Premier leader determined to point the way to better days
ALLIANZ HURLING LEAGUE Cork v Tipperary:As a new season beckons, Tipperary captain Shane McGrath is ready to consign last year’s travails to history
“Born at a very young age. I’ve never been a millionaire but I know I’d be unreal at it.”
So goes the introductory line on the Twitter profile of the new Tipperary hurling captain. This, you feel, could be where the curtain of the modern dawn is marked as having finally been fully raised.
The marriage of musty, fusty old Tipp hurling and one of Twitter’s foremost GAA wiseasses seems unlikely at first – a post held in the recent past by such pillars of earnestness as Paul Curran and Tommy Dunne being handed to the messer’s messer, Shane McGrath.
But once you swirl it around and tease it out, it makes perfect sense.
Eamon O’Shea has plenty of slings and arrows to duck as he tries to haul Tipperary back to within striking distance of Kilkenny. The stain of last year’s All-Ireland semi-final will take a fair few washes to shift and the environment in which they go about their business in Tipperary won’t be entirely friendly for a while yet. Their first priority must be to get on to the front foot, to give morale a good whizz through the blender and remember that most counties would kill to have their problems.
When it comes to positivity, nobody outbounces the midfielder from Killoscully. Maybe it’s because in a way, he’s not supposed to be here. His club Ballinahinch aren’t senior and by his own estimation aren’t likely to be any time soon.
He was never a child prodigy and didn’t get a sniff of playing county minor. He put in three years with the Tipp intermediate side before his senior debut a couple of months short of his 22nd birthday. You don’t make it from where he was to where he is by lamenting your lot in life.
“I remember when I came into the panel first,” he says. “Eamon Corcoran came over to me and said, ‘Look, just go out and give it a right good go. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, you’re here because you’re good enough.’ I’ll definitely try to do that with one or two of the lads because you can get a bit overwhelmed and maybe forget that. ‘You’re here because you’re good enough’ – that means a lot to someone. It always stuck with me.”
The winter past cleansed his mind too. He’d long planned to take a career break at the end of last summer to go travelling and when the house of cards tumbled around them against Kilkenny, he couldn’t put his hand on his passport quick enough.
Off he went on a loop around South America, Australia and home through Asia. Never put his hand on a hurley, never brought it up in conversation unless somebody else brought it up first.
While home churned and bubbled with the fallout from the toxic spill in Croke Park, he breathed warm air and let the crickets chirp as they liked.
“I just got away from it all. I obviously kept in touch with everybody through the joys of Twitter and whatever. It was nice to get away from it all and get a break. It was just seeing that there is a bigger world there outside of the GAA. While we love the GAA and it is our lives while we’re involved in it, most people in the world don’t know where Croke Park is or even what hurling is.
“I think it has made me think about things a little bit more now. If I’m getting too uptight about a match or getting worried about what we’re doing, I just kind of sit back and think that there is a bigger world out there. People have a lot of problems and those problems are lot bigger than mine. Someone said to me one of the days there, ‘May your biggest disappointment in life be losing a match.’
“It’s true, like. Life is very good. While we put everything into playing hurling, people do have bigger problems these days – health issues, money issues, whatever.
“So I think going away made me realise that a bit better. It’s great to win, it’s great to be involved. But if we lose a game, we have to move on. There’s worse things in life than losing a game.”
Laudable and all as his perspective sounds, it’s hard to imagine he’d have had many takers for it around home had he spent the winter there.
The All-Ireland semi-final was such a thick and unctuous fiasco-pie that the remnants of it were still stuck in Tipperary bellies for months afterwards. The Ballad Of Lar and Tommy was still adding verses right up to the week before Christmas, so much so that every other note they sounded for the year got wiped from the staves. Far away from the noise though McGrath was, the echoes couldn’t but reach him all the same.
“Look, I’ve said it a few times already and I’ll probably have to say it a few times more. A lot of people pin everything we did in 2012 on a 20-minute spell in the second half against Kilkenny. I think people forget that we won a Munster title last year. Five, six years ago a Munster title was brilliant. But that’s the way it is now, people take a Munster title for granted.
“But look, there was a lot of shit went on, a lot of stuff going around about lads on a personal level, which is wrong. We didn’t go out to play bad. We go out to play for Tipp, we represent the county and we do our best – whether that’s training or a challenge match or a big day up in Croke Park. But it went wrong against Kilkenny and we got abused for it.
“And I suppose it was great just to get away from all that. As a bunch of players now, we really have put that behind us, we never talk about it anymore. If people are dwelling on it, we’re not the ones who are.
“Normally around here or around anywhere in the county, the first thing people say to you when they meet you is, ‘Sure, how did that happen?’ or maybe even just, ‘How are ye going?’ But when you’re away and nobody knows a thing about you, the first thing they ask is, ‘Where are you from? What do you do?’ That was nice, just to answer those simple questions for a change.”
Not everybody had that option, of course. His team-mates found themselves rotating on a spit for a few months, with slices taken off them in bar-rooms and chat-rooms throughout the county. McGrath knows it comes with the territory to a certain extent but was still taken aback by depth and ferocity of it.
The Tipp hurlers were accused of everything from under-training to never-caring to the sort of hair-down binges that would put the Rolling Stones to shame. The flames licked up around them and the singes haven’t fully healed just yet.
“It was hard,” he says. “But look, we know inside how much we put into it. Realistically, the only people who know how much we put in and how hard we go at this are our families, close friends and the girlfriends and wives.
“They’re the people who see us day-in, day-out for who were are. And I mean who we are as people, not as hurlers. They see that you have good days and bad days. Maybe some of these people who were abusing us should think twice, or maybe even follow us around for a fortnight or three weeks. Come with us and see how much we put into it.
“We love doing it, don’t get me wrong. We love doing it and time is short. An intercounty career is nine, 10 years max with the amount of training you have to do. These people, maybe they don’t mean what they’re saying and maybe they don’t feel those things as strongly as they come across. But they still say them and no matter what age you are – young or old – the words can hurt you. Maybe it would be no harm if they came training with us for two or three weeks to see what we do and live our lives day in and day out.
“I mean, I’d often pass by a chipper and I’d love to go in. But you don’t go in. You make that choice not to go in. You make the choice to go to the gym. You do it because that’s your life. It’s easy to talk, you know?”
The winter talk is easing off now and tonight in Páirc Uí Rinn, he’ll slope off from the warm-up to shake Michael Wadding’s hand and face the toss. Heads or tails, it won’t be the end of the world. On a cold February night, it’ll just be a beginning of the season. Of the year, of his captaincy, of the rest of his Tipperary days. Whatever happens, he’d like to think he’d be unreal at it.