The big interview with Seanie McGrath: The epitome of Corkness

Clare have been a constant reference point in Seanie McGrath’s adult life. Twenty years ago he made his championship debut, trash-talking with Anthony Daly on his way to five points. In 1999, the last Munster final between the two counties, he set up the winning goal. Then he was by Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s side as a selector in a series of All-Ireland finals against the Banner in 2013. He even married a girl from Clare. But all the while, he’s remained pure Cork.

IT would be understandable, given how challenging the last season as part of the previous Cork management team was, if Seanie McGrath was somewhat coy in his praise for how well Kieran Kingston’s side is motoring — but it wouldn’t be Seanie McGrath. To see them play the way that they are brings a smile to his face and to see them playing with a smile on their own is something he welcomes even more.

“I was so delighted with Cork in the two games so far in how they basically went for broke,” he says upon meeting you in the city’s Silver Springs Hotel. “I think Cork have got the Corkness back into their play. Just playing with abandon, the chest out, and incredible skill levels.”

By that definition McGrath himself was the epitome of Corkness. He grew up only a few miles from here, in the Glen Field and houses in Mayfield and Ballyvolane, with visions of replicating the skill and success of local heroes. Even in his prime, he never weighed more than 10 stone. Strength and height were never going to be his allies but neither did he view them as any sort of enemy or obstacle. In his mind, skill would overcome all.

Looking back now, he feels he should have caught the ball more but in his youth such an option seemed unnecessary. Why catch a ball when he could kill it with one touch, with one hand, and a wand for a camán? McGrath’s father, Mick, grew up in O’Callaghan’s Place, essentially an alleyway off the North Cathedral Road, and used to tell him that a bit like Tralee for the forwards and west Kerry for the backs, a city hurler would have an edge in stickmanship by being accustomed to controlling the ball in a confined area. So every day, McGrath would go out the back, to hit ball against wall. If it touched the grass it was as if it had fallen into some abyss. He couldn’t allow it.

“I was obsessed with skill. I was obsessed with John Fitzgibbon and Tony O’Sullivan and how they controlled the ball. I never got to John Fitz’s level as a goalscorer or as a ground striker but I loved how wristy he was.

“I probably got a bit closer to Tony and his ability not to engage in heavy tackling. I’d even say it to the U15s [in Glen Rovers]: go around them instead of going through them. Just his [O’Sullivan’s] reading of the game, like being onto a ball that breaks off the full-forward line. I think that’s an undervalued score. You hear fellas say, ‘That’s a handy point.’ Same if a centre forward is going on a solo run and you as a wing forward run with him and take the handpass: ‘Handy score.’ But to me that’s as hard as the fella that’s going on the run himself because you’re making the run to support him.

“I got obsessed with little things like that because I got obsessed with scoring. In my head before a game I had to score three points, minimum. Everything after that was a bonus but I always thought that any forward should be getting three points [from play].

“For me, John Mullane was one of the greatest point scorers the game has seen. His average is around four points [3.80]. Like, that’s incredible. [Henry] Shefflin was probably around three-point-odd [2.9]. Eoin Kelly the same [2.7]. I wasn’t a goalscorer like them but I was always out to hit three points or more.”

On his championship debut, McGrath blitzed Clare for five points in a devastating display of Corkness. McGrath winces when you mention it was 20 years ago, then lights up at how it triggers memories of JBM, Niamh, and Dalo.

Jimmy Barry-Murphy was both his idol and his manager. “I don’t think I ever worked with someone who gave me such freedom to do basically whatever I wanted to do,” says McGrath. “I can only remember one training session where he said, ‘Maybe you should catch the ball a bit more.’ But by the end of the session he left if off: ‘Look, you’re maybe better off doing your own thing.’”

There was a hard edge to Barry-Murphy too, even if any possible criticism or conflict was handled in a subtle way. McGrath remembers one time cutting his hand playing a club game and maybe overextending his layoff to duck some hardship in training. One Tuesday night, he was over by the touchline when Barry-Murphy asked, ‘When are you coming back, Seanie?’ Barry-Murphy’s voice was measured but the extra intonation on ‘you’ left McGrath in no doubt as to the subtext: You better be back training on Thursday.

“He was a bit of psychologist, Jimmy. He had this incredible way of making you feel so good. He barely spoke about the opposition — though he never disrespected the opposition; in our time, we’d have come up against the likes of DJ Carey and Jamesie O’Connor in their prime and he’d never have spoken about doing anything dirty or underhand to them. But his attitude would be, ‘You’re a good player yourself, why should you fear anyone?’

“Johnny Crowley used to talk about when Kid Cronin did the rubs back when Johnny was playing. And the Kid would rub his legs. ‘God, they feel good today, Johnny! Whoow!’ Johnny would hop off the table feeling a million dollars. Jimmy had the same effect. We might be having a puckaround in Dundrum [House] before a big game in Thurles, a ball would come your way as he was passing, you’d kill it and he’d say, ‘God, your touch is sharp, you’re buzzing!’ And you’d think as he was walking away, ‘Yeah, I am buzzing!’”

That was the space McGrath was in heading into his debut against Clare in Limerick — no fear, only excitement. What added more spice to it was that a girl from college he’d been seeing for a few weeks would be there as well. Niamh Gallagher from Doora-Barefield was a good friend of Jamesie O’Connor’s sister Sheila and would be attending the game with her but afterwards had agreed to meet up with her new friend from Cork. Eager to impress, McGrath soon made quite the impression on someone else from Clare who is also still a friend to this day.

“I got an early touch which helped me settle but then Anthony Daly shouted something in to Frank Lohan who was on me. ‘Take care of him, the small fella!’ I shouted out to Daly then that I’d take care of him if he dared to come into my corner!

“And I remember thinking, ‘This is it. This is what it’s all about.’ Even though people say you should be totally zoned into the game, I started to think how this is what I had always dreamed of. How all the Cork players I adored watching as a kid were now here watching me. My dad and how proud and emotional he must be. For a brief moment, all those things and people went through my head.”

Cork would eventually lose to a late Stephen McNamara goal, their summer thus ending the same day it started, but one thing McGrath had won was Daly’s respect. On the final whistle Daly consoled his young tormenter. You’ll have loads of days. Delighted to play against you. I hope we don’t come up against each other again.

But they would. In the following year’s league semi-final McGrath struck for an early goal off Daly. A few months later again in a desperately tense Munster semi-final clash, McGrath scored a couple of early second-half points after a subdued opening half.

“After the first point, I ran back over to Daly and said, ‘Jesus, I’m flying now, I’m in the game!’ And he said, ‘No, you’re not in it yet!’ But then Joe [Deane] popped a ball out to me and I shot it over and I went back to Daly, ‘Whoow! I’m in it now! I’m on two! I’ll skin you for four or five now!’

“And he says, ‘Right, we’ll do a wager so, Seanie. You don’t get more than two now and the pints are you on tonight. And if I get a point, you’re back to zero.’

“‘No bother, Dalo, you’re on.’ “I had no sooner the words out of my mouth when he drove it over from 80 yards. I had to give him my due then. He came over with a big roar into my face but it was in a good-natured way. I was caught on camera having a little giggle but it didn’t mean I wasn’t serious about trying to win. I actually revelled in marking the likes of Dalo because I loved that bit of banter.”

As it turned out, there’d be very few verbal encounters with any other opponent. He’s happy to report he never experienced hearing anything malicious or disparaging. Maybe once or twice at club level, but never at inter-county. Martin Hanamy — pure hurler, pure gentleman. Michael Ryan from Tipp the same: tough, tight, but quiet. Willie O’Connor, his shadow in the 1999 All-Ireland, likewise. “Didn’t open his mouth. All this talk of Willie being this seasoned corner back, you thought there might have been some hardship. Fairest player I ever came across.”

One little exchange he does remember is when he came up against another Kilkenny defender in an All-Ireland final. Just like with O’Connor though, any interaction was entirely chivalrous. In the 67th minute of the 2003 final, McGrath was summoned from the Cork bench where he had resided for all that summer.

“I even knew coming on that it could be my last game. And I don’t know if it was because of that or what but when I ran on I remember shaking Michael Kavanagh’s hand and saying, ‘The best of luck, Mick.’ And he said, ‘The best of luck, Seanie.’”

Five minutes later they were shaking hands again. McGrath had scored a point but Kilkenny had won the game.

It was McGrath’s last score and game for Cork. At 28 he was done.

***

Every match you fear for Seanie McGrath. Not necessarily for his physical safety, although his small, slight frame wouldn’t rule out such apprehension. You fear more for his spirit. This might seem odd given that his jaunty self-confidence can make James Bond seem shy, but there’s always the worry that the increasingly severe world of inter-county intensity will in some way crush his joie de vivre.

— Sean Moran, The Irish Times, August 1999.

Heading into the 2000 All-Ireland semi-final against Offaly, Seanie McGrath was, as Jimmy Barry-Murphy would put it, buzzing. The previous summer he’d won his first Munster final, All-Ireland medal and All-Star, and now he seemed on for repeating the trick.

In the opening round of the championship he had scorched Limerick for 1-2. In the Munster final against Tipp the defining image of the day was of him giddily skipping and punching the air upon scoring the last point of the game which not only sealed the win but saw him again hit the magical three-point mark. It was his ninth championship match for Cork. Over those nine games he’d scored 1-24, all from play. Exactly three points a game.

Then came that semi-final against Offaly. “I was so poor on the day. My touch was very slick but I missed three or four chances that I’d put over in my sleep. And I remember afterwards thinking I had left so many people down. Like, I was obsessed with Cork history and the chance to win back-to-back or even a three-in-a-row for the county. Now that was gone. Jimmy was gone; he stepped down after that game. And I often look back, thinking, did I struggle personally after that?”

The simple answer to that is that he did, and little wonder. The Dublin footballer Kevin McManamon has spoken about how he used to over-dwell on defeats and errors. After meeting a sport psychologist, he’d realise that the more he replayed such mistakes in his head, the more likely he was to repeat them; if that’s all he saw, then that’s all he’d continue to do and continue to be. McManamon would go on to break that negative loop. McGrath didn’t. He hadn’t the same awareness or support. If he had, he’d have viewed 2000 as another good year which just had a bad last day — and even on that last day his first touch had been immaculate. Instead McGrath could only see wide after wide after wide.

“It’s 17 years ago and I can still vividly see two of the wides I had before half-time. And then another one at the start of the second half; I’m still convinced it was over! If Hawkeye had been in! For feck’s sake! But that will tell you how obsessed I was with that game. I can actually play out that game more than my best days. I’d like to think of myself as a positive person but I’m mature enough to now say I became unhealthily obsessed with that game.”

By 32, he had even stopped playing senior for the club, gone back junior. “I still felt physically fine. I’d totally lost the fun in playing. Even though I still loved the game, I no longer loved playing. It had become almost a chore.”

The fire would be rekindled playing junior; his first two years back, they’d reach the city division final each time. Then he started giving a help out with teams. First with the Cork minors as a selector. Then in the autumn of 2011 he got a call from an old hero. Did he want to go in with the seniors? Once again, Seanie McGrath could only say yes to Jimmy Barry-Murphy.

“The first day Jimmy rang me he said, ‘We’ll create a great atmosphere here now, Seanie.’ He was obsessed with having plenty of banter, plenty of craic, as well as there being a serious side to it as well.”

Ask him if he thinks the players would have mostly enjoyed their time playing under Jimmy, and McGrath would say for the most part, they did, thoroughly. In 2013, they were seconds away from winning the All-Ireland. In 2014, they won Munster. They were flying, buzzing, just like Cork are now, just like McGrath was back in 2000. Then came their Offaly.

“In the lead-up to that [All Ireland] semi-final with Tipp, there were a couple of times we pulled up practice matches, we were going so well. The morning of a match, you normally have some fella with some ailment or other. There was none of that. There were no injuries. Went to mass that morning, walked back to the hotel, everything was fine, perfect. Then we just totally collapsed in the game.”

If the causes of that underperformance remain something of a mystery for McGrath, the consequences of it do not.

“I think it left a huge scar on Cork hurling, a lot like Offaly in 2000 affected me. Some of our players probably started to believe what was being said about them, like how they were inconsistent and not able to deliver when it really mattered. And it’s basically taken two years to nearly eradicate that scar. And maybe it’s taken an injection of youth to get rid of the baggage.”

McGrath was the first player from the first Cork strike to become a county senior selector, reinforcing a perception in some quarters that he was someone more aligned with the board than his old comrades from the playing fields. Has his relationship with his former teammates been negatively affected?

“Well, number one, I wouldn’t meet them that often. But I’d like to think there’s an underlying respect between us all. I bumped into Dónal Óg [Cusack] recently in Costa Coffee and we had a great chat for 10, 15 minutes.

“At the end of the day, we won a big medal together and in that a huge bond is created. As well as that, we had great craic together. Great nights out, all of us. So we’d have a lot more in common than we’d have differences and those experiences we shared I’d like to think will stand the test of time. And I’d like to think I’d look out for any of those fellas if they needed some help and that if I needed something from them, they would be there for me.”

Tomorrow he’ll head to Thurles with Niamh, the girlfriend from 20 years ago and the wife of the past 16 years, for another Cork-Clare clash. Their two daughters are more into gymnastics and swimming but just because he doesn’t coach his own kids doesn’t mean he doesn’t coach at all. Last year he was a selector to the Glen team that reached the All-Ireland Féile final and is still with them now at U15. Himself and a clubmate, Eoghan Cronin, along with Tony O’Sullivan’s daughter Ciara, have also set up a programme called Hurlingcubs, aimed for three to six-year-olds in the Cork area who have yet to join any club. Although one of its goals is to engender a love of hurling, it’s an ideal gateway to any sport. Before kids learn to hook and block, they should know how to move.

“I’d even see it at senior level: fellas might be a bit ploddy. Jimmy used to always say, ‘Light on your feet.’ And the phrase used to always stick with me. Why aren’t lads light on their feet? So what we’re trying to do is from a young age get kids used to skipping, running backwards, being able to go and shimmy off either side, so that whenever they join a club and take up a sport, they’re already a yard or two ahead.”

From there then, their own obsessions and dreams can begin.

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