final hurdle

'We had enough chances... 15 years playing so we have only ourselves to blame'

Ken McGrath never tasted All-Ireland success but he believes Waterford’s current side can end a 58-year wait. / YouTube

KEN McGRATH AND his wife head for Croke Park every September to watch the All-Ireland hurling final, and each year when the full-time whistle sounds, thoughts of what might have been creep into his head.

McGrath was the talisman in a Waterford team that was undoubtedly one of the finest never to taste success on All-Ireland final day. His inter-county career yielded a National League, four Munster Championships and eight All-Ireland semi-final appearances.

They made it to the final hurdle once, but McGrath admits in his excellent autobiography Hand on Heart — which was released last week — that Waterford were “embarrassed” and the players “probably should have gotten counselling” following their 23-point defeat to Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final of 2008.

“I’ll be honest, every All-Ireland final weekend is tough,” McGrath told The42 this week. “We normally come up, myself and Dawn, we go to the All-Ireland or whatever and when the final whistle goes on Sunday you’re saying, ‘Why couldn’t that be us ever? Why couldn’t we ever just get the final piece of the jigsaw?’

“But look, it’s not something I think about every day. We had four Munster titles and a National League, and with where we came from in Waterford we had to accept it. We had enough chances. We had 15 years playing and we didn’t take it so we have only ourselves to blame.”

Eoin Larkin tracked by Ken McGrath Ken McGrath in pursuit of Kilkenny's Eoin Larkin during the 2008 All-Ireland final. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

McGrath has made peace with the fact that so many chances passed them by and he’s grateful to have been a central figure in one of the best teams to play inter-county hurling in recent memory. However, the regrets will always come to the surface when he reflects on a playing career that also brought him three All-Star awards.

“It’s hard,” said McGrath, who won six Waterford senior hurling titles and one Munster crown with Mount Sion, the club he now serves as manager. “When you win a Munster Championship you want to win an All-Ireland semi-final, you want to win the final.

“When things developed over the course of our careers we wanted more and more every time. It was the same with Mount Sion; we wanted to win the County Championship, the Munster Championship, and you’re always thinking that the whole time. Unfortunately in both codes, county and club, we never won the final one.

“There’s always a tinge of regret there. You want more and more. But that’s what makes a sportsman. That’s what makes a player want to give up everything they have outside of it for county hurling and club hurling.”

Waterford lost four All-Ireland semi-finals between 1998 and 2006, with only a score separating them and their opponents at full-time each occasion. But McGrath feels that the 5-11 to 2-15 defeat to Limerick in 2007, when the Deise went in as Munster champions and considerable favourites to make the final, was perhaps the one that got away.

Ken McGrath 30/6/2002 DIGITAL McGrath won his first of four Munster titles in 2002 at the expense of Tipperary. INPHO INPHO

Asked if he could go back in time to any stage in his career and make one adjustment, the 38-year-old says Waterford should have requested that the game be deferred. Having been taken to a replay by Cork in the quarter-finals, the game against Limerick was their third at Croke Park in the space of 15 days. The demands had taken a toll.

“I think maybe ’07 was a big one. We probably should have asked for the Limerick game off. I think it was three games on the trot. There was talk afterwards that if we had asked we would have had the game pushed back for an extra week.

“I think we were on such a high after beating Cork in the replay that we probably kidded ourselves, thinking everything was fresh and everything was grand. Limerick were lined up perfectly for us; they tore into us and beat us. That was a massive, massive regret.

“We were League champions, Munster champions, things were flying, so that’s definitely a regret. I lost [seven] semi-finals so it’s the small things you’d be thinking about, like why didn’t I tackle Joe Deane or why didn’t I put that point over the bar [against Cork in 2006]? You could be in a different place here now. But that’s sport, isn’t it?”

He added: “As the team developed more, I think the ’02-to-’07 team was definitely good enough to win an All-Ireland and it’s a massive regret that we didn’t win it.”

inpho_00015806 McGrath under pressure from Kilkenny's Tom Hickey and Michael Kavanagh in the 1998 All-Ireland semi-final. INPHO / Lorraine O'Sullivan INPHO / Lorraine O'Sullivan / Lorraine O'Sullivan

In 2017, Waterford’s wait for an All-Ireland senior title will extend to 58 years, but McGrath believes the current crop are capable of ending the drought. A minor All-Ireland title in 2013 was followed by a national triumph at U21 level this year thanks to a 16-point win over Galway, which was engineered by a promising team playing an attractive brand of hurling.

McGrath: “I think they have massive potential. We saw that in the U21 [final] against Galway. To go in as firm favourites, play the way they did, turn up on the day — not every Waterford team would have done that over the years. It’s the way they played as well.

“I think that’s what suits Waterford. We kind of feed off that. The crowd feed off open hurling, going for goals, going for points, out-scoring teams as such. These young lads, some of them have minor [All-Ireland] medals, U21 All-Irelands, they’re going for the full set already, which we never had starting out.

“We were coming from maybe a lower ebb and trying to push into the big bracket. These lads are coming into a top-class set-up and they have everything at their disposal, so they have a right chance. A right chance.”

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