Sunday 19 November 2017

Every chance you get you want to enjoy it – McGrath

Fermanagh veteran has fresh perspective on football after year which has been touched by joy and tragedy, writes Declan Bogue

Declan Bogue

MARTY McGrath is the embodiment of masculinity as he stands outside a restaurant before the interview. Shirt open in the roasting heat, dusty van with a trailer attached, laden down with stones he will use to kerb a driveway.

It's a long time since the winter of 1998, when he would sit in the corner of the Fermanagh dressing-room, a schoolboy midfielder among the men arriving in with plaster and cement clinging to their jeans.

Fifteen years on and he laughs at the equivalents of his younger self. Tiarnan Daly has only been added to the panel and McGrath (pictured below) is amazed by his array of tight jeans and blue shoes. And all that Twitter and Facebook stuff passes him by too.

"Maybe I'm not up to the fashion," he chuckles. "I'm just a farmer from Ederney!"

This year has been a mixed one for him. Even more mixed than 2008, when he led his county to the Ulster final, while delaying a operation for testicular cancer through four games.

Or 2006, when he underwent two heart operations.

September 13, 2012 and a typically damp Thursday. Marty and his wife Roisín are getting excited about the imminent arrival of their first child. And then, something horrible.

Brian Og Maguire is killed in a factory accident. Lisnaskea Emmetts lose their captain. Marty loses a team-mate. Roisín loses her brother.

The wake was painful. Lisnaskea club, the county squad and board helped out, arranging everything while the family were extremely dignified under the most wretched circumstances imaginable.

By the morning of the funeral, the baby would not wait. Marty and Roisín could not attend Brian Og's burial. Instead, they were in the maternity ward.

Everything went well. Little Dan Brian McGrath enters the world.

McGrath misses his old friend and comrade. They would go on ski trips as a group. He would visit the Maguire homeplace and make his way to 'the boys' room', where Ogie would have Sky Sports on.

Every dinner time was a competition between them. "I wasn't allowed to take any of his steak! It was whatever food was left over was between me and him," he recalls with a grin.

"He's developing into..." he begins, before correcting himself, "he was developing into a great footballer."

He continues: "In terms of football ability, I don't think I have seen too many players that could time his jump as well as he could. He wasn't the biggest but he was competing in the All-Ireland club final against (Galway midfielder) Paul Conroy, and he was able to get up and compete, win his own ball."

The pair of them wanted to play together in midfield on a championship day for Fermanagh.

"It was something we were looking forward to this year, but it's not going to happen now."

The Fermanagh squad will pay tribute to him in their own, discreet way tomorrow, but McGrath still playing for the county is his means of paying tribute to life, not just his own, or Ogie's.

"Before the child was born I was questioning if I was going to go out and commit. But then the whole circumstances surrounding Og made up my mind. I would give this a go.

"Roisín was understanding about going to football and knows the reasons I'm there."

He knew he had to get fitter for 2013. Last year he played against Down and ran out of steam.

Tendonitis was dogging him and he hadn't got back to running until March. It was late April before he was back in full training. Not ideal championship preparation.

He knuckled down, though, and played every club game for St Joseph's. Smart alecks would say that he hadn't always played as much as he could with the club, but he explains: "You don't realise until you go out and play county football what the commitment is to that, how much training you have to put in. You have to be fitter and stronger than you were."

RUMBLE

Pre-season came along and he threw himself into it. When the panel arranged a fund-raising Fight Night in November, he volunteered and polished up his skills as a champion boxer in his teens. His rumble with Ryan Jones was the headliner and both men entered the ring and tore the place up.

Because of young men like Jones, he knows that his midfield berth is no longer assured as it once was, when he was winning All Stars and captaining his county.

"I know in my own heart I am not first-choice but I have to work as hard as I can to put myself into position," he says.

"I am not as young and sprightly as I used to be. If I could help Fermanagh through the championship, if it is only 20 minutes and I could make a difference, then that's alright."

Cavan are the visitors tomorrow. There will be talk of doing or dying in both dressing-rooms before the game. But Fermanagh, and McGrath, know the truth.

"There are more important things in life," he says, "but football is a massive part of life to me. I'm glad to be at this. Every opportunity you get you want to enjoy it."

And he will enjoy it. For those that are there, and those that aren't.

Irish Independent

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