Watching from the wings
For the first time since 1995, Ken McGrath will be missing as Waterford hurlers set out on another championship adventure. He talks to Martin Breheny about the ups and downs of a 15-year career and what the future holds for him and Waterford
EARLY summer down Waterford way and the optimism indicator is rising. Five weeks to go to their first Munster championship outing and they're locked into their usual position just below the radar.
The Allianz Hurling League was highly productive for Waterford, even if it did leave them just outside the top two. Still, Waterford won four and drew one of their seven games, losing only to Tipperary and Kilkenny.
They saw out their programme with a neatly constructed win over Galway, who, for reasons that aren't immediately apparent, are still well ahead of Waterford in the All-Ireland betting.
Davy Fitzgerald introduced a swathe of fresh talent this spring, which leaves him with a solid base as he works towards figuring out his best team to begin the defence of the Munster title against Limerick on June 12.
He does so with a familiar voice offering encouraging words in the background.
"Waterford have a lot of good youngsters coming through. It mightn't have always been like that but they're definitely there at the moment. If they gel with the older guys and it all goes well, who knows where it might take us?"
To a first All-Ireland title in 52 years, perhaps?
"Why not? You've got to have confidence in yourself and believe you can make things happen. Waterford won't fear anyone this year. Nor should they."
The speaker is a man who certainly believed in himself, knew no fear and made a whole suite of things happen in his 15-year senior inter-county career.
Step forward Ken McGrath, one of the best players ever to play for Waterford, but whose career has ended without an All-Ireland medal. It's a description and a fate similarly attached to his father, Pat, whose career also lasted 15 years from 1971 to 1986.
It means that the McGrath family has been represented on the Waterford team for 30 of the last 40 years. The link continues, of course, as Ken's younger brother, Eoin, remains as one of the more experienced members of the panel.
Eoin and his parents, Pat and Anne, were the first to know that Ken's career had ended after he was replaced in the league game against Cork in Walsh Park on March 13.
Ken had started at midfield, watched a fast-paced world pass by and was withdrawn nine minutes into the second half.
As Ken walked to the sideline, he nodded at Eoin and said quietly: "That's me done."
Later he went down to his parents' house and told them that he was retiring. Pat, who knew exactly how his son was feeling, having made a similar decision in 1986, nodded quietly and said: "You know yourself when it's time to go."
It was an emotional moment. Ever since Ken first played senior for Waterford in 1996, he had been a central figure in the county's on-going pursuit of the big prizes. Now, he had to admit that after giving his all for so long, there was no more left.
Instead, he was about to join his father on the long list of players who never won All-Ireland medals (Pat was recently chosen at left half-back on the Irish Independent 'Unsung Heroes' team 1960-2010), but there was nothing he could do about it.
"I had put in a big effort since Christmas, but the bite was gone. That game against Cork passed me by completely. I was a mile off where I used to be. The mind was telling me one thing but the legs weren't responding. When that happens, it's time to go.
"Everyone has his pride and the last thing I wanted was to be hanging on, knowing that I could never again be the player I once was," he said.
It was the end of an era for McGrath, who for the last 15 years was a key reference point for everything Waterford were trying to achieve.
It started in early 1996 when he lined up against Galway's Gerry McInerney in a League game and continued through what developed into one of the most successful eras in Waterford history, even if Liam MacCarthy stubbornly refused to visit them.
"Of course, I would have loved to win an All-Ireland medal, but I don't think a player's career is defined solely by that. I left the inter-county scene with such a sense of satisfaction from my career that not having an All-Ireland medal at home in a drawer doesn't really bother me. It would be great if I had it, but I don't. What I do have is so many fantastic memories that I could never go through them all," said.
They range from the thrill of lining up in Walsh Park for his first senior championship match in early June 1996 through to winning his fourth Munster medal last July. Some weeks later, he would have his final outing in Croke Park, coming on as a sub in the All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary.
He felt he should have been utilised more last year but instead found himself confined to a sub's role, which he found hugely frustrating.
"I thought I was playing well enough to start games. I'd have said that to Davy (Fitzgerald) but he had his own views. I reckoned I had more to give the team by starting games. I found it very hard to sit on the bench, especially against Cork in the Munster final because I usually did well against them. I wasn't happy at the time but there wasn't much I could do," he said.
When McGrath retired so quickly after being taken off against Cork in March, it inevitably led to speculation that he was peeved with his manager, but that wasn't the case at all.
"No way -- absolutely not. Davy was very fair to me this year. He gave me enough chances, but after a while I knew it wasn't coming right for me. My time was up -- it's as simple as that."
He said that he had great respect for Fitzgerald and also insists that he had a high regard for all the other managers he played under too, including Justin McCarthy, who left in controversial circumstances after Waterford's championship defeat by Clare in 2008.
That was a strange summer for Waterford, starting out with McCarthy's departure after a player revolt, gathering rapid momentum under Fitzgerald as they powered their way to a first All-Ireland final since 1963, only to suffer an embarrassing defeat against Kilkenny.
"What happened with Justin was unfortunate. There wasn't a man who played under him who wouldn't have had the height of respect for him. He did a great job for several years but there was a feeling in 2008 that things had gone awful stale. Lads only get a certain number of years to play at the top level and we felt that if we didn't do something, the year would be a write-off.
"It wasn't easy to rock the boat because we all knew how much Justin had done for Waterford, but we felt we weren't going anywhere that year. It was horrible the way things turned out, but we did it for all the right reasons. It made us stronger as a group too," said McGrath.
Within days, McCarthy's seven-year stint was over and Fitzgerald was appointed to his first senior managerial job, where he would be coaching some players he had played against for years.
"It was a bit of a surprise when we were told that Davy was coming in, but we had heard that he had new ideas and, in fairness, that turned out to be the case. We were under pressure to deliver, too, so things took off very quickly."
They soared so high that by the morning of the first Sunday in September, Waterford were within touching distance of the All-Ireland title after carefully rebuilding their season. By 5.0 that evening, it was all so different. Waterford had been humiliated, losing to Kilkenny by 3-30 to 1-13 in one of the most lopsided finals of all time.
They still can't figure out how it went so terribly wrong.
"We were well used to playing in front of big crowds, but maybe this was different. Maybe the nerves were getting to us and we didn't know it. The strange thing was that we did okay for 10 minutes or so and then it began to go wrong. We just couldn't get near Kilkenny anywhere on the field.
"I remember being way out from goal, around the '65' line, with Tony (Browne) and Kevin (Moran) either side of me and a huge gap between us and the full-backs. We had to go with our men but that left massive space behind us and Kilkenny poured into it.
"On one occasion, as Kilkenny launched another attack into the open space, I found myself galloping back towards my own goal and thinking: 'this isn't right, I should be going the other way.' It was a disaster all the way to the end. It was a horrible few months afterwards, too, because we felt so embarrassed," he said.
That mauling led to predictions of a rapid demise for Waterford, but it didn't materialise. On the contrary, Waterford have continued to remain fiercely competitive since then, earning themselves a consistent third place in the rankings behind Kilkenny and Tipperary.
It wasn't the first time that a grim prognosis had been directed Waterford's way but, as always, they ignored it. McGrath recalls reading an article in 2001 that suggested that if Waterford didn't make progress soon, his career could pass without him ever achieving anything.
"The piece mentioned Dan Shanahan as well. I was 23 and I was being told it was now or never. As it happened, we won the Munster title the next year, but I certainly wasn't worrying about things passing me by in 2001."
Gerald McCarthy left Waterford at the end of that campaign, having been in charge for five seasons. The closest they came to success under him was in 1998 when they took reigning All-Ireland champions Clare to a replay in the Munster final before regrouping and reaching the All-Ireland semi-final, where they lost by a point to Kilkenny.
"I'd often feel that was one that got away. We'd have beaten Kilkenny if we were a bit cuter and I'd definitely include myself in that. If I knew then what I knew a few years later, I'd have done much better. I shot a few wides in the second half and made a few other mistakes that I wouldn't have made later on."
That season was to be the highlight of Gerald McCarthy's stint with Waterford. With no All-Ireland qualifiers on the schedule back then, early-round provincial defeats ended the season, a fate which befell Waterford quite regularly.
"We let Gerald down, to be honest. He had made a huge difference and did everything so professionally. We had great time for him. That's why we all made sure he got a mention when we won the Munster title in 2002."
Justin McCarthy replaced Gerald and things clicked immediately, culminating in a memorable Munster final win over reigning All-Ireland champions Tipperary. McGrath scored seven points, one while falling backwards, in one of those near perfect performances which he produced so often.
However, as happened several times in subsequent years, Waterford struggled to reproduce their best form in Croke Park, losing to Clare in the semi-final.
It was something that would undermine them for a long time, but they finally felt they were on their way to something big in 2007 when they won the Munster final and beat Cork in an All-Ireland quarter-final replay in Croke Park.
However, they were hit by a Limerick goal rush in the semi-final, losing out on a chance that McGrath believes may have been their best of all.
"That had been a great season up to then. We won the National League and Munster titles, beat Cork in Croke Park and felt we were ready for anything. We started badly against Limerick, fought back well but conceded more silly goals. It was a massive disappointment after how things had gone up to then."
It was essentially the end of the Justin McCarthy regime as he was forced out in June 2008. McGrath hasn't come across McCarthy since then and admits that if he did it would be an awkward encounter.
"I wouldn't know what to say to him and other lads feel the same. We had massive respect for him but I'm sure he felt let down by what happened. All we were thinking of was how to get the season back on track. There was nothing personal in it. Why should there be? He had done an awful lot for Waterford hurling."
McGrath leaves the inter-county scene with happy memories and an abiding passion to see Waterford continue to flourish so that Liam MacCarthy might eventually decide to come their way.
He will continue to hurl with Mount Sion but is looking forward to indulging some of his other interests such as kayaking, while also spending more time with his wife, Dawn, and their girls, Ceilin (12) and Ali (4). There's also the challenge of building up his sports shop business on George's Street, Waterford.
He doesn't see himself as a future team manager but would like to become involved in coaching. He believes that some of the spontaneity has gone out of modern hurling, with an increasing emphasis on retaining possession. For him, the game is all about touch, timing and self-expression, facets he will encourage as a coach some time in the future.
Those were the attributes that defined him as a player ever since he made a dramatic arrival on the scene when playing in the Munster senior, U-21 and minor championships in the space of a month in 1996.
Tony Mansfield was Waterford senior manager at the time and had no qualms about handing an 18-year-old the No 5 jersey for the Munster championship clash with Tipperary.
"It shows how times have changed. Munster championship games were played in Walsh Park back then. The place was packed to the rafters (15,655 attendance) and the atmosphere was unreal," said McGrath.
"I was at left half-forward and came up against Raymie Ryan, who was a very good wing-back. I scored a point but we lost by three. I didn't feel under any real pressure because I was so young."
Fifteen years on, he will follow Waterford's progress from the stands, believing that they are still very much in the All-Ireland mix.
"Tipperary and Kilkenny are probably the top two, but Waterford are in there with a few others in the chasing pack. It wouldn't take that much for Waterford to make the breakthrough.
"I won't be part of it, not as a player anyway, but I'm looking forward to getting behind them from outside the wire. There's a fierce pride in Waterford hurling and I believe it has a great future. We never give up -- that's for sure," he said.