Meet Donegal’s Mr Consistency

It’s a Wednesday evening and the main street in Ardara is quiet.

Meet Donegal’s Mr Consistency

Flags and bunting are everywhere but the only noise, bar the odd passing car, is from the tv from Anthony Molloy’s pub.

Down near the bridge a few souls are putting more bunting up by the Heritage Centre Cafe, or Sheila’s as it’s known locally. It’s the meeting place but the doors are closed. Uh oh. Must have got the time wrong.

Thankfully Ardara PRO Frank Craig approaches. The clubhouse is being redeveloped for next year’s Comortás Peile na Gaeltachta and the cafe has become unofficial headquarters. Club chairman Stephen McCahill crosses the road with the key, opening it up and putting on the tea before senior manager Adrian Brennan arrives. Apologies are made for former county chairman John McDonnell who’s running late training the club’s U8s.

Between the four they have seen their clubmate and friend Paddy McGrath grow both as a footballer and a man since he joined as a child.

“He was a wee bit too small,” said Stephen, his first underage manager.

“We used to say at underage that there was only one Paddy McGrath. He was a wee terrier and would go through a wall for you. He wasn’t outstanding though. You would never have said ‘there’s a lad who will play county football’ because he was so small.

“When he started out he didn’t speak that much. He didn’t want to waste energy talking he wanted to get out and do it.”

That first team he was on was lopsided. Just four of the players were eight, Paddy included, the rest were a year younger. It made them a tight unit but in 1999, when Paddy was just 10, one of them was killed tragically.

“Aye Michael McNelis,” said Stephen.

“It had a big effect on the group. We didn’t realise how much at the time. When it came to the 2012 final Paddy went out to see Eamon, Michael’s father, who was sick with cancer at the time to make sure he had a ticket. When we got the cup it was the one place Paddy wanted to go. He only wanted the cup for Eamon, who died last year, and that goes back to when he was a 10-year-old.

“John [McDonnell] had the year ahead and he lost Tomás Maguire tragically in Australia, Conal Gildea who drowned in the canal and Sean Gallagher.

Frank tells us that Tomás could have played senior with the county. He was invited into trials by Jim McGuinness before travelling to Australia where he was killed in a car crash in June, 2012.

The effect it had on Paddy is something they find hard to quantify. But the club know what they are missing.

“I would have told Paddy that one of the reasons I go to county games is to watch him play,” said Adrian.

“It’s really important for a club to have that. Conor Classon is on the panel and we’ve three men on the backroom team. But there was a bridge to the next age group coming through and we would be missing players from the 20-24 age group. To have those lads would have made a difference.”

Maybe that’s why Paddy’s so embedded to the club. Maybe not. None can be sure. Paddy is so quiet an unassuming off the field that they often have to blink twice when they see his persona change on the football field. The bashful, shy McGrath becomes a terrier living for the one-on-one tussles.

He’s built from strong character and, unlike most of those he’ll be lining up with and against tomorrow, comes from a family with no GAA tradition.

Another difference is that he was never taken out of position in his career or tried in central roles. None can remember him ever lining out anywhere other than corner back or wing back.

But for two years he was playing on the club’s senior B team. A chance was taken in 2009 and he was drafted into the senior team for the championship. Drawn against Glenties and their player/manager Jim McGuinness the clubs slogged it out in a three-game epic to find a winner.

Jim knew that day he had found his corner back for the 2010 U-21 season.

“Glenties had very good forwards and he would have been marking Dermot ‘Brick’ Molloy,” said Frank.

“That year Jim was running the rule over players and the following year he was over the U21s and he knew who he wanted and Paddy was drafted in. Did you know he played that U21 final against Dublin with a broken jaw?

Adrian takes up the tale: “McGuinness had gone to the hospital to see Paddy who had his mother at his bedside. The doctor was after leaving and the jaw was broken and they were wondering what the situation would be.

“Jim had given up on him playing and must have said something like that because Paddy got out of the bed and looked at him and says ‘what do you mean?’ as in there was no question that he was going to play.

“I had those situations. In 2012 they were preparing for the All-Ireland final against Mayo and we had an important league game against Glenties where we needed points. The Glenties lads weren’t playing and spoke to Paddy and said ‘I understand the situation and the final is a once in a lifetime deal so you make the call’ and he gave me the look. There was no question. It was a wild battle that day, a derby game and he let it be known to us what the club means to him. I don’t think anyone here will forget that.”

And while derbies and battles with their neighbours up the road have become storied affairs locally, the Ardara men, like most in the county, accept the McGuinness factor had a huge influence on taking their player to the next level.

“Do you know what Paddy got bit by? Somebody who gave him the belief that he could be something great. With Jim’s use of psychology he could get the best out of every player,” said Adrian.

It’s a source of wonder within the community that the national focus has not centred on Paddy. Adrian calls him Mr Consistent, the Denis Irwin of the Donegal team.

“The word here is that Kerry might try to take James O’Donoghue out to the half-forward line because if he goes inside he might be bottled up,” said Frank.

“Paddy could well be assigned to follow him. That’s how much trust Jim has in him. In the Donegal defence it seems like only Karl Lacey and Neil McGee kick from defence and that’s why you notice them more. Paddy cleans up and lays it off. Nothing fancy.”

Adrian took it a step further: “At the start of this year felt Martin McHugh told me Donegal were in trouble because we hadn’t got an established man marker because Paddy McGrath was looking like he wasn’t going make it back.

“It was the first time I heard someone of his stature commenting on the importance of Paddy to the team. His role is man marking, there’s no question about that. Jim gives him the details on his man and the job’s forgotten about. There are other jobs within the team that are much more complex in terms of how they move and play.

“He had an [groin] injury at the end of last year and needed an operation. Afterwards he came back training but did it again and he became really frustrated by it trying to get the right diagnosis. He was only back for the first Ulster game by the skin of his teeth. Against Dublin you really saw him back to his best for the first time. Kevin McManamon came on and Paddy’s role was to shut him down. He did it better than anyone else has done.”

Stephen added: “There’s a whole lot of them in trouble all year. It was a big risk by McGuinness to play him against Derry.”

In the confines of the dressing room he provides a stabilising influence. As an underage player Stephen would never consider him for a captain’s role “young lads need to hear their captain saying something, they need that gee up” but at adult level his influence is massive.

“He’s really focused in the build-up to a game. He used to work with me and before club championship games we’d be talking about certain things and his take was ‘you tell me what to do and I’ll do it’,” said Adrian sparking a debate.

Stephen added: “He’s not a motivator though, he doesn’t say much.”

Adrian responded: “Aye but when he speaks he takes responsibility and everyone pulls in and listens. He’s a drive and motivation within himself.”

Frank takes it on: “It rubs off on others. When he comes back to the club the intensity he brings lifts everyone. He’s tackling harder and pushing harder than anyone else.”

Adrian agreed: “Our team as a senior team, it might sound obvious, but he’s the most influential player on the pitch. Not because of what he could score but what he brings to the group. He raises the expectations.”

As John enters the cafe, fresh from the highest-attended training session of the year (“that’s the county going well for ya”), they talk continues about Paddy’s influence on the club. They’ve had better times and have to go back to 2004 for their last Donegal senior county title but the Paddy effect is breeding a new class of player.

“I remember when he came down first. He was a wee small lad with a smile on his face,” said John.

“It took him a while to get into it, probably till he was U14, and grew to become the best player on the pitch. He made it on to the county U16 team and then the county minor team but, to be honest, it wasn’t really until McGuinness took him under his wing that he really blossomed.

“He’s a leader now. If we went out against Kilcar on Sunday and they were missing their five county players and we were missing Paddy we’d be the ones at a loss.”

After the 2012 victory the club used the buzz from winning Sam Maguire to drive participation. Paddy, who was out of work at the time, was asked to visit the local schools and oversee coaching plans.

“I’ve never seen youngsters relate to anyone more than Paddy,” said John. “It was the best thing we ever did. The kids love him. Even at the county open training sessions they all head to him even though they could see him here when they wanted. We started with the U8s the Saturday after the 2012 All-Ireland and we’ll be starting the U6s again after this year’s final.”

Working in construction in Dublin now, Paddy was one of the Donegal players flown to training by helicopter recently. They know it won’t be easy to replicate his influence after this year’s final no matter what happens tomorrow. It sparks the debate of money in the GAA and Sky Sports is raised, not a popular move in these parts, and as it’s getting late the decision is made to call an end to discussions. Adrian and John cross the road where those brave souls seen earlier are identified as club members. They’re still in the same spot up ladders putting up the bunting. Stephen takes the cups to the kitchen to wash and locks up.

Frank offers a trip to the club two minutes down the road. The clubhouse is well ahead of schedule overlooking a main pitch which was been reclaimed from the bog. Just behind the building the Atlantic ocean is crashing against the rocks of the next field over. Work on the building has been carried out mostly by club members and it begs the question did Paddy help out?

“Aye probably, he’s that kind of lad. Sure if he did he’d keep it to himself anyway. He’s that kind of a lad.”

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