BY CHRIS MCNULTY
EAMON McNelis recalls the moment he knocked on a door at Loughros Point in Ardara while on a recruitment drive for the local underage team, only to be met with resistance when he tried to enlist the services of a shy young boy who was content to just spectate.
McNelis needed numbers and knew his subject had a bit of talent. There were no obvious Gaelic football history in the family, but there had been something that made the Ardara Under 10 manager of the time determined to get agreement.
“He didn’t think he was any good and he didn’t want to go to training,” McNelis remembers now.
“There were neighbours of Paddy’s going and we’d have been telling him that he’d be left behind. We said we’d pick him up and leave him back home again after it. If he didn’t like it, well fair enough, but he wasn’t up and down all that long before he was loving it.
That young boy now sits with two Ulster senior football championship medals and last September brought Ardara to a standstill when he carried Sam Maguire into his hometown.
“I had a job getting Paddy to come up, but we managed to get him talked into going and the rest is history,” says McNelis.
“It didn’t take long before he was putting himself around.
“You knew, just looking at him, that he wasn’t there for the fun of it.
“It came so naturally to him. Paddy was one of those boys who had an interest in watching football or listening about it, but that was as far as it went. When he started to mix in with the other boys, he was flying.
“As it turned out, we used to have a competition at the time. We had one every year for the Under 10s. It was a Parish League and, sure enough, didn’t Paddy end up eventually captaining one of the teams and winning the thing. It was like he’d won the All-Ireland itself. Little did we know then…”
Paddy McGrath fits the Jim McGuinness mould perfectly.
He had been a solid club player growing up and played without fanfare in Donegal Under 16 and Minor teams.
It was in 2010 when McGrath really came to prominence. Few observers outside of Pearse Memorial Park would have been aware of what the corner-back could bring to the table. But it was here, in a campaign that saw what had been termed an ‘average’ bunch of footballers win an Ulster Championship and go within a crossbar’s width of winning an All-Ireland Under 21 title.
“That Under 21 season was the big venture for him. He was a good club player and no-one was really passing remark on him. Once Jim McGuinness got him, he got the best out of him,” Eamon McNelis says.
McGrath himself has previously described that Under 21 journey as ‘a platform that set us up to be senior players’. Some of its key protagonists, McGrath included, now have the Celtic Crosses to prove it. McGrath was one of the first names on that team-sheet.
It was as if he was never beaten, never shirking a challenge. The bigger the opponent, the better McGrath could perform. He’s cut from the same cloth as men like Anthony Molloy and Damian Diver, who’d have broken through a plate glass window for the cause when they were in their pomp. A broken jaw couldn’t even prevent McGrath from lining up in the All-Ireland U21 final. He’d sustained the injury in the semi-final win over Tipperary.
When he questioned a doctor at Altnagelvin Hospital what the consequences of breaking it again were he to play against Dublin, he was informed by the surgeon: ‘I’ll fix it’.
It was music to McGrath’s ears. ‘I’m playing in the final’, he responded.
Jim McGuinness has often talked of his admiration for the Antarctic explorer Captain Scott. He wrote in a book about hiring teams to assist in his explorations: ‘Hire the character and teach the skills’. It’s a view shared by McGuinness – and McGrath is a perfect example when the Donegal manager mentions that ‘a lot of it is about the person, not the player’.
24-year old McGrath has been hampered since the turn of the year by a quad injury, but he’s flying fit now. He’s been used to the do-or-die scenario before, of course and he is well tuned in to what he can expect in Ballybofey on Sunday.
“This could make or break the season,” says McGrath and there’s no hint of him blowing it up. It’s that big.
“We know that. We’re aware of that.
“The League didn’t go well for us, but this is the big one.
“We know it’ll be tight, but we’re still looking forward to it. Ever since the draw was made, the focus was on us again. It’s a new challenge. You have to embrace these new challenges when they come along.”
Donegal’s appetite and desire have been questioned since those slow, snaking bus journeys with Sam in September. Fuel was poured on that particular fire with relegation, but all the while McGuinness has been insisting that May 26th was all that mattered.
McGrath has known next to nothing but winning under McGuinness – and it is the very thought of replicating those heady glory days that are fuelling the desire as the open another campaign.
“It’s been driving us on, if anything,” McGrath says.
“The Ulster Championships, the All-Ireland, they’re in the past now.
“It’s kind of hard to get the head around it all sometimes. It’s great when you’re winning, though, and you have to keep that mentality in the dressing room.
“We brought that from the Under 21s. We were used to winning. When we came into the senior team under Jim we were so used to winning. We won Division 2 in the League and took it from there.
“We had got into a winning mentality.”
McGrath’s introduction to senior football was not so pleasant. He came on as a sub in Ballybofey on the day Down’s Benny Coulter fired home a goal to shatter their dreams in 2010. McGrath was one of those making a valiant attempt to make a block on Coulter’s effort.
A few weeks later, he made his first start and it is a day that he has had to make peace with. Jamie Clarke gave him a chastening full debut, firing in two early goals on a day that would be a dark ending and yet a bright beginning all rolled into one painful Saturday in Crossmaglen.
The board went up with barely a quarter of an hour played. McGrath was hauled ashore. It’s a day that could have broken him, but he’s made of tough steel.
When he says: ‘Nobody died that day…it didn’t really have an effect’ he is not talking metaphorically.
Ardara has grieved a lot in recent times and McGrath knows more than most what perspective is about.
Less than 24 hours after beating Derry in an Ulster quarter-final last June, McGrath attended the funeral of Thomas Maguire, a former team-mate and a close friend who himself might have been a Donegal panellist had life taken a different path. Of the teams he grew up on, team-mates Shaun Gallagher and Eamon McNelis jnr have since passed away. Just a few weeks ago, Ardara bid farewell to another young man, another former team-mate, Conal Gildea, who tragically drowned in Dublin.
McGrath looks at life through different lenses now.
Football, for him, when he crosses the line might seem a matter of life and death, but it’s not.
He loves the game, though, and it’s why he made one of life’s tough decisions three years ago now when he turned down an offer to work full-time with a contractor in Liverpool. He was on work placement and the offer of a position as an assistant site manager was on the table.
The commute, as he had been doing for Ardara and the Donegal Under 21s, couldn’t keep going indefinitely. The job offer coincided perfectly with the announcement of a new manager for the Donegal senior team. When confirmation came, McGrath’s mind was made up.
“I knew that Jim could take the team somewhere,” he has said.
“You hear about all these boys who are away enjoying the good life and making loads of money, but it all depends on your own situation.”
Eamon McNelis watches as studiously now as he did when he watched the young McGrath cut his teeth with the Under 10s in Kentucky.
He and Stephen McCahill managed the team and the likes of Columba Diver, John McBrearty and John McConnell were never far away.
“He was a very good underage player,” McNelis says.
“Paddy himself would have been afraid that his height would go against him. He wasn’t the tallest in the world, but once Paddy was fit there’d be no holding him back. He was very easy trained and you never had to tell him twice what to do. You’d often hear him saying to other fellas: ‘Sure that’s what Eamon told us to do’.”
He recently broke his Donegal duck when he clipped over a point in a challenge game against Galway. He’s been getting a gentle ribbing about his absence from the scorers’ columns, but he can laugh it off.
“The banter is there alright,” he says.
“I’m there to defend, though, and I can’t neglect that side of it.
“A few boys in the club have been taking a hand, but it’s all a bit of fun.”
The initially shy McGrath, the reluctant captain of the winning team at the Parish League has come a long way – but he has no intention of stopping.
“I can see myself improving all the time and playing with more confidence. Jim has taught us that and it has helped me to develop as a player,” he says.
“I’m much more confident now than when I first came into the panel.”
Little did Eamon McNelis know on those far off days of the late 1990s that he was tapping the door of a future All-Ireland winner. He watches now and smiles as his young prodige continues to make the waves as a sticky marker against some of the top forwards in the business.
“He’s like an old style corner back in that he doesn’t waste too much time in getting the ball up the field,” McNelis says.
“He’s a very determined young man and that’s what marks him out.”