GAA Football

Miracle man Marty McGrath triumphs at last with Ederney in Fermanagh

Ederney St Joseph’s captain Declan McCusker and midfielder Martin McGrath (right) lift the New York Cup as Fermanagh SFC champions.
Pic Philip Walsh

Medals can be lost but memories will be here for life.

Marty McGrath

 

MEDALS have to be won first, of course. Yet when a JCB, heart surgery, and testicular cancer were all unable to stop Marty McGrath then five-in-a-row champions Derrygonnelly Harps would merely be a bump on the road to reaching his promised land.

The Fermanagh SFC crown finally delivered, for only the second time in the club's history, after an agonising 52-year wait, there was only one man to lead the celebrations in front of their joyous supporters.

The energy the 39-year-old showed in sprinting across the Brewster Park to greet his people was remarkable, not only due to his age but because of the effort he'd put in during the 70-odd minutes of play.

He still had the strength to help skipper Declan McCusker lift the New York Cup, but only after the captain had called the club icon up to join him for the presentation.

Of course Marty was named 'Man of the Match'.

Of course he was the figure in the limelight.

But Marty McGrath has always been about giving his all for the team, never making it all about himself.

Marty McGrath is a modest man with little to be modest about.

An Allstar in 2004, the obstacles he overcame are comic book hero stuff.

2006 – the first of two operations to correct a heart defect.

2007 – struck on the head by a digger scoop, suffering a facial fracture and ending his season.

2008 – diagnosed with testicular cancer

That last setback occurred before the Ulster SFC semi-final. Another season-ender? Not for Marty. He delayed the op, helped defeat Derry, and then took Armagh to a replay in Fermanagh's first final since 1982.

Probably only Barry Owens could compete with Marty McGrath for the title of 'Fermanagh's most popular man' – and Marty got the better of the Teemore hero in this year's county semi-final.

The supporters heeded repeated warnings not to go onto the pitch – but regulations were still breached by those who simply had to shake the hand of Marty McGrath, or give him a hug.

Derrygonnelly full-back Tiarnan Daly was one of those, showing the esteem in which Marty is held.

One moment during Sunday's final encapsulated Marty McGrath. An Ederney colleague had chased down a Derrygonnelly attacker along the sideline, forcing him to step out of play. Frustrated, the Harps man threw the ball into the empty stand, from where it bounced back off a seat – into the hands of Marty McGrath.

We should have known it would be Ederney's evening even before the ball was thrown in, never mind having to wait a few seconds for Marty McGrath to get hold of it.

That beautiful rendition of Amhran na bhFiann sung before the match? By Eleanor Farry - Marty's sister.

Besides the countless balls he caught or broke, to stop Derrygonnelly attacks or start some for Ederney, Marty scored a huge point – and delivered the hand-pass which released Paul McCusker to tee up the decisive second goal from Sean Cassidy.

McGrath was typically magnanimous in victory, saying: "Look, we got the rub of the green, but you have to get the rub of the green, It's the first time in about six or seven finals we've got that rub of the green…

"You just wanted the final whistle to go but you knew it's 'every ball, next ball' and we stuck till it and got over the line."

Few will know more about the Ederney 1968 team than Marty, whose father Anthony was one of seven brothers to play that day.

"It's a long time coming, it's 52 years in the making, and I'm about for 25 of those, so it's just about time that we've got over the line," said Marty.

"We've been knocking on the door as a team for 10 years but the '68/'69 team have been saying they're the best team to come out of Ederney. Thankfully we've something to put alongside them, but we've a wee bit to make up on them yet.

"It's nice to have a medal and a picture going up alongside the ones in the house. I noticed in the paper [on Saturday] photographs of 'the McGrath seven' and 'Ederney '68' – now we'll be there too.

"It was talked about a lot and you listen to the stories. It brought it home to me when I watched a video the other day – they'd made a video of the 50-year anniversary [of the 1968 win] and I was part of the making of that.

"Watching my father and my uncles reminiscing, and you could see the twinkle in their eyes when they're in at the club. It meant so much to be them to be back 50 years later, with the history and the memories, more so than any medals. Medals can be lost but memories will be here for life."

Uncle Leonard, on as a sub to join six starters in 1968, is the main shirt sponsor now – just one element in the McGraths' contribution on Sunday.

Previous defeats, including a 12-point thrashing by the Harps in the 2018 Final, were swept away. "At times we didn't turn up. I suppose the fact that there was no 'occasion' this time maybe made a big difference.

"No parade, no nothing – other than my sister singing the national anthem there was no more till it. It was something of a family affair with my two nephews [Ryan and Niall McGrath] on the panel as well. My brother Sean's on the backroom team.

"It's just great to get it for the club, and the parish. There's great work going into the club, a lot of infrastructure and new pitches, people doing a lot of, lot of work. They deserve this, they deserve this moment of success.

The next generation is underway too, Marty joined by children Dan (8), Cassie (6), and Tom (4) "and another one on the way."

For a man who played in an All-Ireland semi-final, represented Ireland, won an Allstar, and was twice named Ulster Footballer of the Year, Marty McGrath reached his personal pinnacle on Sunday night:

"At the moment, you're going to say it's the top – and it is the top. It's your club, your parish, it's the top of the game…

"So much work, so much effort was put into this. We went back, Deccy McCusker mentioned it [in his acceptance speech], on our own, trying hard, pushing each other on. No one was shying out of it.

"We were pushing each other on, which was the big thing, the management stayed out of it, it was at a time when you could only train in fours and fives. We did it and it showed, our commitment to it."

Mission accomplished then?

Clearly you don't know Marty McGrath, the ultimate competitor.

"Disappointed I'm not going to get the opportunity to run out in the Ulster Club – but maybe next year, we'll see how it goes," he laughs.

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