Independent streak has stayed with Corofin’s Ciáran McGrath

Corofin are the standard bearers in Galway and McGrath is one of their stalwarts

Corofin’s Ciaran McGrath taking to the field for the Connacht club championship semi-final against Castlebar Mitchels at MacHale Park. Photograph: INPHO/James Crombie

Corofin’s Ciaran McGrath taking to the field for the Connacht club championship semi-final against Castlebar Mitchels at MacHale Park. Photograph: INPHO/James Crombie

 

“There is a bit of the renegade in me,” says Ciáran McGrath on a bitter-clear night in Claregalway. He is speaking of his football life rather than his career as a garda, and more specifically he is remembering the all-important decision that young boys in the satellite townlands around Tuam had to make: which school to go to.

Most of McGrath’s class-mates in Belclare circa 1997 were bound for St Jarlath’s. But McGrath had, by the age of 10, acquired an immovable loyalty to St Patrick’s. He probably knew he was sacrificing the more glamorous football road by going with the day school. It didn’t matter.

“I was at a Connacht final in 1995 when Pat’s actually beat Jarlath’s in Tuam stadium. I was with the cousins, and they were with the Pat’s lads on the terrace. And whatever it was that day, it just cemented my loyalty. I couldn’t turn my back on the school even though I was just 10. But Jarlath’s had quality, and then Sean Armstrong came along and we found it hard to beat them.

“I would say that the rivalry helped them too. There is no doubt that Pat’s had a hatred for Jarlath’s and regardless of the quality we had we would go down fighting. And that drove them on. We always felt that if we were that bit more pumped we could take them. But they were just as eager in those games: Hogan Cup was their ambition every year. But strong on their list too was to chin Pat’s along the way. That was a bonus.

Give an inch

“You would be chatting because a lot of them were club mates or on the county sides. But there was something in it. We wore a uniform and they didn’t. So you could distinguish between both, and you might be waiting for a bus and it would come up. You didn’t want to give an inch.”

McGrath laughs as he recalls all this: it is water under the bridge now given that the schools have since amalgamated.

But the unblinking certainty of his vision and that independent streak has remained an asset of McGrath’s on what has been a pilgrim’s progress with Corofin. It was there in blazing evidence in the critical last 10 minutes of normal time against Castlebar Mitchels a fortnight ago.

A cold day; the crowd from both places fiercely engaged and nothing between the teams. One of the most vivid streaks of play was created by McGrath’s repeatedly defiant and clever playmaking runs from the centre of Corofin’s defence, when any mistake would be critical.

McGrath is 31 now. He was brought into the Corofin senior squad at the young age of 17, and although he has represented Galway at all levels in championship football, his football life has been defined by Corofin.

By accident more than design, McGrath has become a winter specialist: Corofin are the standard bearers for the maroon game and McGrath has been one of their classiest operators.

“With about 10 minutes to go your mind starts to drift and you start thinking here we go again,” he says of the Castlebar game. Mitchels had enjoyed the Indian sign on Corofin over the previous two winters and the idea of losing a third successive time was rattling around in the back of his mind.

Go down fighting

“I was thinking if we are going to do down, we are going to go down fighting. To win another Galway title and come into Connacht and then lose a semi-final. I had spoken to Fitzy [Kieran Fitzgerald] about this: is there any point? We didn’t want to be that team. So that last 10 minutes...I am sure other lads had the same thought because Mike Farragher came into his own, Conor Cunningham too.

“The tension went out of the game. It was obvious that that game was going to go down to the wire regardless. We had a choice to make there. And when we got in at the end of full time, there was an air of confidence because we felt that we had produced when we needed to, and lads were buzzing even though we had tired legs.”

Corofin pulled clear in added time, ending Castlebar’s run as champions.

When McGrath plays now, it is with the sense of someone making up for lost time. The enhanced profile of the club game makes a virtue out of the rawness and hardship of it: the extreme weather conditions, the localised glory and the extraordinary efforts that club players make. A club All-Ireland is rare: as Colm Cooper says in one of the television adverts, “it is the one medal I don’t have”.

Galway squad

Corofin have for decades been one of the heavyweight sides in the country. McGrath’s importance to the club meant he didn’t get a chance to break into the Galway squad as early as he might have: he didn’t play championship for Galway until 2012, when Alan Mulholland gave him his debut.

What ought to have gone down as an auspicious year turned into a personal ordeal when McGrath broke his fibula and tibia while hurling for the club that autumn.

“Junior A hurling,” he says ruefully. “Actually in Turloughmore. October bank holiday weekend. The usual: game on a Monday. Was probably midfield and they moved me up front. I remember a ball going in over my head and just thinking...this is going to break out here. So I just turned and ran out for the break and got on to it and drove towards goal.

“I could see someone coming from the corner of my eye so I figured it is either strike it now or carry on and got taken out. But he was closer than I thought and just as I planted to strike the ball, he came in. My leg stayed and the rest of me went. I remember going off in an ambulance and Gary Sice said, ‘you know if you had mouldies on you would have been all right’. In fairness, the other player was going full blooded for the ball and I can’t fault him for that.”

Complications

He was unable to play football again until January of 2014. All of 2013 was about McGrath wondering when he would be back while those around him were wondering if he would – ever.

Complications with the pins inserted near the breaks caused a problem. He couldn’t run properly. But removing them wasn’t an option until his bones had fused again. He was in limbo. He fuelled his mind with visions of cinematic returns – late in a county final, the stadium heaving. But that dateline passed and he still couldn’t run properly.

“People were supportive. I remained positive so they did the same. I didn’t let it affect me. There was no reason I couldn’t gym. My mother had a small automatic car so there was no reason I couldn’t drive. I was determined I was going to do things on my own. So even if they were looking at me and wondering if it was time to rethink it, they didn’t want to break that.”

The months passed. Stephen Rochford came in as Corofin manager and stubbornness made McGrath return to training sooner than was wise.

“There was a stage when I would play in goal at training games. And lads were worried because I would get a ball and I would start coming out and I would be limping out with the leg and lads would be thinking: this is not safe for anyone. So it was awkward at times for everyone.”

Deluded souls

His eventual return, in the unforgiving cold of early January, could not have been further removed from how he had imagined it.

Alan Mulholland invited him in for an FBD game with Galway. It was up in Sligo. The weather was beyond bleak, and maybe 100 deluded souls turned out to watch. McGrath was awful and he knew it.

“Looked like I was caught for pace and looked like I was scared to turn and to tackle. It looked like the injury had caught up to me. But I loved it.”

To complicate things he rolled his ankle shortly afterwards, and Mulholland took him aside and said that they didn’t feel his leg was up to the rigours of a county season. He promised they would keep an eye on him. And McGrath was heartbroken but knew the opinion was fair enough.

Another full year would pass before he felt like himself again; before he could play a match without a dull deep ache in the ankle or knee joint or the leg itself. “Probably the St Vincent’s game was the first day I felt right.”

That was Valentine’s Day in 2015, when Corofin eclipsed and, a month later, replaced the Dublin side as All-Ireland champions. McGrath was designated to mark Tomas Quinn, who had been running amok with Diarmuid Connolly: it was the truest sign that they knew he was back.

Household name

There is a parallel football life that McGrath might have lived: he might have featured on the last great Jarlath’s team. He might have been more of a household name with Galway, but like several Corofin luminaries – Joe Canney, Ciaran Comer, Greg Higgins – the extended club seasons meant that they rarely got a chance to showcase themselves in early-season Galway squads.

He is not complaining: with 11 county titles, three Connacht titles and that club All-Ireland in 2015, it has been a rich decade. Tomorrow, in Carrick, Corofin will go looking for more.

Along with Castlebar Mitchels, St Brigid’s and Corofin have been the Bermuda Triangle of west of Ireland football: the clubs that swallow up all others.

“Three is down to two now and we will see what happens,” McGrath says cheerfully. “It means that whoever wins it has had to go the hard way.”

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