The McGrath brothers, Noel and John, celebrate Tipperary reaching the All-Ireland final
Earlier this year in an interview Noel McGrath was asked if he thought about heading off to the US last year after Tipperary’s early exit (June 10) from the championship. His reply was striking.
“I suppose you’d always have thoughts of going away to America and things like that but any time we were finished early with Tipp, leaving my club and not being able to play the club matches would hurt me as much as missing out with Tipperary, so I’ve never gone away in the summer, even if we were finished early with Tipp and last year was no different. You stay around because you love doing that as much as you love playing with Tipperary."
At a time when people are worried about elitism in the GAA, the difficulties faced by clubs and the loss of traditional values, Noel’s attitude was refreshing. Here was a man firmly rooted in his parish and Celtic Crosses or All Stars or whatever weren’t going to turn his head. He was grounded in the culture of Loughmore and Castleiney and his parish mattered to him – mattered a lot.
It set me thinking of those lines from the famous Wordsworth poem. The bard was writing in London over 200 years ago and bemoaning the fashionable trends of the time. “Our life is only drest for shew; mean handy-work of craftsman, cook or groom!” And then he adds, “The homely beauty of the good old cause is gone”.
If you want an antidote to the modern celebrity culture look no further than Loughmore/Castleiney and men like the McGrath brothers. If I could borrow from Con Houlihan’s great tribute to Moss Keane, then let me say the McGraths are men of no airs but many graces.
For Noel this season marks a decade of senior service with the county. In that time he has seen it all, the highs and the lows – and the cancer. In April 2015 he was suddenly struck down by testicular cancer but by August he was back in action, coming on as a sub against Galway in Croke Park. It was very nearly a Roy of the Rovers type return as he hit a lead point, only for Galway to eventually scrape through.
Point scoring has been Noel’s stock-in-trade. I’ve been trawling through his scoring record and while the individual totals are often modest he rarely finishes a game without raising a flag. He has scored in all seven championship games so far this year, and while he hit a blank when coming in as a sub against Dublin in 2017 the only occasion he started a championship tie and didn’t score was the 2010 first round versus Cork.
It’s a remarkable record for one who stormed onto the scene as an 18 year-old in 2009, winning an immediate All Star as well as the Young Player of the Year award.
When you think of the McGrath brothers one word pops to mind: precocious. For years before they made their mark in Tipperary jerseys I was being told to watch out for Pat McGrath’s lads. The talent was signposted from early and it flourished rapidly once they hit their teens.
In association with Tipperary Pure Irish Water
John is one of a select band of players with All Ireland minor football (2011) and hurling (2012) medals in his possession. He was top scorer in that minor hurling campaign, hitting 2-46 in six games. It’s a marksmanship he’s carried through to senior level since being drafted onto the panel for the league campaign of 2015. He hit 0-2 in his debut game against Galway and 0-5 the next day against Clare.
Since then John has accumulated 12-46 in 21 championship outings. While Noel is more the strategist, manipulating play with great anticipation, deft touches and defence-splitting passes, John is more the assassin nearer goal. Not surprisingly he’s mostly positioned at corner forward while Noel is more effective from further out.
2016 really brought the McGrath dynasty to prominence. In his first season of senior championship John hit a total of 5-8 in five games. He shot 3-2 in the Munster final demolition of Waterford and managed 1-3 in the All Ireland against Kilkenny, the goal set up by a rapid transfer from his brother Noel. It was enough to earn John an All Star statuette, which no doubt sits proudly beside the pair of awards won by Noel in 2009 and 2010.
On that same day in 2016 the younger sibling, Brian made his mark by leading the minors to triumph over Limerick for the county’s 20 th title. It was a remarkable day for the McGrath family. Brian has since joined the extended county senior panel and no doubt will soon slot in beside his siblings to become the first trio of brothers to play for Tipperary since the Bonnars of Cashel.
If that minor win of 2016 put the spotlight on Brian, it shone particularly brightly two years later when under Liam Cahill’s management he played a leading role in what can only be termed a sensational U-21 win over Cork. In the pantheon of Tipperary successes stretching back over the years, that victory stands apart because this was a star-studded Cork formation.
Brian’s role at full back was heroic in that final and if there’s been a surprise since it’s that he hasn’t progressed more rapidly onto the senior team.
The year before Brian was a central cog for Our Lady’s Templemore in their famous Croke Cup win over St. Kieran’s Kilkenny. Scoring 1-8 in the final, he led the attack alongside players like Lyndon Fairbrother and Andrew Ormond, with team captain Paddy Cadell showing the way in defence. Adrian Mullen was a key player for Kieran’s that day.
Interestingly Brian McGrath has oscillated a bit between attack and defence but in recent times seems to be establishing his credentials as a hardy defender. He mostly plays centre back now for Loughmore, with the brothers spearheading midfield and attack.
His pace – or lack of – is often an issue raised, as indeed it has been in the past for Noel and John. They’re not noted as speedsters but pace is only one facet of the game. It reminds me of the story often told about the former West German soccer player Franz Beckenbauer. Pace wasn’t his forte either but he’s reputed to have said once, ‘You might beat me in a sprint from A to B, but I won’t start at A’.
Positional sense and game intelligence can often counteract any shortcomings a player has. In that respect Noel McGrath is regarded as one of the sharpest hurling brains around. His positional sense is uncanny, as is his peripheral vision. Watch again that goal he laid on for brother John in the 2016 All Ireland. A defender is trying to break out, spills possession and in a twinkling Noel has the ball intercepted and transferred to the hand of John for a rasping finish to the net. There was no looking up, he instinctively knew where his brother was and the speed of execution was lightning fast.
For most of his career Noel played an attacking role, usually listed at either thirteen or eleven. This year, starting with the Kilkenny match in the league, he’s been moved to midfield. The extra freedom of that role seems to have reinvigorated his career, allowing ample scope for his anticipation of the play, his delivery of passes, and his long-range shooting. He started at eleven in the semi-final against Wexford but many credit his later moving outfield as a key moment in Tipperary’s success. Noel was made man-of-the-match for his efforts that day.
In his first year of championship hurling Noel scored 1-18 in five games. This year he’s already managed 1-17 ahead of Sunday’s final so he’s well placed to notch his biggest ever championship total.
John’s style is somewhat different. He’s the goal poacher who needs to be positioned near the target, though he’s well able to shoot classy points from distance too. Like Noel he has great peripheral vision but if a chance arises near goal he’s the guy you’d like to see in possession.
In Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist, Jack Dawkins is the artful dodger, a pickpocket with all the skill and cunning of his occupation. The ‘artful dodger’ is as good a title as any for John McGrath. At his best he can pick a defender’s pocket unnoticed and then there’s that deft footwork. Defenders think they have him cornered and then with one swivel and turn he’s away. Backmen rarely seem capable of ‘nailing’ him with a heavy tackle. The old expression used to be that he’d turn on a sixpence.
So far in the championship John McGrath has shot 2-15, though he was scoreless the last day against Wexford after his Hawkeye goal was disallowed. It was his first blank of the championship season, though he didn’t have a great league campaign as he struggled to find form after a winter lay-off through injury. Sunday would be a timely occasion to hit his best of the year.
I suspect his dismissal against Wexford reflected an element of frustration with his game generally that day. Interestingly both of the McGrath brothers have seen red this year and both incidents happened against Wexford. The only Wexford presence on Sunday will be the referee, James Owens.
Being sent off is unusual for the McGraths, who tend to be more sinned against than sinning. In that regard they’ll tell you around Loughmore and Castleiney that there’s more of an edge to Brian than either of the brothers. Mind you, if you thought any of them soft you’d be on a loser. I recall Noel having a pop at Ronan Maher in a club game; nothing nasty or malicious, mind you, just a gentle reminder that we may be friends on the county team but we’re foes here.
The McGrath household is well bedecked with silverware. Noel has two All Ireland senior medals (2010 and 2016) as well as a pair of minors (2006 and 2007) and an U-21 from 2010. There’s also a Munster club medal from 2007, which I’m sure is precious given his devotion to Loughmore. In that respect 2013 and a very special hurling/football double in Tipperary I’m sure is high among his personal highlights.
John too has accumulated his share of silverware including a pair of Fitzgibbon Cup medals (2013 and 2018) with UL. 2016 was his coming-of-age year with the county but his club has been a rich source of medals too at all levels.
It’s likewise with Brian, for whom the All Ireland minor medal of 2016, the Croke Cup with Our Lady’s in 2017 and the All Ireland U-21 of 2018 are standout highlights.
For all three I’ve no doubt victory on Sunday would richly enhance their collections remembering that dad, Pat, has a medal from 1989.
Anyway, in summation, the McGraths are quintessential Loughmore: country lads imbued with the culture and values of their home place, grounded, unassuming and just plain likeable. Whatever happens on Sunday they’ll be back playing with their club a few weeks later and giving it everything just as they do for the county. It’s the Loughmore way.