GAA Football

"It's not about a piece of metal. It's about the journey and the memories"

After 11 years in a Donegal jersey, Paddy McGrath hung up the boots last December. From playing in an All-Ireland U21 final with a broken jaw through to carrying his eldest daughter up the steps in Clones, his was a rich career. Cahair O'Kane went to meet him...

“For me, the two Ulster Championships we won where I could take Isla-Rose up, that was very special" - Paddy McGrath pictured with his eldest daughter Isla Rose in 2018. He and wife Stephanie now have three girls. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

THERE’S a great story that Mark McHugh tells about training along with Paddy McGrath.

Jim McGuinness used to run this drill where players would be paired up. In turns, one would lie down on the ground and the other man would lie on top of him.

With everything they had, the man on the bottom had to try and get free, and the man on top would have to pin his opponent to the ground for as long as possible.

One night in particular, McHugh and McGrath were put together.

McHugh was doing the pinning first. A handful of seconds and McGrath wriggled free.

Then they switched roles.

“Well, this is eight or nine years ago, and I could still be there yet,” McHugh laughs.

“If you told me I had to get up off the ground that night to survive, I couldn’t have done it. He was just so strong. It was like a house on top of you.”

The mark of a footballer is not what you or I think of them.

It’s what is thought of them on the benches between the four walls that house them two, three, four times a week.

Donegal’s 2012 All-Ireland winning changing room judged Paddy McGrath to be one of the most relentless, consistent, under-rated players on the circuit.

No-one, himself included, would argue he was the world’s most natural footballer. But a ferocious trainer made of brick, he set the standard at training and made the best of what he had.

McGrath would attract little national fanfare during his career. Part of that was even though he would routinely carry the ball into areas that hurt the opposition, he almost never scored. His entire career tally was 1-1.

During that period of Donegal success under Jim McGuinness, almost every match programme would have an interview with some team-mate listing him as the hardest trainer on the squad.

McGrath grew up farming for neighbours along the picturesque shore road he called home at Loughros Point, and was besotted by construction work.

He graduated in Construction Management out of NUI Galway, and his attitude to life and football and getting on with it was summed up by the years that followed.

In 2009, he was on the Donegal U21 panel a year early under Sean Clerkin. He was also working in Liverpool, flying back and forth for training sessions and games.

Jim McGuinness retained him the following year, by which stage he had turned down permanent work on Merseyside.

It wasn’t without thought. This was in the intestines of the recession. Everything on the tools at home had dried up and men of his age and skillset were flooding the major English cities as if it were the 1910s.

He stayed home, believing that McGuinness would take Donegal football somewhere new.

They ended up in an All-Ireland U21 semi-final that year, out of which Paddy McGrath ended up with a broken jaw.

“I didn’t think it was broken. I’d never broke a bone in my body until that day so I didn’t really know, it was just sore.

“I remember after the game against Tipperary, we got a lovely steak and chips and I couldn’t eat a thing, I had to settle for the soup instead,” says McGrath, just as he tucks into another bowl of vegetable broth.

Two weeks between semi-final and final, he had surgery to repair the jaw on the Monday.

When Jim McGuinness and a few of the backroom team landed to the hospital to console him about being out of the final, they were told in no uncertain terms that he was playing.

“The worst thing that would have happened was it got broke again or the plate moved. The consultant did tell me that he would fix it again.

“I never once thought that I wouldn’t be playing.”

McGrath left hospital with the jaw swollen but by Friday he was back running on the beach. He avoided all contact in training right up until the final.

“In the very first minute of the All-Ireland final, he came tearing out to chase down a loose ball and threw himself on it head first. I turned to Peter McGinley and said ‘he’s going to be alright’,” McGuinness’ book would tell.

The Donegal jersey was of immense importance to McGrath. When he moved to Dublin in early 2014, the manager advised him he could manage it but only for a short time.

He did it for a year-and-a-half.

5am gym sessions in the Regency Hotel. On Thursdays, he’d come up home for training. Nights he wouldn’t be back in Dublin until two in the morning, and then up again at five or six for work, depending on whether he had the gym to go to first.

Then he’d go back up home again on the Friday night.

Paddy McGrath takes the field at Ballyshannon ahead of a league game with Kildare in 2019. Picture Margaret McLaughlin.

Some men are just built for it.

A changing room will spot them a mile off, and can only love them.

* * * * *

ONE hundred metres from the front door of his home house and he’s in one of the nooks of the Atlantic Ocean that trickle along the county’s coastline.

Loughros Point is on its way out of Ardara. Growing up there wasn’t a pile else to be at other than playing football, but that didn’t stop him almost giving up.

It has been said before that he wasn’t blessed with God-given footballing ability and he wouldn’t deny that himself.

When he was coming towards the end of his time at The Point National School, his friends were already drifting. It was only a couple of miles in to the club at most but they’d fallen into a way of kicking soccer around the fields at home rather than going to training.

Two people in particular turned him back. The first was his mother.

“Mum spent a lot of her time looking after us. I’ve all my thanks to give to her. A great woman.

“We’d have been down playing football in the fields when training was on in the town. I was like I’m not going, my friends aren’t going, but she was like ‘you have to go, the membership’s paid now!’ That always stands out to me.

“If you’d been let pull the pin back then when you didn’t want to go, you might never have went back. She was kinda making me.

“I got a wee award when I was 10 or so, a wee man of the match, and I got a taste for it. Never looked back.”

The other was a neighbour, Eamon McNelis.

“I can still remember Eamon coming down the Point and be recruiting players. I was maybe seven at the time.

“He was one of the fellas that brought me down to the field. I would have huge respect for Eamon, that he started me off on that journey.”

Eamon’s son Michael had been Paddy’s team-mate when they were cubs but he was tragically killed aged just ten.

When Donegal won Sam Maguire, Eamon had been ill. Paddy brought the cup up to his house, having called before the final to make sure his neighbour had a ticket.

“Football-mad, his whole family was. It means a lot to people. You try and take the cup to a lot of people around the town because it’s not something that happens every year.”

Tomás Maguire had been a few years his elder but was captain when they were on the same minor team. McGrath remembers Tomás ringing him regularly, “doing all this stuff you would never have been exposed to.”

The morning after Donegal started their run to the All-Ireland in 2012, the whole of Ardara was at Tomás’ funeral.

He’d not been long in Australia when he was on his way to buy supplies for the farm he was working on and his pick-up truck rolled over.

Tomás, who had the potential to play county football himself, had been at the 2011 Ulster final win over Derry with a Brazilian flag. All the players signed it afterwards.

When Donegal brought Sam Maguire home, Paddy McGrath carried the flag with him.

The following May, another former team-mate Conal Gildea drowned in Dublin.

“Ardara’s got it tough with young people. We had a lot of tragedies lately and down through the years. Those are tough days, tough news to be getting for the families and friends.”

Paddy McGrath is wedded to the place. He went to secondary school in the Glenties with his wife Stephanie.

With their three daughters, the youngest of them just 13 weeks, they’re living in Ardara at the minute, awaiting a return to his roots in a new build down by the Point.

This is Anthony Molloy country, Martin Gavigan country, Brendan Boyle country and Damian Diver country.

When Donegal won the Division Two league title in 2011, McGrath made an off-hand comment to Diver about it being “just” a Division Two title and that there were bigger fish to fry.

Diver was cross at him.

“He said ‘like, I have no medals at all’,” recalls McGrath.

“I remember going to a league final Donegal were in against Louth, Diver was playing that day, and Louth beat them. You can’t take anything for granted. I really do appreciate every single medal that I have.

“When I was very young, Tony Boyle would have been a big name. Once I got an interest in it, Damian Diver would have been a big role model I looked up to. He was unbelievable. Ask anyone about him, they’ll tell you the same.”

In Ardara, they’ll never forget that he put his 2012 All-Ireland final on the line by playing in a league derby against the Glenties just before it. Ardara needed the points, they needed Paddy, and Paddy has never let them down.

McGrath also carries a strong religious faith with him.

There’s a famous story about the morning he and Eamon McGee, views on the subject are well established, were arguing about evolution over breakfast on the morning of a National League game in Tralee.

The next thing a crowd had gathered to listen.

“Religion’s important in my life, it is,” he says.

“I mightn’t agree with Eamon and he mightn’t agree with me, but me and him would never fall out about it. Never.

“I respect Eamon because he probably thinks about it, where you’ve a lot of people that probably don’t.

“It was all good banter, we were just chatting away. Good, meaningful conversations.”

* * * * *

OF all the successes they’ve had in the last decade, there’s still no reference point in the recent history of Donegal football more called upon than the day they stood at the very foot of the mountain.

Crossmaglen in the summer of 2010. The details barely need recounted now. Having come on in Ulster against Down, John Joe Doherty handed McGrath, just a few months out of the U21 All-Ireland final, a starting championship jersey for the first time.

The task was to mark young Armagh starlet Jamie Clarke, just as he’d done to great effect at U21.

His starting debut lasted 11 minutes.

“Looking back now, it was disappointing. It was embarrassing being whipped off.

“It was a big day for me, you get your starting jersey, you’re in the team… It just didn’t go for me.

“Fair play to Jamie, he got the first goal. I was switched then and they could probably see I wasn’t at the pace, and they had to make the calls. That’s what they have to do.”

He still remembers the lift he got from phone calls afterwards. Barry Dunnion in particular stands out.

Over the next 11 years, McGrath would go on to become the epitome of consistent. McGuinness never had any hesitation in handing him a big job. If there was a nippy corner-forward needing worked with it was right up his street, but there were nights spent on the likes of Conor McManus too.

His 2012 quarter-final performance, quelling the threat of James O’Donoghue, stands out in the mind.

By the end of McGuinness’ reign, injuries had started to eat at him a bit. He missed most of 2013 and the whole of the league in ’14.

Three years later he suffered a posterior cruciate ligament tear in his left knee. Rehab was done without turning to surgery but in 2019, he did the ACL and spent another long time on the sidelines.

If Donegal over-trained in those glory years at the beginning of the last decade, it was because they had no choice.

“We probably had to train the way we trained at that time. We had to, the same way Derry are probably pushing boundaries now. We had to jump the ladder, from where we were at.”

Not that he ever shirked any training. Towards the end it wasn’t even the big injuries any more. The rehab from the bad knee injuries was one thing, but once he accepted those he got past it.

Paddy McGrath with the Sam Maguire cup on his head after Donegal's 2012 All-Ireland success. Picture by Mark Marlow.

It was 2018 and 2020, the years after, that were worst. Hamstrings here, quads there, niggles everywhere.

“A wee soft tissue injury that’s only mild and might keep you out for 10 days, they’re nearly the worst.”

There were times too when he was fit and Declan Bonner didn’t pick him.

He only retired last December but the day he tore the ACL, the Super 8s defeat down in Castlebar in 2019, was his last championship start. The last 16 minutes against Tyrone the following summer were the last 16 minutes of championship football he’d get.

Circumspect is his natural manner. Bonner had his job to do, he had his calls to make, and that’s just the way it was. You won’t hear a word of dissent from McGrath.

“He’s trying to make the best decision he can for the team, and it has to be that way. He’ll make decisions that are wrong, he’ll make decisions that are right. You live by the sword, you have to die by the sword. It’s not easy being the manager of an inter-county team.”

McGrath exited with two Division Two titles, five Ulsters and an All-Ireland medal that lives with his mother in his home house down along the coast.

They’re all stashed away in a cupboard somewhere. The only football photos he has up in the house are ones with his eldest daughter, who twice was carried up the steps in Clones to lay hands on the Anglo Celt.

“That’s what it’s all about. When you’re young, football is the priority but when the girls come along…

“Stephanie was taking them to the games, doing wile journeys with them to make sure they got, and she had photos. Brilliant to have them.

“For me, the two Ulster Championships we won where I could take Isla-Rose up, that was very special.”

What it was all about is quite simple for him to diagnose. Paddy McGrath loved training, loved matches, loved Donegal. But most of all, he loved the bubble.

This Sunday is the kind of day they’d need a footballing version of methadone to help retired players deal with the withdrawal symptoms.

A packed Clones, nine Ulster finals in 11 years, winning five of them, sure it’s pretty much all he ever knew.

But a decade of service boiled down to more than just winning.

“The medals are nice to have but it’s not about a piece of metal. It’s about the journey and the memories you would have had.

“What the boys have done for me down the years, so many great memories of them encouraging me as a player, things they’ve done or said, that kinda thing.

“When I did retire, some of the things they were texting were amazing, it really was.

“That always lives with you.”

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