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Laszlo Geczo/INPHO St Mirren's Jamie McGrath.
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Jamie McGrath: Mastering penalties, Stephen Kenny, and St Mirren’s Scottish Cup semi-final date
The former St Patrick’s Athletic and Dundalk man has played a key role for the Scottish side this season.

FROM PENALTY TEARS to penalty cheers. Interest in a Scottish Cup semi-final used to be the sole domain of the diehard Celtic fans on this side of the Irish sea. But this Sunday afternoon St. Mirren, with five Irish players and an Irish manager in their dressing room, will bring a different kind of green to the occasion at Hampden Park.

Among the Irish contingent, 24-year-old Jamie McGrath has been the standout performer. The former St. Patrick’s Athletic and Dundalk player, still only in his first full season in Scotland, has returned 16 goals from his attacking midfield position to date.

What has been the catalyst behind his success?

“Penalties”, the Meath man says, smiling and without hesitation.

While there has been much more to his starring role in the club’s season of overachievement, he does have a point.

McGrath has stepped up to the spot no less than 11 times so far this season and has successfully dispatched on all bar one occasion. A decent return for any player, but even more so when he gives you the back story.

“I missed one for Athboy Celtic U11 in a cup final that scarred me for life! They put me on the deciding one even though I didn’t want to take one at all. Unsurprisingly I missed.

I went home bawling my eyes out that day and said I wouldn’t take one ever again. When I eventually did work up the courage it was for St. Pats U19’s in a cup semi-final. I tried to avoid it but by the time it got down to the ninth takers I had no choice. And of course, I missed again.

“After that I thought to myself, this is something I’m going to have to get right. I’m just going to have to start practising them and not have it as something that hangs over me during my whole career.

“So I got working on them with our keeper Conor O’Malley after training sessions with Pats and developed a technique that started to work for me. But it was a long time before I got to try it out for real because I wasn’t on them at Pats. Then when I moved to Dundalk you had no hope of taking the ball off Pat Hoban either.

“But eventually it came to a penalty shootout in the Europa League in 2019 over in Tallinn and I thought, ‘What’s the point in practising them if I’m not going to put my hand up here?’ So I took one and thankfully I scored.

“Ever since then I’ve been confident with them. I took a few more for Dundalk in a few shootouts that all went in.

“I took one here when I first came over in a shootout and scored too. So when the gaffer asked at the start of this year, ‘Would you like to be on pens?’ I jumped at the opportunity and it’s worked out well.

st-mirren-v-rangers-betfred-cup-quarter-final-st-mirren-park PA McGrath has netted 16 goals this season. PA

“I’ve missed one but I scored the next one straight after it so that put that to bed. But my family still slag me about that one from way back though. Every now and again they’ll still throw it out there… ‘Remember that time you were bawling your eyes out?’”

Despite that occasional slagging from home, McGrath is quick to acknowledge the role his family played in developing his early love for football.

“Dad is a big soccer man. He did his coaching badges up as far as Uefa B.

“He made sure we had two goals and a football pitch set up out in our front garden ever since I can remember. Me and my brother would be there for hours and hours. It was kind of a hot spot for all my friends to call over to after school as well and the games would go on forever.

“Dad used to look after the grass as if it were the Bernabéu! He’d be cutting it nearly every second day and he’d go mad at the lads if they dug it up in anyway during any of our games.

“When I was growing up, Graham Geraghty was the main man for Meath (Gaelic) footballers and he’s from where I’m from. My Mam was a hairdresser and used to cut his hair. The lads used to all idolise him, but it was always soccer first for me.”

Over the following years things progressed nicely for McGrath on and off the field. He was determined to fulfil his potential on the pitch but also academically.

“My brother had just recently graduated out of Maynooth University and it was close to home so it kind of ticked all the boxes. Barry Prenderville at the college had been on to me before and he had a link with Pats, so it all fell into place nicely.

“I got a great scholarship there and got my degree in Business and Management. On the field I was playing for a really successful St. Pats U19 team and started to break into the first team.”

After impressing for St. Patrick’s Athletic over the course of three seasons under Liam Buckley, the then Dundalk boss Stephen Kenny came calling. Given McGrath’s age and contract situation, there would have to be a fee involved but that didn’t deter the current Irish international manager.

“I was in college one day and my agent phoned me up and said, ‘Would you be interested going to Dundalk?’ I laughed at him because I assumed he was having me on.

stephen-kenny-with-jamie-mcgrath-after-the-game Gary Carr / INPHO McGrath with Stephen Kenny during their time together at Dundalk. Gary Carr / INPHO / INPHO

“But Stephen really wanted me. He came down to a hotel near me to meet up and after a quick chat it became a no-brainer. There was probably a slight bit of doubt in my mind that I might not play because the squad was so strong and successful. But I had to back myself and go for it.

“I mean, if he was willing to pay the compensation to make it happen then he must have seen something in me.”

McGrath’s creativity and intelligence on the ball ensured he was the ideal player for Kenny’s gameplan and style of play.

Stephen was brilliant for my development. I’d come in at half time in a game thinking I’d done OK, but he’d be straight on to me – ‘Stop passing the ball sideways… stop passing the ball backwards… I want you to have that expression where you just try things… be brave, take risks… I don’t mind if you give it away so long as you’re trying to make things happen.’

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“He gave you so much freedom to your play, and as I adapted to what he wanted I got better.”

Despite leaving the League of Ireland over a year ago to sign for St. Mirren, McGrath is still very much up to date on everything that’s been going on this season.

“I’ve been watching nearly every game lately because I got one of those WatchLOI season passes. I’m really enjoying Pats at the minute. It’s great watching Chris Forrester back in full flow.

“When I first came into Pats he was the one that I was really looking up to. He was the young player who had become the main man and that’s what I wanted to do.

jamie-mcgrath Cathal Noonan / INPHO McGrath's League of Ireland career started off with St Patrick's Athletic. Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

“The things you would see him do on a match day or in training just made you stand back and say, ‘wow’. You could just tell that he was a street footballer, brought up just playing off the cuff. It’s great to see him doing so well at the minute.”

Looking forward to this weekend’s big game, McGrath feels that his side’s League Cup semi-final defeat to Livingston earlier this season can be used to their advantage.

“The fact that we’ve been there and done it in terms of already playing in a cup semi-final in Hampden, I think that can really stand to us. I think we’ve really learned from that experience. We definitely didn’t play as well as we could have. Nerves might have got the better of us, but I don’t think we’ll make the same mistake twice in that sense.

“We also know how the disappointment felt afterwards and I think that hurt will work as extra motivation. We want to put it right on Sunday.”

McGrath’s form has inevitably lead to speculation of a possible call-up to Kenny’s international training camp in June. Perhaps his former manager could even be in the stand this weekend at Hampden to run the rule over him?

“I don’t even want to think like that, because I still think back to what it was like when I was growing up. As soon as you hear there’s somebody coming to look at you, that’s when you have a stinker,” jokes McGrath.

“Look, if it ever happened that would be incredible but for now I just want to concentrate on trying to finish the season with some silverware.” 

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