NOEL MCGRATH WAS moments away from a fairytale comeback last August in Croke Park.
In April last year it was revealed that he was to undergo surgery for testicular cancer but four months later his remarkable recovery saw him come off the bench to a rapturous ovation in the All-Ireland semi-final.
He almost penned the perfect return script when clipping over a 70th minute point that edged Tipperary in front. Yet Galway hit back with a late two-point salvo to nudge Tipperary out of the championship.
A common theme of the post-match discussion was the inspirational nature of McGrath’s comeback.
But for the player himself, the over riding emotion was the disappointment of defeat.
“Disaster, it was an All-Ireland semi-final. No matter what, losing an All-Ireland semi-final by a point that way at the end is very disappointing.
“You are in the dressing room and lads are just gutted. All you are thinking about is there anything you could have done differently on the field that could have changed or made that small difference that would have won it.”
Amidst the crushing nature of the defeat, he appreciated the simple gesture of Anthony Cunningham seeking him out.
“It was a nice gesture from Anthony. In the heat of battle, it was only 30 seconds or a minute after the final whistle.
“He just came over to me and congratulated on me on coming back. I think it was nice of him to do it and I appreciated it because he didn’t have to do it.”
The passing of time after the defeat did offer McGrath some perspective and he came to savour his comeback.
“It was more afterwards I was after realising what had happened. I was kind of stuck in the moment wanting to play and wanting to get Tipperary over the line.
“I had prepared with the boys before that, the same for any match to be ready for it. It wasn’t for the few days after it that I really realised what happened when I came on, and the cheer and people were good.
“The support I got was brilliant. In the weeks and months afterwards to look back and be able to say that I was playing in Croke Park only a few months after the illness was good.”
Support poured in from all quarters last summer.
“I got plenty of texts and messages and phone calls off players from different counties, from both codes hurling and football,” outlines McGrath.
“So it just shows that the GAA community is very good and very strong, and you really do appreciate it then.
“While there are serious battles out on the field, once you come off the field everyone is all from the same kind of backgrounds. The support I got was very helpful.”
To be involved at the outset of a new season has a greater resonance in 2016.
“Last April I wasn’t sure what was going to come of it, where I was going to be, if or when I’d ever get back playing and I’m just delighted that I am,” reflects McGrath.
“But people have been out for longer than me with different types of injuries, broken arms or broken legs or bad injuries like that.
“I’m just delighted to be back.”
Does he now feel he is back operating at full speed?
“It’s hard to know. I did miss a lot of last year, a lot of tough training. I’m still trying to build myself back to full fitness, to fit in with the team again.
“I’d like to think I’m back up to speed with the rest of them, but time will tell. I’m just looking forward to the challenge ahead.”
It starts next Saturday night with Dublin pitching up in Semple Stadium for the league opener.
McGrath is a decorated hurler with two Allstars to cherish and All-Ireland medals at minor, U21 and senior level to his name.
But the basic practice of playing is his immediate focus.
“I’m mad for games, and will be pushing myself as hard as I can to make the 26 for match day, and everyone is in the same boat.
“I’m 25 years of age now and you don’t realise how quick your career goes. I’m just really delighted to get back playing, get back to normality.”