Exclusive extract from Ken McGrath's autobiography: ‘This is what you’re preparing for all your life... to do this’

Waterford hurling icon Ken McGrath releases his autobiography this week. In this exclusive extract he reveals the heartbreak behind an All-Ireland semi-final defeat — and the lighter moments enjoyed away from the field.
Exclusive extract from Ken McGrath's autobiography: ‘This is what you’re preparing for all your life... to do this’

(Going into 2006, McGrath was recovering from a foot injury)

When the league rolled around the lads were playing Cork and I said to myself I’d go down to the wall in Mount Sion to hit the ball for an hour.

(Here’s why: When you go away like that with the team for the day but you’re not playing, it’s all food. Eating the whole day, morning to night, and you’d feel half a stone heavier when you get home.)

Down with me at nine in the morning, hitting the ball off the wall, then back, off the wall, then back and after five minutes I managed to flake myself across my own toes.

Numbness, then pain, then blood spouting up into the air out of my shoe. Ah Jesus: I’d destroyed my toe. It was in pieces.

I ended up hobbling onto the bus with the boys — I couldn’t tell them what I’d done because a) they’d never believe me and b) they’d never let me forget it. I was trying to hide the limp as I walked around Páirc Uí Rínn, munching paracetamol. Desperate.

(Later in the year Waterford faced Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final)

That became as big a game as we ever played, and I think it was the same for a lot of the Cork lads, even though we’d played each other in Munster finals and All-Ireland semi-finals before that.

It was more intense than any game I ever played in, I think. There wasn’t an inch. People who think those years were all about free-flowing, high-scoring games should look at that game again, because there was no space, very few chances.

A battle between two teams at their peak, two teams who believed they could win the All-Ireland.

They were going for three All-Irelands in a row, we’d always believed we had their measure...

It was a misty afternoon but the atmosphere was incredible. We were on top, Eoin Kelly got a good flicked goal — but every score was huge, it was so hard to get. Different but enjoyable.

I’d had a good game in the quarter-final and hit a lot of ball, but against Cork that day there was no chance to do that — Niall McCarthy was on top of me every time I got the ball, or other players, but I was enjoying that challenge, all the way through.

Cork brought on a sub with a yellow helmet, a guy I’d never heard of, in the second half. At that point I’d swept up a couple of balls that had gone down the left wing, by the Hogan Stand — they’d run past the players on the wing, I’d pick and deliver.

Then Cork got a free and put it down the line to this player with the yellow helmet, and he lifted it and pointed — an unbelievable score from right out on the wing. That was Cathal Naughton.

Then a couple of minutes later there was a passage of play that still haunts me, to be honest.

The ball went to the other wing, the Cusack side, and I came over to collect it. Because the day was so wet I took that extra fraction of a second to make sure I’d control it, to jab-lift it. Just that extra heartbeat of time to be sure.

Brian Corcoran poked his hurley between my feet and knocked the ball past. Joe Deane picked it and turned, gone. I couldn’t get to him and he found Naughton flying through, who buried a great goal.

That was the first time they’d led since the first half, and it was a blow, but we had time to get back. I pointed a free and we got one or two more but I gave away a silly enough free challenging Deane. To this day I don’t think it was a foul — obviously — but he got up and put a massive free over the bar to put them two up.

We cut it to one with time running out — Mullane — and then Tony went for the ball and was knocked over. Free to us from our own half to tie it up.

It was a dubious enough free, to be fair, but I put it down and said to myself: ‘I’ll put this over.’

I believed that absolutely. In future years I questioned myself but at this point in my career I had no doubt I’d get it.

It was about 90 metres out — at my limit, really, in terms of free-taking — and the ball was wet, but I put the ball on the grass and was thinking: ‘This is what you’re preparing for all your life... to do this.’

The sound in the stadium was incredible — no silence for the taker like rugby — but that wasn’t a distraction.

I hit it as well as I could have. I didn’t put it as high as I might but that’s because I was going for power, and I caught it perfectly, right in the middle of the hurley. I thought it was over until I saw it coming back out the field.

I didn’t realise until after the game that Donal Óg Cusack had flicked it back outfield; I thought it had hit the post. I also thought we’d get another chance — Brian Corcoran took a few steps with the ball up in the corner — but we didn’t.

It was over.

A fourth semi-final defeat. Getting closer, fair enough, but still losing. Whether it’s one point or 10 it hardly matters.

We gave that game absolutely everything. We were almost too upset to cry. A few weeks beforehand we’d been heading home after beating Tipp drinking coffee and eating muffins, happy out; now we were going back absolutely depressed.

It was one of the hardest because we’d done so well all year. Clinton Hennessy had come in the previous year and gave us huge stability as a goalkeeper — he could have done nothing about Naughton’s finish, but things had been improving.

Cork put so much into that game, by the way, I think it came against them when they lost the final to Kilkenny later. The semi-final probably didn’t do Naughton any favours down the line either, because it was always going to be hard to live up to that debut, getting 1-1 against your main rivals of the time. A few weeks afterwards we went on holidays, myself, Dawn and Ceilin, and it was torture watching the All-Ireland final. As it was nearly every year.

When the dust settled we still felt we could get to an All-Ireland final. I was 28, a lot of the others were younger — Kelly, Eoin, Mullane. We’d lost four semi-finals and none by more than a goal; two of them by a single point. We felt we were close enough, that we could make the breakthrough.

Winning the county final that year softened the blow again. We beat Ballygunner handily enough, down in Dungarvan and there was a nice moment when Pat, my youngest brother, came on in that game, so he won a medal on the field of play with me, Roy and Eoin. It was Roy’s seventh county medal and a sixth for myself and Eoin, and we had a lovely picture with my niece Caoimhe taken after the game.

We didn’t know then it was the last one Mount Sion would win. If we had we might have taken a few more photographs.

Toomevara put us out of Munster: They beat us by a point in Nenagh.

What helped us to face into 2007 was a team trip before Christmas to New York. We had a great time but we also did a lot of talking about the game and the team, which we hadn’t always done on previous trips.

It helped to fire up the enthusiasm for the following year and to put away the disappointment of the All-Ireland semi-final loss. We still felt we could do it, and fellas wanted to get back and go again. Of course we still had misadventures in the Big Apple. One of Eoin Kelly’s relations over is a big New York Jets fan — season tickets, the whole thing. He invited a few of us to a game so we headed out to meet him in the stadium car park before kick-off.

‘Kelly, where is he?’

‘He has a green car.’

Now the Jets play in green and white, so there were green buses, cars, mobile homes, trailers, tents. Green from horizon to horizon, a car park the size of the Phoenix Park.

Freezing cold, raw after a night out, walking rows and rows in this car park past people barbecueing hot dogs and burgers... we found him after an hour.

In fairness they treated us like royalty, we had a great day with them ‘tailgating’, as they call it. Into the game, though, the Jets were getting hammered and we were getting colder and colder — like good Irishmen, we forgot to bring hats, scarves and gloves — so we bailed out at half-time.

Hand on Heart by Ken McGrath is published by Black and White Publishing and is released this week. Ken McGrath will sign copies of his new book at The Book Centre Waterford, Saturday, October 15th at 12.30pm, and at Eason’s Dungarvan on Saturday 15th at 4pm.

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