pick you can't afford to have any disharmony or disagreement," McGrath, a talented footballer, explains. "And for what we did to work out you need everybody pulling in the same direction. I think in some clubs there has been a bit of conflict. All of us were playing on both teams and all of us got on well. It can be difficult to combine the two but we were happy to do it when the players are equally interested in both."

Is that big performance in Clare today? "I think it is, yeah. If we don't it won't be anywhere near good enough compared to what Cork have done in the other matches. Even more so for ourselves we would like to go and play to what we consider we're capable of. You hear a lot of people saying the team isn't playing as well as it's capable of.

"The team would like to play to the level of expectation that there is. And if we can't then maybe it's just a case that we aren't good enough. We've had plenty of chances at this stage to do it and the years are rolling by quickly. And this is the perfect opportunity to do something."

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