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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 20 February, 2019
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'I had an offer to go to England, but I wanted to stay and do my Leaving Cert'

Jamie McGrath chats to The42 about the tricky choice facing many young aspiring Irish footballers.

Jamie McGrath.
Jamie McGrath.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

AS WITH MOST friendlies, the recent Ireland-Mexico match wasn’t the most memorable of games, but aside from the New Jersey location, there was one other highly unusual subplot.

Soccer in Ireland and Dublin have long been synonymous, with the national team traditionally being dominated by players from the capital.

However, in that Mexico clash, not one of the players who started was Dublin-born, while only two of the five substitutes (Wes Hoolahan and Stephen Gleeson) were natives of the county.

There are a couple of caveats, of course — the Irish team that travelled to the States were largely second-string and playing for Championship sides, while four of those involved were English-born. Nevertheless, it is still fair to say that that encounter is indicative of the growth of soccer all over the country in recent years.

Dundalk’s Jamie McGrath may not quite be ready for international football yet, but he is another example of soccer’s spread to places in Ireland that were not always associated with the beautiful game.

Growing up in Meath, he lined out for local side Athboy Celtic from a young age.

“I used to play with my dad, he was the coach of the U12s at the time,” he tells The42.

My brother was on that team, so I used to just tag along with him to training when I was five or six. He noticed that I was talented, so I started playing for the local team. My age group (was) U6s, 7s or 8s, or something like that.”

McGrath’s father had a contact with top Dublin schoolboy side Cherry Orchard. This connection helped get the young footballer a trial with the U12s and from there, he rarely looked back.

The Dundalk star concedes that his progression may not have been as meteoric had he been denied the chance to test himself at a higher level from a young age, while he remains forever indebted to his father for orchestrating this life-changing opportunity.

“I ended up playing with Cherry Orchard until U17s,” he recalls.

He drove me up twice a week from Meath to Cherry Orchard. I don’t think I otherwise would have got spotted until a later age, and it might have been too late then. So I’m very thankful (for his assistance).

Another stroke of good fortune also accelerated McGrath’s rise. The youngster’s emergence coincided with the implementation of U17 and U19 leagues at domestic level, which helped ease the passage into first-team football for youngsters such as himself.

This factor also made a difficult decision somewhat easier. Having caught the eye at Cherry Orchard, McGrath had an opportunity to play football in England.

But nearly every youth development coach will say the same thing when asked about dilemmas such as the one McGrath was faced with — there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Some Irish youngsters benefit from choosing to move to England in their early teens.

However, the statistics prove that the vast majority of those that travel over are not offered a second contact, and invariably left in an extremely difficult position, having pinned their hopes on a pipe dream.

Source: Niall Newberry/YouTube

Increasingly therefore, and undoubtedly wisely in many cases, players are choosing to stay in Ireland to focus on their education with the hopes of resurrecting their dreams of Premier League stardom at a later date.

QPR’s Ryan Manning is one example of an Irish footballer who chose to pursue what is generally perceived as the more sensible option, and McGrath is another.

After schoolboy football, you don’t really know what to do,” he says. “You’re at that age where most people drop out of the game (at a high level), so you need something there to link you to a League of Ireland club I think.

“It was the perfect route for me at the time. I had an offer to go to England, but I wanted to stay and do my Leaving Cert. So there was a perfect pathway there.

I first signed for UCD because I thought I’d probably end up going to college there. But I ended up wanting to go to Maynooth — Pat’s had the perfect scholarship system there, so it worked out perfectly in the end.”

And as was the case with the move to Cherry Orchard years earlier, McGrath’s father was pivotal in his decision to reject English football’s advances.

“It came down to my dad again,” he says. “He didn’t make the decision for me, but he advised on what you’d be missing if you go and the risks of going.

There are obviously benefits of going as well, but the majority of players that go over at that age tend to come home a year or two later, so he told me that it’d probably be wise to stick it out (in Ireland) and maybe go over when I’m older.”

McGrath hopes to receive another offer to play in England one day, but for now, the 20-year-old has more pressing issues at hand. Just last month, he finished his college exams, bringing to an end to a three-year course in Business and Management at Maynooth University.

So at last, McGrath is free to focus on full-time football, after a hectic few months.

(It’s difficult) especially when you’re cramming it in during exam time,” he says. “We had three or four games within a week or two, so I was bringing books on the (team) bus and having late nights and stuff.

“It’s nice at the minute now anyway. You obviously have to go to the gym in your free time, so I can spend a few hours there. It’s tricky the other few hours, but it’s better than being in college with the lectures.

I’m learning to drive at the minute though, so that’s taking up a good bit of time.”

Moreover, tonight, McGrath will be part of the Dundalk squad hosting Finn Harps. It has been a disappointing season by the Lilywhites’ high standards, as their bid to win a fourth consecutive league title looks set to fall short.

With Cork winning 17 out of 18 games, the reigning champions trail their rivals by 18 points, and will have to settle for second spot at best barring an absolutely disastrous second half to the season for the Leesiders.

Having been beaten 3-0 by Cork just before the mid-season break, however, they hit back with an emphatic 6-0 victory over Drogheda at United Park last week.

Source: FAI TV/YouTube

It is one of a number of dominant performances Dundalk have managed to produce, despite an inconsistent season overall, including a 4-0 victory over Sligo Rovers at Oriel Park in which McGrath hit a hat-trick.

Goalscoring, the young attacking midfielder explains, is one key aspect of his game that McGrath wants to improve on.

I haven’t been prolific enough in front of goal,” he admits. “Even shooting — I don’t tend to take the opportunities, I tend to pass it off. The gaffer’s having words, he’s saying to me ‘you should be shooting more’ and being more direct.

“That’s certainly a big thing that I’m trying to get into my game. I’m staying back after training, shooting with the boys. It’s a thing of shooting more — I tend to get one or two shots off a game, whereas I should be getting five or six.

It sums it up the day I got the hat-trick, I was shooting from everywhere and I ended getting two more.”

Having joined Dundalk from Pat’s prior to the start of the 2017 campaign, McGrath acknowledges that there is a greater pressure than ever on him to perform, particularly as incoming players such as himself are expected to fill the considerable void left following the recent departures of top players, including Daryl Horgan and Ronan Finn.

Stephen Kenny Stephen Kenny has been an important influence on McGrath. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Nevertheless, despite these great expectations, McGrath feels he has adapted well overall, while he has been helped by the presence at the club of Stephen Kenny — a manager with a reputation for developing young players.

One of the big things is he never lets a player get complacent,” he explains. “No matter who you are, he tells you if you weren’t putting it in. He always expects more and more from you, which is a very big thing.

“Even in training sessions, if you hit a misplaced pass, or if your shots are wayward, he lets you know. He doesn’t let you get in the comfort zone. He’s always pushing you to the max.”

McGrath is also fortunate to have played with some talented footballers over the course of his young career. At Pat’s, he was compared to Chris Forrester — a player who has since gone on to impress with Peterborough in League One across the water.

Patrick McEleney celebrates scoring his second goal McGrath rates Patrick McEleney as being among the best footballers he has played with. Source: Ciaran Culligan/INPHO

And currently, he plays alongside Patrick McEleney, who has enjoyed a fine season with Dundalk thus far, while also being a player who has come close to an English move in the past.

Pat is definitely up there with (the other top players I’ve played with). Some of the things you see him do in training are ridiculous. Even in games, he plays passes others wouldn’t be able to play.

“I’d be on the wing and he’d be on the far side and he’d switch it with his left foot onto your chest.

“He’s scoring wonder goals nearly on a weekly basis at this stage, so I think we’re lucky to have him. It’ll be interesting to see how long he stays in the league.”

McGrath has already had the experience of playing in the Europa League with Pat’s, and next month, he will take another step up the footballing ladder, as the starlet will likely to feature when his side take on Norwegian champions Rosenborg in the Champions League Second Qualifying Round.

While McGrath concedes it was not the easiest of ties to be handed, he remains bullish about the team’s chances.

I think (Dundalk’s progress) last year gives hope to every League of Ireland team playing in Europe this year. You can see that our league is not that far behind the rest of Europe.

“I think the perception is that we’re miles off, whereas I don’t think that’s the case. Last year, Dundalk put it up to BATE and Zenit, some top European teams.

We’ll just go into it positively. I’m sure the gaffer will have a gameplan and we’ll hopefully come out of it with a (good) result.”

Consequently, Trondheim will be another significant step on a journey that began in Athboy and will, if all goes according to plan, take McGrath to plenty more disparate locations in future.

Predictions

Every week, we’re giving readers the chance to take us on in predicting the Premier Division results. After Week 18, here are the standings:

The Readers: 51
The42: 49

Next up is Joe Nestor from Galway:

Bohemians v Sligo Rovers — Bohemians win
Derry City v Cork City — Derry City win
Galway United v Bray Wanderers — Galway United win
Dundalk v Finn Harps — Dundalk win
Shamrock Rovers v Drogheda United — Shamrock Rovers win
Limerick v St. Patrick’s Athletic — Limerick win

Dundalk v Galway United — Draw

The42 (Paul Fennessy)

Bohemians v Sligo Rovers — Bohemians win
Derry City v Cork City — Cork City win
Galway United v Bray Wanderers — Draw
Dundalk v Finn Harps — Dundalk win
Shamrock Rovers v Drogheda United — Shamrock Rovers win
Limerick v St. Patrick’s Athletic — Limerick win

Dundalk v Galway United — Dundalk win

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