Interview: John McGrath – Wicklow GAA Legend Retires
John McGrath – Baltinglass & Wicklow
Sadly the Wicklow Senior Football Team have lost a stalwart of the team for the past decade to retirement as John McGrath has decided to call time on a very impressive inter county career that spanned some of the most successful years this County has ever had. With an honors list as long as you’ll find, John has overcame some very serious hurdles and challenging times in both health and sport but the fire and competitive nature that burns strong in him has seen him overcome all that life has thrown at him and he is without question one of the most inspirational athletes Wicklow has produced and an absolute gentleman. We were lucky enough to have a chat with the man himself which you can read below
2 x Wicklow MFC (2003 & 2004)
1 x Leinster club MFC (2004)
1 x Wicklow JFC (2004)
1 x Wicklow JF POTY (2004)
2 x Wicklow SFC (2007 & 2016)
A few SF leagues & Dunne Cups
1 x Tommy Murphy Cup (2007)
1 x Div. 4 National League (2012)
College 2 x Ryan Cup League (2010 & 2012)
1 x Sigerson Cup (2013)
Represented Leinster in the Interprovincial championship (2016)
St James Hospital:
Playing for St. James’s Hospital on a pitch where every player had cancer at some stage of their life is as high as any other honour.
The Early Days
Where did your love of the GAA come from?
Boredom! Living out in the middle of nowhere, i had no other distractions around me so i just kicked the ball against the wall of the house day in, day out.
To get to become a top Inter-county player you must build your reputation from your club days at juvenile level up through the ranks and on a team like St Josephs there were many stars but many great people behind the scenes. Are there any people who deserve a mention for helping you along the path to becoming one of Wicklow’s greatest servants?
Luckily our club had a number of great men around the scene when I was young. But there are two that I will always respect and thank for their efforts in trying to keep Baltinglass competing for success at all grades. Billy Kenny took us as a group of under 10’s and we won ever championship under him up to minor in 2003. And I’ll always admire the desire of Tommy Murphy. His passion and love for the club outshines all his remarkable achievements as a player.
Your greatest memories from the St Joseph’s/Baltinglass days?
There’s a memory I’ll never get out of my head, winning an under 12 championship in Aughrim 1998. The under 16’s won their champo final after ours that day.
Who was a better free taker, John McGrath or Willie Murphy?
Easy, Willie Murphy
Who was the best underage footballer you ever played with?
Both Ciaran Walshe and William Murphy. Smarter then than most senior players now.
Which McGrath was funnier, John or J.J?
Definitely JJ. Great man for a story and joke on the bus, win, lose, or draw.
Who was more hot headed, John McGrath or Diarmuid Cronin?
Cronin I’d say. I just had an inability to accept defeat.
Which goalkeeper would you not want to be one on one with in a minor final?
Your memory must be better than mine. I’m going to make a guess at the giant Billy Norman of Greystones.
Who was a better full forward, 2001 Thomas “Skinner” Fogarty or 2016 Sean “Bawn” O Brien
Without doubt Skinner Fogarty. “He does the scoring of the goals”. And the Bawn is a better centre back.
Before the U16 final, if you had to punch one of your own team mates who would it be?
I wouldn’t hit one of my own. We needed every player at their best.
We are told you were a promising Hurler as a young lad can you talk us through that era and is that a fresh faced Rory Finn in the back row?
Promising is a bit over the top. The great Peter Keogh brought me over when I was 10 or 11 and I enjoyed my time playing to minor level. Fond memories of winning a Div. 3 Feile in Cork.
The County Days
What year did you make the Wicklow Senior debut and against who?
Wicklow senior debut in 2007 Leinster Championship. Sub appearance in the drawn replay again Louth, and started the second replay the following week.
What first attracted you to this lovely beauty before he shot to fame in this years county final?
Many years ago me and Duffy had a serious bromance on the go. It’s going back to our minor days with Wicklow. Then he finally found himself a girlfriend…. and I haven’t heard from him since.
You’ve seen many managers come and go over the years. Which Wicklow manager would you have had the best relationship with?
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with most of my managers with Wicklow. I loved all of them, and they hated me. From day one, I loved Philip McGillycuddy with our Wicklow under 21’s team. I gave him a ring to see where his head was at every time the Wicklow Managers job came vacant over the years. Wicklow need more men like Philip. I’d have had a great relationship with Johnny Magee for most of his term too, but like most relationships, it turned sour near the end. Only a fool would say they didn’t love Micko also. He was an incredible manager to play under.
Which Wicklow manager would you have not have had the greatest rapport with?
Probably John Evans. But that’s only because John is there to do a job and coach a team. He’s not there for friendships or relationships. He’s there to try make footballers better, so he doesn’t get close to the players.
What is your best memory on the pitch in a Wicklow Jersey?
Standing for the National Anthem in Ruislip in 2012 within a year of my illness was an incredible feeling. Harry Murphy put huge faith in me to put me back in the starting team that year and what a year it was going on to win the Division 4 league in Croke Park.
What is your best memory off the pitch with a Wicklow Squad?
The Tommy Murphy Cup winning team all doing a shot of sambuca in a bar in New York in November that year. I can still see Paddy Dalton’s big smiley head as he lowers it down his throat. There is a picture of it out there somewhere. I’d love to see it now.
Were you made wear this jacket as a bet or did you actually buy that?
Yep purchased myself – Really fitting the Del Boy character now.
You used to do a bit of meditation on the bus to matches lying down in the centre aisle….what we want to know is were you actually meditating or having a sneaky snooze?
It was actually to try and keep loose. I hated sitting on a bus for hours. I was always up stretching or lying out flat on the ground to prevent my hips from tightening up before games.
Talk us through these photos?
I haven’t looked at those 5 lads the same since. That was incredible respect and support shown by Niall Gaffney, Austin O’Malley, Tony Hannon, Darragh O’Sullivan, and Johnny Flynn to support us in doing the Full Monty as a charity event for St. James Hospital Cancer Unit. I’ll never forget this for both the right and wrong reasons.
What was the most memorable score from your Wicklow career?
Probably kicking the insurance point against Longford in the Leinster Championship in 2013. I was a few years waiting on that Leinster Championship win. I went on a 3 day bender after it.
Your greatest moment in the Blue & Gold of Wicklow?
That incredible feeling of winning the Tommy Murphy Cup in my first year in 2007. The buzz and hype and energy that followed was infectious throughout the county.
Biggest regret from your Inter County Career?
Not questioning managers ideas and reasons for pointless drills. I can never fathom the amount of time wasted on the training ground doing “drills” that were not benefiting a footballer. Oh and pushing the ref in the under 21 Leinster championship semi final. Resulting in a suspension and missing the Senior championship win against Kildare in the 2008.
The funniest thing you can recall from your Wicklow career?
Arran Murphy calling Johnny Magee a kn*cker and the two of them fighting like dogs about it at half time in a league game against Offaly. Quote – “Am I a kn*cker Arran”? And Magee doing a tackling drill with us one morning and telling us when a player is approaching you with the ball to watch his “flute button” as it’s the first thing to move in the direction of movement. He meant belly button.
Which opposition player over the years would you have had the hardest days being marked by?
For my first couple of years with Wicklow I used to mark one of Clive Davis, Ciaran Hyland, or Alan Byrne. I used to hate walking into the corner to be greeted by one of the three. Fantastic players. Each were incredible to learn from every night at training, and I always felt like I was improving after each session. Then it became easy as Clive and Alan retired with sense and Hyland continued. For the last few years I was licking my lips going in to the corner to mark Hyland the wrinkly old fool.
Scientists have long been baffled as to what era Ciaran Hyland actually came from and they have tried everything short of cutting him in half and counting the rings to determine his age with Carbon Dating and DNA Testing etc all failing to determine it. As someone who spent a lot of time in his company, to the nearest 100 years, how old is Ciaran Hyland?
Sure if you are only training half the time, then you’ll get twice as long a career. But I can assure you he is older than the current Wicklow manager.
The Next Chapter
Having lifted the Miley Cup in the past, will you be putting a major push into the club game with Baltinglass to bring Miley back to West?
Look first on the agenda is a little break, let a few niggles and injuries settle down, and recharge. But yes I’m really excited about getting back with the club for the full year. And of course the main goal next year is to win the Senior Football Championship.
Have you any plans for the free time that would have once been occupied by inter county training and games?
Nothing major so far, just a few weekends away. It’s nice being able to do what I want for a change and not living to the rigid structure required.
Where do you see John Mcgrath in 10 years time from a GAA/Sporting aspect. Is Management/Coaching an avenue you’d like to pursue?
To be honest I’m fascinated with Management. I think it’s such a difficult task for any manager to get the best out of 30 individuals. And probably a challenge I’d like to test myself on in the future.
Any advice for young footballers in County Wicklow who hope to emulate your career?
Give Wicklow football the time and effort it deserves. If a young player has ability, use the platform of Wicklow football to be the best you can. If a young player has desire, use the platform of Wicklow football to be the best you can. Wicklow has gone 134 years without winning an (A grade) minor, under 21, or senior All-Ireland title. A player can’t change the past, but he or she can influence the future.
From a players prospective what areas of the game in County Wicklow are most in need of improvement both on and off the field?
Unity – I can’t stress enough how important it is. In order for Wicklow to be successful in the future, we need individual players, families, clubs, county board, management teams, supporters, and Wicklow businesses all included in the one circle and pushing in the one direction. At times I feel all the above are pulling in different directions. No business or organisation in world can be successful if the stakeholders are all pulling separately.
What areas of the game in County Wicklow are we doing our best work and are there any good initiatives you have seen implemented that you think deserves praise and continued support for the future?
The development squads look to finally be making progress. The effort has been there for years, but last year we saw some joy with our minor team and the buzz was fantastic. That can be used as a platform for the coming years to build on.
We have seen the Spice Girls and Westlife both rejoin for a second coming. Is it likely that the Boyband you were part of in your D.I.T. College days pictured here might one day gig again?
A Christmas special will surely be on the cards.
One young player you can see have a long inter county career if they apply themselves?
Johnny Keogh from Baltinglass who was on last years Wicklow minor team. Plays like a man with 20 years experience behind him. Very very smart player. Looks like he has the ability and desire to achieve something special in the Wicklow jersey.
Is there anybody you wish to thank who may have helped or supported you throughout your Wicklow career?
My family and my wife Carol. They have supported me from day one. You need to make some selfish decisions when playing inter county football and my family and wife have been affected by those decisions the most. But they have never questioned me, and have always shown me their love and support throughout. It makes it easier to play at the highest level when you Mom, Dad, siblings, and wife support you.
Your Dream 15 from Wicklow Football?
Not easy to pick this!!
1. Mark Jackson
2. Ciaran Hyland
3. Chester Kelly
4. Alan Byrne
5. Dean Healy
6. Brian McGrath
7. Arran Murphy
8. James Stafford
9. Thomas Walsh
10. Leighton Glynn
11. Padge McWalters
12. Darren Hayden
13. Tommy Gill
14. Seanie Furlong
15. Tony Hannon
Anything you’d like to say that you might not have have had the chance to as a player?
Thanks to all involved in Wicklow GAA. I loved representing my county year in year out. And I encourage any person that feels like they can influence Wicklow GAA to get involved in any way they can, as players, supporters, County Board, Sponsors.
All Ireland Qualifiers, Allianz National Football League Division 3, Allianz National Football League Division 3 (Relegation), Allianz National Football League Division 3 South, Dunne Cup, Keating Cup, Leinster Senior Football Championship, Renault Senior Football Championship, Renault Senior Football Championship Group 1, Senior Football Championship Group 2 2019, Senior Football League Division 1, Tailteann Cup, Allianz National Football League Division 4, O Byrne Cup, Wicklow Senior Football Championship, Senior Football League Division 1 2019