Bertie Ahern had the ability to work a room so fast he often ended up inadvertently coming back around on a second lap. Fianna Fáil's TDs and senators were gathered in the Druid's Glen Hotel in Co Wicklow for their annual pre-return of the Dáil shindig in September 2007. Ahern's party had pulled off a stunning three-in-a-row of election victories months earlier even with the shadow of the then Taoiseach's past personal finances hanging over the campaign.
Mr Ahern did the rounds of the bar, briefly chatting with everyone, while being dragged on to the next person. He gave a brief but warm greeting to one of his newly-elected TDs and was politely replied with a "Hello, Taoiseach, nice to see you" from Michael McGrath.
The backgrounds of the pair actually have a lot in common. Both came from working-class families, went to college, trained as accountants, got into politics young and made the breakthrough in areas already occupied by big beasts within their own party. Plus there was the shared obsession with Man United.
Back then, Fianna Fáil seemed invincible, with the Celtic Tiger still purring and nobody seeing what was coming down the tracks.
After the party's fall brought about by the subsequent economic crash, Mr McGrath steps up next Tuesday to be the first Fianna Fáil minister in a decade to deliver a Budget in Government. Provided it is well-received, the moment will place the Public Expenditure Minister as the heir apparent to Micheál Martin as the next leader. Competition is certain, but none of the other contenders will have managed the purse strings.
"He's up there with Jim O'Callaghan as the frontrunner now. The pressure is on Michael to deliver a budget that calms down the ranks, that shows Fianna Fáil in Government has made a difference in the big areas like access to health, primary education and social and affordable housing," a party TD says. "He has been very tough in talks with ministers, not to the point of rudeness or inflexibility. He has made them go back to the drawing board, yet not to the point of damaging relationships. That's easy with this Budget when there are no cuts. It won't always be."
What's surprising - and may even work against him in Fianna Fáil - is his popularity within Fine Gael, way beyond Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, with whom he enjoys a genuinely strong working relationship.
"Out of any Fianna Fáil minister, his transition into Government has been the most seamless. He's sensible, calm, polite. His public persona is what he's like in private. He's not a p***k.
"He'll stand his ground when he needs to. He hasn't been sucked in by the mandarins just yet. He's accessible. He calls you back. He talks to you on the fringes of meetings and agrees things before you go into the room. He's the one you want onside. He takes persuasion, he'll put a counter argument and he's worried about all the spending.
"People say he lacks charisma but he has other strengths that make up for that. He is a strong negotiator. He listens, he talks, once you get his buy-in, he will push it through. He's more substance over style. You get the sense he can handle pressure. He has the authority. He doesn't have to raise his voice. He's trusted," a Fine Gael source said.
Nonetheless, he hasn't got where he is today by accident. Party colleagues talk about a steel within him to survive the last decade.
"He's a little bit cuter and slyer than he'd like to let on. He's created a persona as Mr Prudent and Mr Reliable without populist tendencies. He's not beyond talking himself up, just like the rest," a source within Government observed.
'McGrath in danger of losing seat' said the poll in the Evening Echo as the Fianna Fáil meltdown approached. The previous summer he had bought a house for his growing family for €465,000 in Carrig Na Curra, a large estate on the outskirts of the satellite town of Carrigaline. He was bedding in for the long haul if he could survive. He was elected a TD as a first-time candidate at 30 years old. While a student in UCC, he had canvassed for Micheál Martin in Cork South-Central. He had met Mr Martin and told him he was interested in getting involved in politics. Elected to the town council in his native Passage West in 1999, he then got a whopping vote in the 2004 local elections in the Carrigaline area. Mr McGrath's ability to be in position when an opportunity arises saw him benefit from a constituency redraw, which resulted in Martin's long-time party rival Batt O'Keeffe move elsewhere, thereby creating a vacancy for the new boy. Cork South-Central is made up of the southside of the city and the hinterland of satellite towns around the harbour area. A pattern began of Mr Martin holding the city and Mr McGrath the county. The relationship isn't always harmonious and shots are fired when they get in each other's way locally. His brother, Seamus, replaced him on the county council when he became a TD and the pair have a record of local delivery.
On a national level in his first term, McGrath was low profile. He was part of a batch of new young TDs who enjoyed pints and the odd night winding up in Copper Faced Jacks.
In Cork he worked the media. He had a knack of taking potshots at the then government's soft handling of bankers and developers in the Leeside press and then keeping the head down when his dissent was spotted by the national media. He was a member of the dissident camp of Brian Lenihan backers as rancour grew around Brian Cowen's leadership. Heading into the 2011 election, Mr Martin's ascent to party leader squeezed McGrath even more. Fianna Fáil had no right to hold two seats. In a brutal election, Mr McGrath's reputation for hard graft on the ground held up to fend off Sinn Féin and Fine Gael's. He is said to rank holding on as his greatest political achievement until his appointment to Cabinet.
Mr Martin made him junior finance spokesman under his mentor Mr Lenihan. When the former finance minister sadly passed away, Mr McGrath took over the senior portfolio. He grafted away, putting down the PQs, preparing questions at committees and championing the consumer causes of mortgage rates and insurance costs. As Sinn Féin's Pearse Doherty hoovered up the publicity, some within the party were critical of his failure to be more eye-catching. Conscious of Fianna Fáil's standing on economic matters and slightly in awe of Michael Noonan, McGrath was clever enough to know how far he could push it without getting a slapdown. The focus remained on rebuilding the party's economic credibility.
Merrion Street 2020
Finally getting to deliver a Budget speech from the Government benches, he will be firmly in the public eye next week. He is a centrist who believes in fiscal rectitude, while also investing in public services.
Beyond the finance and public expenditure brief though, his views on the world remain something of a mystery. He doesn't get involved in philosophical debates on the future of Northern Ireland or set out great policy visions. He is said to have a keen interest in the carers, disability and special needs sector. McGrath is squarely on the socially conservative wing of Fianna Fáil. He firmly opposed the relaxation on the ban on abortion without being a highly public campaigner, and isn't viewed as a great advocate on the removal of the influence of the Church in education and health.
Outside of politics, he is dedicated to his family. He met his wife, Sarah O'Brien, while they were both trainee accountants with KPMG in Cork after he graduated with a first class degree in commerce. They have seven children; Jack (18), David (13), Ronan (12), Tom (11), Ruth (10), Luke (6) and Kate (4).
In a reflection of the times and the pressures of having growing kids, the couple have a planning application in with Cork County Council to connect the garage outside to the house and convert it into a home office. His chances of emulating Ahern as the "local boy come good" next leader of Fianna Fáil will be down to solid delivery rather than a sudden change of his dull accountant image.