From the moment he made his senior debut in 2009, Noel McGrath established himself as one of the most likeable and popular figures within the GAA.
The then 18-year-old was named Young Hurler of the Year that year before winning his maiden senior All-Ireland title 12 months later. He added a U21 title the following week. It was clear that Tipperary could expect great things from the Loughmore-Castleiney youngster but McGrath himself was the epitome of humility.
Fast forward 10 years and McGrath has travelled a long and twisted journey. Agonising All-Ireland defeats came in 2011 and 2014 but they were nothing to what he faced in the early months of 2015 when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. The manner in which he dealt with the illness and recovery endeared McGrath even more to GAA followers and when he made his return to the pitch just four months later, Tipperary and Galway fans rose in unison to salute the Premier hero.
It could have been a fairytale ending to the year, but Tipperary were unable to overcome the Tribesmen that day. A year later, however, he lifted Liam MacCarthy. And what was even more special about that occasion was the fact that he did it alongside his brother John while his youngest brother Brian lifted the Irish Press Cup with the minor side.
One of the sporting images of the year from 2018 saw a devastated Noel McGrath being comforted by a young Tipperary fan after his side were knocked out of the championship by Clare in June leaving serious questions hanging over their heads. Many wondered if it was time for the older Tipp brigade to be phased out.
What a difference a year makes.
On Sunday, McGrath lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup for the third time after a year when he and the other members of that ‘older brigade’ starred for Liam Sheedy’s side. The 29-year-old was named man-of-the-match following the 14-point win and is now one of the frontrunners for the Hurler of the Year award.
Through it all, the achievements, the disappointments, the cancer battle, McGrath maintained his genuine, humble, and grateful outlook. A huge part of that must be credited to his family and the support they have given him throughout the years. It’s no wonder that theirs were the faces he sought out following Sunday’s victory.
“I just spotted them on the way down [after lifting the cup], they were down the front. There was people down there from Loughmore-Castleiney, from different parts of Tipp. It’s nice to meet them so soon afterwards and having your parents there. The sister was down as well. They’re special moments like. They’re ones that you always dream of. To have them become reality is great.
“Like most GAA players around the country, when you’re young, you’re depending on them to get you to training, to get you to matches. In Loughmore, it’s such a small place, there’s no such thing as getting buses and things like that. They had to get you everywhere.
“There was times they wondered how we’re going to sort him out this weekend with three boys and a girl to go to different places. But we appreciate all that they’ve done. It does help, knowing they’ve been there supporting you and still are.”
Home is where the heart is for McGrath. This weekend, he returns to the club jersey where he will line out alongside his brothers, cousins and friends for the Loughmore-Castleiney footballers. To have such a large contingent from the parish in Croke Park was a special moment for him, especially with his parents at the heart of it.
“At home I suppose, we’re a typical Irish family. You don’t be telling everyone what you’re feeling. But you just know that they’re proud of what we’ve done. It’s nice to repay them with that, with good days out.
“They’ve had some great days following us with both Loughmore-Castleiney and with Tipp over the last number of years. It is great to have that. It’s the bedrock of our parish where we come from is the GAA. To have all them good days means a lot to a lot of people. To actually be a part of it is great.”
Sunday marked Tipperary’s 28th All-Ireland title and the first time they have won three medals in one decade since the 1960s. Many players and talents have come and gone through that period but one group have been a constant – Brendan Maher, Seamus Callanan, Patrick Maher, Padraic Maher and, of course, McGrath.
These men have been reinvigorated by Liam Sheedy, the man who handed many of them their first chances in a Tipperary jersey. The average age of retirements in hurling may be dropping but that doesn’t mean that McGrath has any notion of hanging up his boots any time soon, in fact, he is as driven as ever to taste more success.
“I’m not going to say we don’t think about that because it does come into your mind at some stage over the last few days. You always want more. You look at the Kilkenny teams over the last 15 years, they always came back every year and were either winning or very close to winning it. We’ll be the same come next year.
“We’ll enjoy this, you have to enjoy it because you train so hard and you put so much into it. If you don’t enjoy it, what’s the point in doing it. When next year comes around and whenever we’re back together. Our heads will turn to 2020 again. That’s just the way it is.
“You want to do as much as you can when you’re playing because when you retire, you can’t do it anymore. Someone else is there to do it and you’re just looking back so when you have the chance to train and to play, I’ll take as many more as I’m going to be given and as many that we can work hard for.”
The PwC GAA/GPA Player of the Month Award winners were announced at PwC’s offices in Dublin today. Tipperary’s Noel McGrath and Dublin’s Con O’Callaghan were rewarded in hurling and football respectively for their championship performances in August.