Hurling Hands: Seánie McGrath - 'My hurleys were short, light, and generally recycled camogie sticks'

Hurling Hands: Seánie McGrath - 'My hurleys were short, light, and generally recycled camogie sticks'
Seanie McGrath in action in the 1998 League final against Waterford. 

My hands are fine. I might have a little arthritis creeping in on my left hand but I don’t even know if that’s hurling-related.

I dislocated a baby finger playing football and I broke my right index finger in a club game in 2002 - I missed that year’s National League final - but apart from those I didn’t get too many injuries.

My game was about waiting on the edge of the play for breaks and so on: I wasn’t someone who put their hand up in the air that much, I wasn’t a physical player - I was more of a touch player, so I stayed out of the heavy stuff.

As a kid I didn't feel any better than anyone else at hurling - when I was very small soccer was probably my game because it was popular on the road - but when I was 14 I was on the Mayfield team that got to the Feile final against the Glen, the club I subsequently joined.

I felt comfortable then - you wouldn’t have picked me out as the best on the field by any stretch, but I felt I was holding my own. 

Sean McGrath hurling hands
Sean McGrath hurling hands

I put in a lot of time on my skills. It was not because a manager or my parents were at me, I just liked doing it - if my mother sent me out for milk I’d bring the hurley and ball and try to juggle the ball all the way to the shop.

I’d practice, practice, practice, but out of enjoyment rather than necessity. I felt comfortable when my touch got good, I’d try to touch the ball out of the air into my hand, and then try to use one touch rather than two to do that ... 

My touch became an obsession, really. As a forward I had to score but I was also obsessed with my touch. Because I didn’t have the physical size to use my backside or shoulder lads out of the way I needed that touch - and I needed managers to trust me, too.

The likes of Jimmy (Barry-Murphy) gave me that trust, and that’s not always easy. A touch player can be infuriating too, something I discovered myself in management. A big strong player might shoulder an opponent out over the sideline, but a touch player usually doesn't do that.

What I was looking for after a game was someone to say, ‘he made a couple of great runs, or got a good score, or controlled two or three balls’. If I didn’t have those things said about me then I probably didn’t have a good game.

From 27, 28 on I didn’t practice as much. I always trained hard when I was with the team, listened to the coaches, worked hard - but I didn’t do as much off-field stuff.

That’s something you’ve to be mindful of in management, what stage the players are at in life. If they’re in college they probably have the time to work on their touch, but a fella in a job, married with kids, maybe trying to get some overtime - it can be hard to say to him, ‘put in some extra work on Wednesday when you’re on your own’. You’ve to be aware of that.

Cork's Sean McGrath of Cork evades Limerick's Stephen Lucey in the 2000 Munster SHC semi-final at Semple Stadium. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Cork's Sean McGrath of Cork evades Limerick's Stephen Lucey in the 2000 Munster SHC semi-final at Semple Stadium. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Early in my career my touch was a lot better than it was later. When I started with Cork I was in college and had plenty of time, but later on I was in the family business, there was a sense of ownership, we were doing a lot of work in the UK, so life was maybe more about work than hurling at that stage.

When I say I wasn’t a conventional player, my hurleys were part of that. I used a tiny hurley - I didn’t go to Ciste na Banban and Ben (O’Connor) came in later making hurleys, so I’d go to Joe Crowley, God rest him, from the Glen.

He and Maura (wife) were great friends - I’d go up to them and chat away for a couple of hours about everything and anything. He had tea chests full of hurleys - often they were camogie hurleys - and he’d let me go through them. I’d pull out four or five for him and he was a master craftsman when it came to getting them right.

He’d have his special German glue, glue the hurley, put a few tacks in it, put in the vice overnight and then brace it the following day. There was a procedure involved.

Without fail the hurley was always ready, and if I broke one he’d repair it - that sometimes involved part of a biscuit tin, which was as high-tech as it got, but he was great to rescue a favourite stick.

I wasn’t one for flashy grips and special tape for big matches. I played in the All-Ireland final (1999) with one hurley which had a brace that wasn’t fully on and with the grip more or less gone. But it was light, which I needed it to be.

So my hurleys were short, light and generally recycled camogie sticks.

Cork hurler Seanie McGrath fires over a point despite the challege of Michael Kavanagh of Kilkenny in the 1999 All-Ireland hurling final at Croke Park. Picture: INPHO/Patrick Bolger
Cork hurler Seanie McGrath fires over a point despite the challege of Michael Kavanagh of Kilkenny in the 1999 All-Ireland hurling final at Croke Park. Picture: INPHO/Patrick Bolger

Players whose skills I admired? As a kid - Jimmy Barry-Murphy, Tony O’Sullivan, John Fitzgibbon, obviously, then the likes of DJ Carey.

My contemporaries, guys like Joe Deane and Ben O’Connor were super stick men. Others were Brian Corcoran and Diarmuid O’Sullivan.

Diarmuid was seen as robust and intimidating, but I often pucked in twos with him at Cork training and I often thought, ‘he has some touch’. People often didn’t appreciate that, how good his skills were.

In the current era I’ve seen Patrick (Horgan), Alan Cadogan, Conor Lehane up close, they have great hands, Cian Lynch from Limerick, TJ Reid (Kilkenny), Joe Canning (Galway) have great skills. And I’m a huge fan of Tony Kelly from Clare, he’s an outstanding player as well.

Interview: Michael Moynihan

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