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'We were looking around and it turns out we were the culprits - we didn’t realise we were doing anything wrong'

Jamie McGrath recalls a misadventure with Dundalk in Baku, as he returns to the city with Ireland this weekend.

Jamie McGrath speaks to the press.
Jamie McGrath speaks to the press.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

IRELAND HAVE NEVER played an international game in Baku before, but the city isn’t unfamiliar to Jamie McGrath, who was part of the Dundalk squad that played a Champions League qualifier against Qarabag in the city back in 2019.

They lost 3-0, and the result wasn’t all that went awry. 

“I nearly got arrested!” remembers McGrath.

It didn’t quite get to that, but there was a too-long moment of panic with local police when he and Sean Gannon stood for a TV interview with RTÉ. 

“We were beside the sea, on this boardwalk”, he explains. “We were doing an interview to camera and out of nowhere about five policemen came up on this little cart. We thought, ‘This is a bit strange.’

“We were looking around and it turns out we were the culprits. We didn’t realise we were doing anything wrong. They started speaking and we couldn’t understand a word they were saying. They were getting a bit aggressive and we were looking around, we didn’t know what we did wrong. It turns out it was private property that we were doing an interview on. We didn’t nearly get arrested, but it was a good story.” 

It was eventually solved when an English-speaking policeman explained they should move on and conduct the interview elsewhere. 

Dundalk drew the first leg against Qarabag 1-1, but the defeat in Baku opened McGrath’s eyes to the standard he would later encounter at international level. 

“We got punished at that level so it does open your eyes: when you play those big European games, if you are not on it, or give teams half an opening they will take it. It was my first experience of teams punishing you for mistakes.” 

Mahir Emreli, the goalscorer for Qarabag in the first leg at Oriel Park, will likely lead the line for Azerbaijan on Saturday, fresh from scoring against Leicester City for Legia Warsaw in the Europa League. 

McGrath, meanwhile, will be hoping to start a third international out of four this weekend, having made his full debut in the dramatic defeat in Faro last month. McGrath played under Stephen Kenny at Dundalk before moving to Scotland to join St Mirren, for whom he scored 17 times last season. That earned him a place in the Irish squad for the first time in the summer, making his debut in the friendly win over Andorra. 

McGrath thought he knew Kenny’s rhythms and style at Dundalk, but his selection from the start against Portugal came as a surprise: he was told only a couple of hours before kick-off.

“He rang me a week or two before the camp, saying, ‘I’m bringing you in to play, you’re not just coming to make up the numbers.’

“So I didn’t really know what way to take that. Obviously, to get told an hour before kick-off was such an adrenaline buzz. I just had to process it and get my touch right in the warm-up and go from there.

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“I was happy with how I did overall, but the main thing was we didn’t get the points on the board. But it’s definitely going to be a night I’ll never forget.

“At Dundalk it was different, you could tell [if a player was starting] on a Thursday. I don’t know if it was just for my sake, keeping my nerves away overnight. Maybe that was the reason why. I don’t know. He probably did me a favour.”

jamie-mcgrath Jamie McGrath on his full debut against Portugal. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

McGrath was then taken out of the starting XI for the deeply underwhelming 1-1 draw at home to Azerbaijan a few days later, but was restored to the line-up for the subsequent draw with Serbia. 

The ambition now is to make the most of a less taxing window – Saturday’s game is the only competitive tie of the week, as opposed to the trio of qualifiers Ireland had in six days last month – and finally deliver a first competitive win under Kenny. 

“We have a full week now and it’s going to be a clean slate for everyone to try and impress the gaffer. That’s going to be everyone’s goal this week – to train well and see where that takes you. If you are not training well you won’t give yourself the best chance. So you have to give yourself the best chance.

“You can’t really take anything for granted. Like I said, it’s a clean slate. If you don’t train well you won’t be near the pitch. So that’s all I’m focused on – training well and putting my best foot forward.”

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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