ou probably last thought of Ken McGrath when he was in the news with a health scare a couple of years ago. Here’s where he is now: manager of Mount Sion senior hurlers. Animated presence on the sideline.
“Stop, the first game against De La Salle in the championship this year, I was up early enough that morning and went for a walk with Dawn (his wife) and Izzy (daughter), but that night I was wrecked in Dungarvan after the game. Knackered.”
McGrath consulted the tracker on his phone. He’d walked 16 kilometres: “I was thinking ‘no wonder I’m wrecked’.” A heart problem necessitated a life-saving operation, detailed minutely in his new autobiography, Hand On Heart. How is his health now, apart from the stress his club side puts him under?
“I’m grand, I’m grand. When it all happened, the few months of rehab and so on, I’d have asked the doctors what I could do, what I couldn’t do. They want you to go back and have a full active life as you had before.
“That’s why I went for the pig tissue valve replacement, so I could do that, and I never think about it now. The odd night I’d be wrecked, like the evening in Dungarvan, but that’s something that’d happen only every now and again. And when your own club are in a quarter-final you’re going to be on edge on the sideline, up and down and encouraging fellas.
“But I’m not paranoid about it. I’d have minded myself generally anyway — I never watched what I ate religiously but training with the county you’d have good habits, make sure you’re not eating rubbish and so on. With training Mount Sion, work, small kids, you’re busy all the time anyway. Sit down at half nine at night and you’re wrecked. You haven’t time to put on weight. Anyone with small kids will know that.”
He popped up on The Sunday Game a couple of times this summer, his fashion choices drawing some comparisons to a ‘tipsy uncle at a wedding’.
“Yeah, the tie loosened, I got ate over that. I’ll have to take some tips from Tomas Ó Sé and the lads!
“I enjoyed it, I did a league game early on in the season but I was on holidays during the summer so I missed a couple. It was great to cover the semi-final between Waterford and Kilkenny with Ger (Loughnane) and Eddie (Brennan). It was a dream game because it was so entertaining. You could talk about that game for hours, it was the best game of the season up to then.
“Waterford and Kilkenny were so good they were a pleasure to analyse. We got a good reaction. The replay in Thurles, that was a special atmosphere. Everybody remarked on that.”
McGrath recalls the final whistle, looking down into the terrace at Waterford fans with tears rolling down their faces after the defeat.
“It hit me a bit harder than I thought. I felt I was further away from it, but it was such a special game it was hardly a surprise. That’s not to say I felt I could still be out there or anything — when I went, I went, my legs were bate. When you’ve given everything and you know that, you can be happy with your decisions. Early enough in my retirement I was happy with that decision.”
There were better days last summer anyway. The U21s’ success has given all of Waterford a boost.
“That was unbelievable, because Waterford were strong favourites for that final — but then they went out and performed in the game. Not every Waterford team could say that over the years, including the teams I played on, that we went out and played to the level required.
“I felt we’d win the game, with no disrespect to Galway, so we brought the kids up to Thurles, I met a few former players out on the field afterwards and we were joking that we’d take the win, obviously — it was huge for the county — but that you’d nearly miss the stress of a tight finish, a one- or two-point game, which was what we’d be used to.
“It was a brilliant achievement for the lads. I’m on the selection committee for the Bord Gáis Eireann U21 team of the year, and it was fantastic to have eight Waterford lads on it. I’d know Sean Power (Waterford U21 manager) all my life from the club, there’s no nonsense from him but he has some record already — Waterford have two senior, two minor and two U21 All-Ireland titles, and he’s been involved with two of those. It was great to go in as favourites and to play like that. It’s clear just how much talent is on that team.”
Some of those players were kids when he, Mullane, Shanahan, Flynn and Kelly were lighting up the championship, but McGrath points to a crucial difference: “Some of these lads, 20 and 21, they have two All-Ireland medals in their pockets already. When I came on the scene with the Waterford seniors in 1996 we were a million miles away from that.
“They’re coming in having won All- Irelands, they’re not afraid of Kilkenny or Cork or Tipperary — and they’re going into a top class set-up at senior level with Derek (McGrath) and the lads as well, which will get the best out of them.
“Everything is in their favour in terms of pushing on at senior level, including their own attitude. They seem level-headed lads, they seem like they want to achieve more. There isn’t an attitude of ‘ah we’ve won this, that’s great’, it’s more a case of ‘we want more’. That’s the attitude you see from successful counties, and that’s the attitude they seem to have.
“We gave it everything, absolutely everything, to try to win it in our time. We didn’t but it wasn’t for the want of trying. If you do everything to the absolute utmost of your ability but you don’t succeed then at least you don’t have regrets. You take your hat off to the lads who do it.
“We’d love the young lads coming through to do it. A lot of them have minor and U21 All-Ireland medals, and I’d love to see them collect the full set. Waterford needs it, and I know every player I lined out with would feel the same. They’d all do anything to help these lads succeed.
“Paul Flynn and Eoin Kelly are involved with the U21s, Tony Browne and John Mullane were involved, we all want them to succeed, and if we can help them in any way, we will.”
One of those young guns is on the shortlist for player of the year, of course. His own clubmate.
“Aussie’s (Gleeson) an unbelievable player, I said on television he puts bums on seats and he does. He can do things many players can’t, he excites the crowd, the players around him. He had an unbelievable season. If you go through the entire year he’s been very consistent.”
And with the club as well. It’s a theme running through his book like the flavouring in a stick of seaside rock: what Mount Sion means to McGrath.
“Managing is tricky, the old cliché is true — as a player you just mind your own corner but as manager you’ve to keep an eye on everything and everyone. We’ve a run going with Mount Sion for the last six or seven weeks, and it’s enjoyable to see that come together, to see the team do well.
“There’s an adrenaline rush being on live TV as well, but being on the line for the club, trying to bring them on . . . it’s hard to put into words what the club means — which might sound strange from a man with a book out — but it’s been 10 years since we won a county, a lifetime for us. A few months ago we were candidates for relegation, and Waterford’s so tight as a championship that it can happen to any club, and it’s happened to some big clubs.
“We’ve a good run under our belt now, Ballygunner tomorrow, that’s a huge derby. There’s a buzz around the club again, and that means everything to me. We were trying to get our stamp on the team, to convey to them if you put on the Mount Sion jersey anything is possible, that it means so much you become a different player when you wear it.
“The whole club can’t wait for the game tomorrow. It’s gas — a couple of months ago I’d have taken your hand off if you promised me we wouldn’t be involved in the relegation stages, and now we want to get to the county final. I suppose we’re in transition, but it’s also our fourth county semi-final in five years, so that’s not a bad state of transition to be in. We can be a bit too hard on ourselves, too.”
He enjoyed writing the book, he says.
“I was wary beforehand, but it was good fun. I tried to be honest and I thought it was an honest reflection of my life so far.
“Going back to the years with Waterford was enjoyable, because even though it was only 10 years ago I think it was an easier time. Players came through to adult grades at their own pace, you’d see promising players at minor level whereas nowadays if a player impresses at U14 level you’d know immediately through Facebook and Twitter and so on.”
Another recurring motif in the book is McGrath’s passion for his home place. It doesn’t take long for that to stir again.
“I’ve lived in Waterford all my life, and I think it was probably hit harder than any other town in Ireland by the recession. I love the place but sometimes I think we’re probably too hard on ourselves. We’re a small city — we’re not going to be Cork, let alone Dublin, we have what we have and we should embrace that.
“I think there’s huge potential in the city centre, for instance. You’re 10 minutes from the beach, 20 minutes from the mountains, the new Greenway has opened up, so improvements are coming.
“Waterford’s an industrial town, and it was hit badly, but it’s reinventing itself. Tourist numbers are up, the Viking Triangle is fantastic, you drive along the quay during the summer and the boats are all moored there, it’s beautiful, up The Mall and Reginald’s Tower.
“There are 55,000 people in Waterford, it’s not going to be Manhattan but you have to boost it as much as you could.”
He did that by example often enough.