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'If you told me at the start of the year that I’d be here now, I probably would have laughed'

Jamie McGrath reflects on his rapid rise to the Irish international team.

Jamie McGrath is tackled by Assim Madibo.
Jamie McGrath is tackled by Assim Madibo.
Image: Ben Brady/INPHO

IT HASN’T TAKEN Jamie McGrath long to start winning friends and influencing people.

Recognised by a group of Irish lads on a flight back to Scotland after September’s international window, he was offered their spare ticket to the TRNSMT music festival in Glasgow. 

As it transpired, McGrath’s girlfriend had already got him a ticket, and so he met up with them again at the festival. 

“We had a bit of crack so it was nice to share that with them, they were sound fellas”, says McGrath. He is increasingly emblematic of this Irish team: down-to-earth and beginning to flourish under Stephen Kenny in spite of a hitherto unusual route to international football. 

Though in a post-Brexit world, his route may become familiar. 

McGrath broke into the League of Ireland as he was completing a business degree at Maynooth, first making his name at Saint Patrick’s Athletic before joining Kenny’s Dundalk in 2017. From there, with studies completed, he joined St Mirren of Scotland in 2019. 

He scored 17 times for St Mirren last season, at the end of which he earned his first call-up to the Irish senior squad. He made his debut as a substitute in the friendly win against Andorra, and then made a competitive bow against Portugal three months later. Rested for the subsequent game with Azerbaijan, he returned to the starting line-up for the home game with Serbia and then impressed off the bench at half-time in Baku on Saturday. 

He started and starred in Tuesday’s hammering of Qatar, and is making a persuasive case to start once again when Portugal come to visit Dublin next month. 

stephen-kenny-with-jamie-mcgrath-after-the-game Stephen Kenny and Jamie McGrath in their Dundalk days, in 2017. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

“It was always a long-term goal of mine”, says McGrath. “I just had to keep working hard and hopefully do it at club level and see where that took me. If you told me at the start of the year that I’d be here now, I probably would have laughed.

“It was a long-term dream, so I probably wasn’t expecting it to happen this quick. When I got the nod in the summer I was over the moon.

“My aim was to just stay in the squad and I was lucky enough to do that. If you had told me a year ago I probably would have thought it was too soon but I was always determined to try to go as far as I can. Thankfully it has happened sooner than I expected.”

McGrath’s impressive season attracted interest from elsewhere in the summer, though St Mirren ultimately retained his services, with manager Jim Goodwin saying he was “absolutely delighted” to fend off interest from “serious” clubs. 

“I am happy where I am and I have a year left on my contract up to next summer so we will see what happens”, says McGrath. “I love it there and they are a great bunch and the gaffer has been brilliant for me there, so I can’t speak highly enough of him.”

St Mirren isn’t exactly the most 0bvious source of international players, but McGrath says it’s a trait of Kenny’s to consider players regardless of their employer. 

“It’s probably been the talk, especially at League of Ireland level. People can make the step up. Jack Byrne has shown that, and a few others have been quite unlucky. That’s the thing with the gaffer, he doesn’t care who you play for as long as you’re doing well, he will give you a chance.” 

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McGrath has been given his chance in a different role to the one he plays at club level. In Scotland he often plays as a deeper-lying central midfielder, whereas with Ireland he has been playing on either side of the front-line. 

“It’s a different shape that we play at club level. But the coaches have been excellent, they tell you in detail what they expect. Your roles and responsibilities are very clear. I am not playing as an out-and-out winger and have the freedom to join in if I want, so I really enjoy that position.

“It is very specific on the training ground, what we work on. The coaches here are very detailed, Keith [Andrews] and Anthony [Barry] have it down to a tee what they expect from you. But we are not rigid, they want us interchanging if it’s on, so if I see Callum [Robinson] pulling out wide I’ll drift in; if Chio [Ogbene] is out wide I’ll drift in. As an attacking player that fluidity is nice, and you’re not rigid and stiff.” 

On Tuesday night, McGrath became the first Irish player to earn a penalty since Shane Long was awarded a spot kick against France at Euro 2016. McGrath scored 10 penalties for St Mirren last season, but with Callum Robinson in such rich form, he wasn’t going to be allowed take this one. 

“It was a long time to go without a penalty, so hopefully now we start getting a few more. 

“I had a brief discussion with Callum, but he was on a mission tonight so I didn’t want to stop him. Thankfully it went in, so that is all you want.

“I scored a good few last season and a few this season so hopefully I will get a chance in the future, but you can’t take it off Cal. He is in flying form.” 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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