Shane McGrath: ‘I was getting letters at home, it wasn’t nice’

What should have been one of the proudest summers of Shane McGrath’s life turned into one of his most testing. Three years ago Eamon O’Shea appointed him as Tipperary senior hurling captain.
Shane McGrath: ‘I was getting letters at home, it wasn’t nice’

But a lack of form, consistency, and injury conspired to turn it into a season to forget. He was substituted the afternoon Tipperary lost to Limerick in the Munster SHC semi-final at the Gaelic Grounds and whipped off at half-time when Kilkenny won a raucous qualifier at Nowlan Park.

“I put too much pressure on myself and didn’t perform consistently for the year,” McGrath recalls of the trials and tribulations of that 2013 season.

“I was honoured to be captain but I was going around trying to make sure everybody else was ok rather than focusing on myself. Are lads happy with the training? Can we do anything differently? I was constantly asking others how they were going rather than just sitting down with myself and going right, ‘Shane, how are you going?’

“I was feeling I had to be the best player. People that are great captains, they might not always be the stand-out player on the field but they’ll be the guy that just gets the job done in whatever sport it might be.”

Those on the outside looking in had no idea of the turmoil engulfing the skipper.

But that didn’t stop them making their views known in the McGrath homestead.

“I was getting letters at home, it wasn’t nice. People were saying things. It wasn’t that it was thousands of letters or anything like that but people were writing ‘you are not going well’ and ‘you shouldn’t be captain’ or ‘you are letting us down’.

“Then people were sending letters about things you weren’t even involved in, stuff going on outside of games, outside of training, which a lot of the time was blown out of proportion. The rumours and stories that used to go around.

“You have to a step back and just go, ‘seriously, is that what you’ve heard?’

“You know it’s not true. What can you do? It’s your opinion versus hundreds of other people’s stories and opinions. People want a good story, don’t they?”

The bigger problem for McGrath was that, more often than not, it was his parents who opened the letters.

“It was a rare occurrence but nine times out of 10 your mother or father is going to open it because you’re not living at home anymore.

“I’m not the first and won’t be the last to get that but I got over it and moved on.”

His strength of character was tested but McGrath responded in the best way he knew how, knuckling down and bouncing back with a bang in 2014. He finished the season as an All-Star and a HawkEye call away from a second All-Ireland senior hurling championship medal.

Beating Kilkenny at Croke Park in 2010 was the highlight of a senior intercounty career that began in 2006 but the second All-Star is also remembered fondly.

Winning in Cork in 2008 is another cherished memory — the first time a Tipperary team had achieved the feat in senior championship since 1923.

McGrath, 31, says: “Winning the All-Star in 2014 is probably up there with the biggest achievements, because of everybody writing me off. That was a massive thing. It showed I wasn’t just a flash in the pan for a couple of years, that I earned the jersey and did well to hold onto it. Winning the All-Ireland in 2010 was very special and the other real special standout moment for me on a personal level was the championship game against Cork in 2008, for a few reasons.

“Things went well in the League and we (McGrath and sidekick James Woodlock) were up against Tom Kenny and Jerry O’Connor, the in-form midfielders at the time. Going out that day, it was a make-or-break situation. Things went well that day and we pushed on from there then. It was a big threshold for me on a personal level, that I could mix it with the best and come out on top.”

Manager Liam Sheedy had managed to pick up the pieces from the ill-fated second coming of Michael ‘Babs’ Keating and winning the All-Ireland in 2010 was justification for everything they were doing and believed in.

Sheedy, on numerous occasions, referenced the ‘family’ bond he helped to create and McGrath confirms it lives on to this very day.

He married Joanne last November and next month, they’ll finally get around to a honeymoon to Canada.

“She’s usually on the ball with time but she was fairly late that day!” McGrath laughs when recalling the wedding day. “She still maintains, even today, that it wasn’t her fault! A few of us got married around the same time like Conor O’Brien and John O’Brien. It’s very rare in life that you can get a group of people, your family and friends, together for a happy occasion. Weddings are one of those.

“One thing which really struck home with me, that we had as a group with Tipp, lads that I would have been very close with, was that not one them chose to go on the All-Star trip. They all decided to come to my wedding which really meant a lot to me. You could see that those lads are more than just your team-mates.”

McGrath decided to retire from inter-county hurling last November and while content with his decision, there was a moment before last month’s Munster quarter-final victory over Cork when those old, familiar emotions surfaced again. “What really caught me was right before the match, when the boys were in the huddle together, and everybody has their own little routine. Then the national anthem is played, you’d be mad to be out there but you can’t have it both ways.

“That was the weirdest, seeing all of that going on. I think I’ll be fine the next day.” If you looked closely at McGrath before a championship game, you’d have seen how tightly he clutched a miraculous medal to his chest during the national anthem, and how he kissed it before the off. He lost a few medals along the way in the heat of battle but there was always a spare, just in case.

“I’m not the holiest person in the world but I’d always feel there’s someone looking down on you, and I’d have that medal to remember someone looking down or to remember my family, that they’re all there with you as well, no matter what happens in the match. It’s a good reminder to have. I’d say a little prayer before the ball is thrown in that things would go my way. I never held on to one too long because some lads might grab it in a match and rip it off. I’d always have a spare one in the gearbag, it would have played on my mind if I didn’t have it.”

Now it’s the current crop’s turn and McGrath is pleased with what he’s seen to date.

“I’d have been very happy with how we were going, 1 to 9, I think we’re very solid and there’s not going to be much change there for the next day,” he says. It’s from 10 to 15 that I think there hasn’t been as much competition in the forwards that I’ve seen in Tipperary for a few years now. You couldn’t fault anybody that went out the last day, they all did their bit, worked hard, got on ball. And then you look at the sideline and you have Bonner (Patrick Maher) to come in, Bill (Niall) O’Meara to come in.

“One thing I’m disappointed about is that a lot of people are forgetting about Gearóid Ryan. He is the ultimate team player, the ball he can give and he’s so relaxed on the ball and can control a game.

“I would love to see ‘Gar’ getting a bit of game time, he’s going well with the club, going well in the training and challenge games, I’d love to see him get a bit of game time. He’s one lad people forget about because of all the other forwards we have there.” People shouldn’t forget about McGrath’s efforts, either, particularly in the context of where he came from to make it to the very top. With an estimated population of 500, the people of Killoscully/Ballinahinch were immensely proud of McGrath and what he achieved. The local GAA club, Ballinahinch, operates in the intermediate grade and for McGrath to emerge as a senior hurler on the national stage was a feat in itself.

“I can see that some people from Ballinahinch, good friends of my father and mother, don’t have the same grá for it now that I’m gone out of it,” McGrath says.

“They had it for the last 10 or 11 years but you’d have to question – ye’re Tipperary people first and foremost and ye shouted for Tipperary before I was ever on the team but their argument is when I was involved, it was special for Ballinahinch people and now that I’m gone, it’s a small bit of an anti-climax.

“I’m sure that as the games go on, they’ll forget about all that and they’ll be back loving it as much as they ever did but it was brilliant for me. Ballinahinch is a small place and to have it on the match programme on All-Ireland final day was a very special thing.”

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