BY CHRIS MCNULTY
FOR Paddy McGrath, it was a ‘weight off the shoulders’.
From last August, nine months, he’d waited to make his comeback. He’d sat in the stands as his comeback date kept drifting on the horizon, but the Ardara man finally made his Donegal comeback against Derry in Celtic Park.
It was seen by many as a leap of faith by Jim McGuinness, but manager and player knew the time was right.
The corner-back had suffered from a Gilmore’s groin injury last summer, but played through the pain barrier. After Donegal were handed their coats by Mayo and left the All-Ireland race in August, he returned to play for Ardara.
“It just kind of got worse as I went on and in a game against Kilcar I ended up actually pulling the groin and tearing the tendon, so it was quite serious. There was no doubt about it, I just couldn’t play on at that stage,” he says.
It must have been serious. This, remember, is a man who defied medics by playing against Dublin the 2010 All-Ireland Under-21 final with a broken jaw, sustained in the semi-final win over Tipperary.
“Once I tore the groin, there was just no way I could go on,” he says.
“It was mid-season and I didn’t want to have an operation. I tried to play on and managed it until August.
“Last year was just a disaster. Things didn’t go right and things just got too much for the body to take. One injury just led on to the next.
“In hindsight I might have been better off getting the job done earlier, but during the season you just want to keep playing.
“It wasn’t easy. I was play ok, getting through it, but I was feeling it big time. It was after games and after training where I really felt it.”
The injury meant that he also missed Ardara’s Donegal SFC run-in. They got through a quarter-final against Gaoth Dobhair, but a stirring comeback fell just short against eventual champions Glenswilly under MacCumhaill Park’s lights in a semi-final.
“It was unfortunate to miss out with the club because we had a good chance last year,” McGrath says, the memory still annoying the mind.
Four months they told him after he had surgery in September. With the Donegal squad meeting up to plot their course, he set the end of the Dr McKenna Cup as a reasonable target for a return.
“We had deadlines and dates and it was all going grand,” he says, “but I tried to get back too early.
“It went back three weeks and then another three weeks. I was losing time. After the McKenna Cup was ruled out, I looked at the League, but the dates just kept going back.
“My focus was on getting back as quickly as possible. I was just itching to get back in. I think I might have pushed too hard.
“I was losing in a race against time. There were a few complications. The groin had healed, but there were wee things that went wrong after the surgery that put me back a bit.”
McGrath came through seventy minutes against Derry and it was as if he was never away. That evening, as they basked in the glow of a 1-11 to 0-11 win at Celtic Park, McGrath tweeted his thanks to the Donegal medical staff: ‘Absolutely delighted first game back for Donegal big thanks to the medical team, lot of work behind scenes that people dont see#longroad :)’.
“I fell out with the physios so many times,” he laughs.
“In fairness to them, they did a serious amount of work over a lot of hours. They’re a credit. People just don’t see what those men do. Anything that’s wrong with us at all, they’re onto it in no time. We’re steady onto them: ‘This is sore’, ‘that’s sore’ and they’ve got us sorted. In that end, we’re well looked after.”
McGrath pushed himself during the training camp in the Algarve. When the plane touched down in Dublin, he knew he was back in the groove. McGuinness concurred. For a game in which there was a lot riding, the Donegal boss turned to a player who has played all of Donegal’s Championship games under his watch.
“I was just delighted, over the moon actually, to be given the Donegal jersey again,” McGrath says.
“Times when I was so sore I could hardly move I was kinda worried I’d not get back to that day, but we put in a lot of work.
“Coming up to the game, I knew I was going well enough. A couple of weeks out from the game I knew I’d be able to make myself available for it. I was pushing hard and got back to full training. When Jim came and said that I was in, it was like a weight off the shoulders.
“Jim had faith in me. Other people might have given up and said: ‘He has no game time behind him, we can’t play him’. Jim knew where I was at and I was happy myself. I was going well in training and was building fitness by the week. I was really happy where I was. I was all the time looking at the Championship. The Derry game became the target when the League games started running out.
“I’ve been going grand since. I’m just trying now to work on my sharpness and get back to where I want to be again.”