KIERAN SHANNON: The weekend interview: McGrath’s numbers game

Clare might have made an underwhelming fist of defending their All-Ireland title but 2014 has still been a very special year for Conor McGrath, confirming the 23-year-old’s status as one of the country’s leading hurlers.

He was invited to last night’s All Stars but Conor McGrath was nowhere to be found in The Convention Centre.

Instead, Clare’s sole All Star nominee was in the less lush, more humbling setting of Cratloe GAA pitch, training with his club, trained by his dad, finalising preparations for tomorrow’s Munster club game down in Waterford.

Another player, club or manager might have seen to it that training be switched to another night but it wasn’t a request or even an issue McGrath considered. The drill of Tuesday and Friday nights has served Cratloe well all year. The only change they tend to make to that routine is that some weeks it’s a big ball they roll out while this week, just like last, it’s the smaller one. The previous Friday, they trained a couple of hours earlier, so their county players on both senior squads were free to attend Davy Fitzgerald’s and Colm Collins’ first team meetings of the season. But they’d still trained that Friday with the club, just as they did last night.

And there was no place McGrath would rather have been.

That field is what earned him that invite to the All Stars, and last year’s as well, when he walked up that podium having already bagged an All-Ireland. A few years ago, his club football coach, the aforementioned Collins recommended to McGrath the Matthew Syed book Bounce.

The central premise is that talent and especially skill is more made than born and it’s a theory that both Collins and McGrath believe is validated by the Cratloe experience.

“People would say Conor is gifted but he worked his socks off to be as skilful as he is,” says Collins. “As kids, when training would finish, that was not a signal to go home; the way Conor and the lads saw it was that the coach might be heading home but to hell with that, they weren’t going home. People have talked about the keepy-uppys they were doing before last year’s All-Ireland as a measure of how relaxed they were but that was something they were doing as kids down in the local field. There’s always been that pure love and joy of the game and Conor especially was going to spend as much free time as he could pucking a ball about.”

“I put it down to hard work and dedication over a long period of time,” contends McGrath of the club’s success. “I know people will say it’s just a very talented bunch we had coming through but I don’t think it happened by accident. We didn’t have huge success at underage level in hurling. We might have won A titles in football at U16, minor and U21 but in hurling we were only playing in the B grade most of the time. Even when we went up to A level, we were hammered by the stronger and better balanced teams like Sixmilebridge. But we stuck at it.”

What McGrath is too modest to mention is that he was the national Féile skills champion at 14, just as you’ll have to find out from others that he scored 500-plus points in his Leaving Cert. But again, that was largely down to practice; he reckons there was hardly a day that he didn’t puck a ball against the back wall of the family house, along with all the hours shooting over the bar and between the posts of the goals in Barry Gleeson’s next door.

The other thing they had going for them was their coaches. Just like now as adults, in football they were taken by Colm Collins, Seán, Podge and David’s dad, originally from the football hotbed of Kilmihil in west Clare. In hurling, they had Joe McGrath, Conor’s dad, a native of Toomevara.

Conor’s favourite sports book is Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open, and one thing he could not relate to was how negative and hard Agassi Senior was, coaching and forcing a sport upon his son. Similar to Emmanuel Agassi, Joe McGrath had a huge technical knowledge of his sport but unlike Agassi Senior, Joe never forced the game upon his child or any of the other local kids like Conor Ryan and Liam Markham and Cathal McInerney or the Collins brothers, who all would go on to play and win All-Irelands with Clare.

“You could go to a Cratloe training session and never know that Joe’s son was one of them,” says Colm Collins. “Conor certainly wouldn’t get any extra attention or praise from Joe.”

That praise would come from others; by his actions Conor would stand out. In 2009, when he was still a minor he was called up to the county U21 panel. He was brought on with a few minutes to go in the Munster final, the first time Clare had won a provincial title in the grade; then came on at half-time in the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway to score a crucial goal in a game that would go into extra-time; and then in the final against Kilkenny again he made an impact off the bench to lay on the pass for Conor O’Donovan’s winning point against Kilkenny.

A month later Cratloe were in their first county senior final. McGrath feels he came into it still under the radar. “At that age, it was a bit easier,” he’s said. “You’re in the corner and no one is taking much notice of you.”

Brian Lohan had noticed though. A resident of Cratloe and a selector with the minor county panel that year, Lohan told a few old teammates at a friend’s wedding the night before that county final that if Cratloe got ball into young McGrath, he’d cause Crusheen wreck; he was that special. Sure enough, in a low-scoring game the next day, McGrath would bag two goals in a two-point win.

He would announce himself in a similar fashion at inter-county senior level. In 2011 he made his championship debut, against reigning All-Ireland champions Tipperary. Within 40 seconds he’d dashed out to a ball, turned, shown his marker a clean set of heels and rifled the ball past Brendan Cummins. A year later he captained the Clare U21s to another All-Ireland title, scoring another goal in the final. All of that though was mere prologue to 2013.

The year actually didn’t start of that well for him. He’d undergone surgery on his hip the previous Christmas. For a couple of years he’d felt a slight but sure nagging, constant discomfort, not enough to stop him playing any previous game but enough for him to realise it could stop him playing altogether a few years down the line. So, typical of his level-headed nature well suited to his current occupation as an accountant with Deloitte in Limerick, he calculated that he’d sacrifice the early months of the year for longer-term profit.

Even when he made it back onto the starting 15 for the Championship, he was still playing catch up. He’d go so as far to say that it was only in the All-Ireland finals that he broke par for the year.

“For long stretches I didn’t play well. I probably didn’t realise that missing those few months would leave me a long way behind. The first day out against Waterford, I got a late goal but was very quiet otherwise. Against Cork in the Gaelic Grounds we were well beaten and I missed a couple of goal chances. Against Wexford I did okay, didn’t score but set up a few goals for Cathal McInerney in extra-time, played well enough against Galway but then was very quiet against Limerick. I was lucky enough the lads managed to drag us through to the final and that Davy kept faith with me. Going into the final, I wanted to repay that faith.

“I made a conscious decision to try to get involved early, to get a few touches on the ball at the start to get the confidence up. Against Limerick I had struggled to get on the ball, the game seemed to pass me by. So in the (drawn) final, I made a point of coming that bit deeper to get that early touch. I ended up running down by our own 45 to take a handpass. I felt more involved then.”

No-one would be more involved that day; McGrath would make 15 plays, more than any other player on either side.

In the replay he was just as active and central. He set the tone for the game by getting a block in on Conor Lehane in the opening minute, then set up a goal for Shane O’Donnell. Then in the second half, during which Clare were largely under the cosh, the rest of the Clare forwards were on the ball just 16 times whereas McGrath alone made 10 plays, including scoring the game’s decisive goal with 10 minutes to go.

Another player would have taken a point but when McGrath noticed that Shane O’Neill was still standing, his ground and standing off him, he elected to go for goal. Fortune favoured the brave and by the game’s end, the scoreboard favoured Clare too.

After that another adventure began.

Cratloe would go on to their first senior football title and get within a point of Dr Crokes in the Munster club final. Even though Colm Cooper produced some moments of magic in the Gaelic Grounds that day, McGrath was probably the most impressive performer on view, reducing a frustrated Cooper to lash out on him and pick up a second yellow card.

For McGrath, football is a nice outlet from hurling, a game he likes to play with his friends and his club, especially since they’ve won so much at it all the way along up. He has had no wish to play the game for Clare, underage or senior — “I’ve always seen myself as a better hurler than a footballer and so I’ve always seen myself much more as a hurler than a footballer” — but Colm Collins has no doubt McGrath would grace any county football team.

“I got quite a bit of grief from some die-hard Clare football men that I didn’t bring Conor in this year after the hurlers were knocked out of the championship, that he’d have made the difference (in the one-point defeat) against Kildare. I was never going to parachute him in like that but Conor is an excellent footballer. He’s superb pace, he’s so strong now from all the work he’s done with (former Clare hurling strength and conditioning coach) Joe O’Connor, he’s a ferocious worker and tackler, he’s a very good finisher and he has a fantastic football brain.

“In this year’s county final we got a free 30 yards out from goal, Éire Óg were still disputing it when Podge and Conor combined. Conor’s movement was perfect. He was letting on that he had no interest in looking for the ball but the moment Podge got the ball and looked up, Conor suddenly drifted behind his marker for Podge to pick him out. Conor then stuck it away. If Conor was playing football alone, he’d be on any county team in Ireland.”

Instead, he’s exclusively Cratloe’s, who this month joined pretty exclusive company themselves in combining to win both county titles. Both were as special as the other. The football obviously was magical, putting back-to-back titles in the code together along with following up on the hurling success the previous week. But the hurling win McGrath found was just as sweet, and certainly sweeter than the hurling win of 2009.

“In 2009, we won it as an unexpected team,” says McGrath. “It took us five years and two county final defeats to get back there again. I’d prefer to win it when you’re considered a team that can win it and justify that expectation, rather than just as a team that gets on a surprise run.”

The similarities with the county team are not lost on McGrath. Clare 2013 was a bit like Cratloe ‘09 and Clare ‘95; something unexpected and wondrous for it. The goal now is for this crop of Clare players to have their equivalent of Cratloe ‘14 or Clare ‘97. “It would definitely be nicer to come back and win it again to prove that we were legitimate winners the last time.”

How come it didn’t work this year? He struggles to identify any reason or at least to proffer it. “I don’t know. We did fairly well in the league but we just didn’t deliver in the Championship. Maybe the same drive wasn’t there. We thought it was but then again in 2013 we were back training in December whereas in 2014 we were away in Mexico until the middle of January. Maybe distractions like that catch up.

“You have to hand it to Kilkenny, the way they come back year after year. I went to the replay of this year’s All-Ireland. In other years, going to finals that you’re not playing in, you can think you’d never be able to play in one at that intensity, but now having played in one and having watched another one since, you’re dying to get back there again.”

McGrath will be one of the ones driving it. Although his cordial, bright manner doesn’t extend to being the most effusive — “When Conor comes to you with something to say, you listen, because he doesn’t waste words,” notes Collins — you can see why Davy Fitzgerald has made him one of his vice-captains for 2015. He certainly led by example in 2014. If McGrath felt his teammates helped drag him to the 2013 All-Ireland series, he did his utmost to return the favour this year.

He was electrifying during the league, blitzing Tipperary for three goals in Thurles, while he was Clare’s best player in both games against Wexford, scoring 1-9 from play over both games. The pace, the accuracy, footwork and stickwork to get some of those scores off were breathtaking, confirming for Jamesie O’Connor that he is probably the best forward Clare has ever produced and forcing the All Star selectors to nominate someone from a side that didn’t even win a Championship game all year.

For now though, McGrath’s focus is with a group of men that can’t seem to lose. Clare’s misfortune was Cratloe’s opportunity , and it’s one they’ve seized, given how rare it’s likely to be.

“In a way, every year we’re trying to win the double in that for the last few years we’ve been senior in football and we’ve been out to win both championships each year. The way it fell for us this year, we were playing in the summer months when the ground was a bit harder which suited us. There was no backlog of fixtures like last year when we were only playing our second Championship game in October. I don’t think the double would be possible unless Clare were gone earlier in the summer so we said this chance might never come again, so let’s go for it.”

So that’s why he’ll be at home some All Star nights, or the night after winning a county semi-final be over in the Collins’ playing cards over a cup of tea or beating Conor Ryan at Fifa 15 instead of being out on the town. There’s nothing boring about winning.


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