Noel McGrath: 'We didn't drive on, but we are trying to get back to that level'
Noel McGrath and Tipperary's hurlers are aiming to make up some lost ground
It took the journalists standing outside the dressing room at Pearse Stadium some time to figure out what exactly was going on.
First, there was silence, then a raised voice, ripe with frustration, which pierced the air and carried beyond the walls. Inside, the Tipperary players sat with heads bowed trying to find any route out of the situation they found themselves in.
The team had just endured a third successive league defeat, this time to Galway, putting their manager Eamon O'Shea under severe pressure and leaving a team leaking goals, devoid of any shape and bereft of confidence. Serious questions were asked inside that room and O'Shea, calm and all as he is, was the one shining a light on the players.
Perhaps that loss was the lowest point of this team's life cycle under O'Shea. Some of Tipperary's hurling had looked mildly promising that afternoon, and the second half showed some rallying, but their defence was leaking. Galway plundered 3-16; they were hit for 5-20 by Kilkenny and for 4-15 by Clare in the previous two rounds. An average of 4-17.
Noel McGrath peeled off his gear and headed for the showers. It had been an especially rotten outing for him; the first time in his illustrious career he had been taken off at half-time in a match of any significance. A large chunk of the Tipperary public had lost faith in the team, and even the likes of the sublimely talented McGrath, with 22 championship appearances and 3-58 under his belt, was getting serious flak.
"I suppose whatever the manager calls you have to accept it," he says, reflecting on that early substitution. "If you are not going well that's the way it goes. I had no problems that day. I was obviously disappointed but at least the lads gave a good account of themselves in the second half."
McGrath is pressed further on that substitution and asked if it could have been taken as 'a kick up the arse'.
"Ah no, if you're not performing . . ." he begins. "Look, some days things don't go well for you and they didn't for me. Every day you don't have a good day you have to look at yourself; I was disappointed but I put the head down and started working hard again and I think that is the way it has to be. There is no point in sulking or crying about being taken off. These things happen in sport. I accepted that, had no problem moving on and thankfully I got back into the team again."
Indeed, when he looks back now on that fixture, it's not entirely negative emotions that flood his mind. It's way too early to herald that reverse out west as the turning point in their season, but over the following three games Tipperary learned to love the ball again, they managed to bring their supporters back onside and finally put some sort of a visible shape on the team dynamic. They are finally back on track, up against Kilkenny in today's league final, and with Limerick in a mess, the first stop-off on their championship odyssey looks entirely negotiable.
That's a long way from the backlash that greeted the defeat to Galway. McGrath, a student in UCD, was far removed from the line of fire in any case, not that the criticism would have flustered him that much.
"When you're away in Dublin you're doing your own thing up there. Hurling is far from a lot of people's minds and it's grand to get away from it. But when you get back down, and you're in hurling mode coming into Thurles, and it's coming into summer, then it's nice to be back around home and getting a feel for the championship. You'd have good days and bad days. Whether people looking in from the side think that's good or bad, it doesn't matter to me as long as the team is going well," he says, his face breaking into earnest mode.
It's only early May but nonetheless he gives a hesitant nod to that Galway defeat as the catalyst for an improvement in their fortunes. "The championship hasn't even started but, yeah, maybe that Galway game was a small turning point."
They have certainly picked up the slack. O'Shea had surely grown weary of taking the bullets and shielding his squad but he never once pointed the finger of blame in the direction of the players. Now they are responding. That loyalty has stood to him.
And while the manager was the man under most scrutiny, there were repeated calls from the terraces for some experienced heads to roll. Last year Seamus Callanan was one of those targeted and yet O'Shea has stuck by him and watched him develop into a potential player of the year.
Particular angst was pointed in the direction of the class of 2006 and '07, the All-Ireland-winning minor teams. Had they all stepped up? Certainly not in the fashion the supporters expected.
For those who once wore the rose of youth on their lapel, mere potential was no longer acceptable. Nor was basking in the afterglow of 2010. Instead more titles were demanded.
Sensing the need for a shift in the team dynamic, O'Shea appointed McGrath his vice-captain and handed 25-year-old Benny Maher the skipper's armband. It's put to McGrath that this was akin to the manager handing the keys of the kingdom to that successful minor crop, empowering them to take control of the team. All along that has been O'Shea's goal – to develop leaders from within. It's taken time, but it might finally be happening.
McGrath knows how important that impetus is, but adds that the 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds coming into the squad must also feel like they are leaders too.
"There's no point in saying otherwise, the last few years were not as successful as the years before that, but that's down to different things. We have to try and change that. There are a good few of us there from the '06 minor team but there are also lads still coming off minor and under 21 panels and they just want to keep driving it on. Everyone has to play a role.
"Whoever is captain and vice-captain, well they have a few jobs to do, but there is a panel of 33 players and everyone is adding something to it. Without that, you can't push on. Brendan is captain at 25; a great leader and everyone respects him but that doesn't mean someone 18 or 19 can't do a leadership role either. It's spread out now and that's the way it has to be.
"When we came in the lads aged 24 and 25 showed us the ropes; that's something we have to do now. But there are lads who will make an impact on this Tipp team and it doesn't matter what age they are. If they don't stand up, the team will go nowhere."
He bats away persistent questions about why the team has stood still since 2010, preferring instead to look to today's final and the summer ahead. "You could stay all day thinking about why we haven't pushed on, wondering why, or why not. The fact is we didn't drive on. But we're trying to go back to that level. We're looking forward again. We know we have a long way to go but the next few months will tell where we are."
McGrath has become more influential on proceedings. He went back to club duty once Tipperary were knocked out by Kilkenny last July. What followed was a successful campaign with Loughmore-Castleiney who won both the Tipperary SFC and SHC titles. He was given six weeks to rest and get his energy levels back up and it seems to be paying dividends.
Apart from that poor showing against Galway, he appears to have found top form in a new role, dropping deep to play around the middle of the park. It's perhaps the best position for him as he can pick a pass like few others and is as likely to score from 60 yards out as 30 yards. His role has allowed Brendan Maher to act as a free man playing a sweeper role which has benefited the team in general.
Like many resurgences there has been some luck along the way. Tipperary only just finished above Dublin on scoring difference to qualify for the quarter-finals. It could easily have been a relegation battle instead. One more point (Niall McMorrow had a golden chance at the death) for Dublin in their clash at Semple Stadium would have seen a reversal of positions in the Division 1A table. Like McMorrow, McGrath was not aware of how tight it was.
"No, I hadn't a clue what the scenario was," he admits. "We were just looking for a performance but that's the bit of luck you need along the way." That was perhaps the first time this season that roars of encouragement rolled down from the Ó Riain Stand, a fact not wasted on McGrath.
"Yeah, it's nice to have a backing like that and having the crowd row
in behind you like that. We do notice it and it gives you that extra boost and you get that extra bit of energy. I suppose there have been a few criticisms of us during the last few weeks and we just wanted to put that straight. Hopefully, we have a long way to go yet, though."
They'll know more after today's league final. What a rotten record they've endured against Kilkenny since the 2010 All-Ireland. And in the Brian Cody era the teams have met three teams in league finals with the Cats winning each time.
"They've had the upper hand on us over the last few years but this is a new year. What's gone, we can't do anything about that – it's about looking forward now to the next game. It's a national final, it's in Thurles, our home field. It doesn't matter where the big games are played these days, all the teams are used to playing in all the fields. We'll be looking forward to it as much as they will."
Despite their poor early form, there's an expectation that Tipperary will win today. Maybe that weight has been a burden in the past?
"It probably was," the Loughmore man concedes. "We won minor and then the under 21 and senior all at once. I suppose people might have got carried away and thought this was the way it was going to be forever. We have seen before that teams have come and won and haven't got back there again. We were hoping that wouldn't happen to us. We've tried everything to keep ourselves there. Look, we're still there fighting," he points out. "I suppose it would be worse if we were gone away. We kept going at it and kept trying and kept going back. We're still fighting and we're going at it again."
They are still chasing a rhythm, but the beat, at least, is no longer faint. Indeed it is much stronger now.
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