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Tipp All-Ireland wins and club football glory - Loughmore-Castleiney's emotional 2016 voyage

Brothers Noel, John and Brian McGrath were All-Ireland hurling medallists on the first Sunday in September, before lifting a county senior football title with their club.

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

IT WAS A Monday evening, 13 April 2015, when Tom McGrath arrived home from work.

Walking through his front door, he was stuck with an immediate sense that something was wrong, very wrong. Worry hung in the air.

Tom recalls a feeling that “something had to be told” and after leaving his keys and diary to one side, his wife Bernie delivered the news.

Three words with devastating impact. “Noel has cancer.”

On the Wednesday morning, Tipperary GAA released the following statement:

Noel McGrath will undergo surgery for testicular cancer on Friday 17 April. The Tipperary senior hurling squad, senior hurling management, Tipperary county board and all Tipperary supporters wish Noel well during this time and we look forward to welcoming him back in the Tipperary colours in due course. We ask everyone to respect the privacy of Noel and his family at this time and in the coming weeks.”

Tom McGrath is Noel’s uncle, a Loughmore-Castleiney stalwart and club official.

The club is, quite simply, synonymous with the McGrath name.

Tom recalls glancing at the programme before the county senior football final victory over Moyle Rovers on the last Sunday in October.

“Numbers 3-13 were all related,” he smiles.

“Number 14 was Evan Sweeney. Evan’s sister is in a relationship with Dominic Brennan, the goalkeeper, and Evan would be a first cousin of Tomás McGrath (Tom’s nephew).

“Come to number 15, Cian Hennessy, a first cousin of Joey, the wing-back.

“He’d also be connected through marriage with Michael’s (Tom’s brother) lads – Aidan and Ciarán.

“But that’s rural areas. We’re a biggish family group to start with and the tentacles reach out. I’d be playing down the Loughmore thing – there’s nothing exceptional about it.

“The success in recent times and the battles off the field – they’re all added to the mystique of the whole thing.”

Source: Movember Foundation/YouTube

To those inside the parish walls, there is nothing exceptional about Loughmore-Castleiney. Their success is built on fiercely-close bonds, hard work, and a love of place.

But from those of us on the outside looking in, the Loughmore-Castleiney story is remarkable. Some day, perhaps, it will be chronicled in book format. It certainly deserves to be.

Declan Laffan, who manages the club’s senior football and hurling teams, remembers fielding numerous phone calls after the club won an historic double in 2013. “How did ye do it?” was the general theme.

It’s a club that has produced a plethora of stellar club and inter-county players for many, many years but it’s also, like so many others, a club that’s faced its fair share of adversity.

Noel’s cancer diagnosis was just the latest.

Tom says: ”He was only in Spain the week before on a training camp (with the Tipperary squad.

Brendan Murphy Brendan Murphy in action for Offaly in 2012 - he is the current Tipperary senior hurling team doctor. Source: Cathal Noonan

“Brendan Murphy (team doctor and former Offaly hurler) handled that so capably and so promptly.

“He was home after the operation on the Friday night. The day consisted of going to Limerick early in the morning to get the procedure done, and he was home at 10.30 that night.”

Before McGrath left Limerick, he was visited by team-mates Conor O’Brien and Conor O’Mahony. The road to recovery had begun.

***

During the cold winter nights when Loughmore-Castleiney club training is in full swing, players travel from near and far to be put through their paces.

Alan O’Connor, Cahir native and the club’s strength and conditioning coach, has been instrumental in the recent success achieved in both codes.

Lovingly prepared by a hard-working and dedicated group, including Bernie, Tom’s wife, and Mary, wife of Tom’s brother Pat, and Bernie’s sister, the availability of food after training is just one of many small things that make Loughmore-Castleiney the club that it is.

Loughmore-Castleiney players Alan O'Connor (foreground) with the Loughmore-Castleiney players before their Munster club football championship clash against Dr. Crokes. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Sandwiches and soup help to keep hunger at bay for the lads who have to travel back to various outposts across the country and coming up to a county final, freshly-baked scones were a particular favourite of O’Connor’s.

“Never ate scones like them,” he smiles.

And Tom stresses: “The women side of the GAA is probably understated, particularly in our set-up. They play a big role, going back to my mother’s time into the present generation.

“They’re very much part of the thing as well but that wouldn’t be just our crew, it’s typical of the club and the parish.

“For lads travelling from here and there for winter training, at 8pm on a winter’s evening, they need something a bit more substantial than a glass of milk.

“There’s always food there for the lads on a midweek, the fruits of the set-up, a good, small committee that drove it on.

“We don’t lose anyone on the ‘transfer market’ – they all stay committed to the cause.

“It’s the little things that hold a fella. The (club) lotto gives them a small contribution towards petrol as well – a home-bred initiative.”

Tom’s mother, Tess, passed away in early June.

A mother of eight children, five boys and three girls, she had 31 grandchildren, and a great-granchild, Hazel.

Her late husband, Mick, played on the county senior football championship winning team of 1955, alongside his brothers John, Dick and Phil.

The bloodline runs through to the current day and when Loughmore-Castleiney played Upperchurch-Drombane in the mid senior hurling quarter-final, soon after Tess passed away, nine of her grandchildren were involved – Noel, John, Brian, Liam, Ciaran, Aidan and David McGrath, as well as the Shortts from Upperchurch, Pat and Eoin.

“My mother would have led a very huge life and contributed to the GAA in her own way,” Tom says.

“She got 90 years out of life. It’s a bit of a cliché but life has to go on.

“You get over the initial thing but there were plenty of moments to remember her since – the Munster final came up, that was only a month later, then you had the All-Ireland and the county football championship coming in nice, easy stages.”

Brian McGrath, Noel and John McGrath (l-r) Brian, Noel and John McGrath at Tipperary's homecoming in Thurles following the All-Ireland minor-senior double win. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

On the first Sunday in September, Tom’s nephews played pivotal roles in both the minor and senior All-Ireland hurling finals.

Brian captained the minors to victory before John, in his first full season at senior level, and Noel starred in the nine-point senior victory over Kilkenny.

In the final minute of the senior game, Noel was replaced by Kieran Bergin, and afforded a standing ovation as he left the pitch.

In August 2015, Noel had come on to a standing ovation in the semi-final defeat to Galway, a game that marked his comeback following his testicular cancer ordeal.

Source: RTÉ Sport/YouTube

For that Galway game, Tom was on co-commentary duty with local radio station, Tipp FM.

“I lost the impact of that day,” he reflects. “I was doing the analysis on Tipp FM and I was prepared for Noel coming in, I knew it was going to happen.

“I missed the sense of occasion, trying to keep a lid on my own emotions.

“He had hurled with the club in a match or two and coming on at Croke Park that day signalled the culmination of the recovery process. I didn’t realise about the standing ovation until the following Wednesday or Thursday.

You can understand where we were looking at it from, headphones on, sitting down, you couldn’t stand up to see what was going on. I wasn’t aware of that out-pouring and I was glad I wasn’t, I don’t think I would have handled it really well live on air.

“It was known that he was going to come in and we’d be particularly close. There are nephews, and then there are nephews. There’s the double-link between our houses – Noel’s mother and my wife are sisters.”

That glorious September Sunday was yet another example of how Loughmore-Castleiney, as Tom explains, “turn the minuses into positives.”

***

Eddie

Eddie Connolly The late Eddie Connolly. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

On 29 September 2013, Loughmore-Castleiney beat Borris-Ileigh to book a place in the Tipperary senior hurling championship final.

Eddie Connolly played his part at centre-back. Solid, dependable, no frills. Typical Eddie.

He took a seat in the stands to watch the second semi-final between Kiladangan and Éire Óg Nenagh and complained of a headache.

The initial suspicion was that a tough hour against Borris’ had taken its toll and that it was nothing more serious than fatigue and dehydration but Connolly was in so much discomfort that when he returned home that evening, he went to lie down.

It wasn’t long before a doctor was called and after being transferred to Cork University Hospital, the resultant diagnosis was devastating. Brain tumour.

Remarkably, he would wear the club shirt again, coming off the bench in the county semi-final victory over Mullinahone in October 2014.  

At that time, Eddie’s prognosis was positive but his condition deteriorated and in September 2015, he passed away.

Alan O’Connor tells a couple of stories that vividly illustrate the fighting spirit that existed within Eddie Connolly.

alan Alan O'Connor (circled) with the Loughmore-Castleiney team following their county SFC final victory over Moyle Rovers.

O’Connor reckons it was two hours after Connolly had underwent the last in a course of chemotherapy treatments when the man himself contacted him for a training programme.

“Obviously I didn’t know Eddie very long but I still knew enough of him to know what a super guy he was,” O’Connor reflects.

“He was a super fella around the camp and I got a phone call on the Sunday night after we beat Borris-Ileigh in that county semi-final in 2013.

“Eddie had been complaining of a headache but we were more concerned with Ciaran McGrath, who had concussion.

“But Eddie was rushed to Cork and Declan (Laffan) rang to tell me the extent of things.

“The boys came together and we played Arravale Rovers in the county quarter-final in Clonoulty, under lights. It was probably one of the best club games I’ve ever been involved in.

Source: Burgess TV/YouTube

“Eddie came into the dressing-room before that match. He didn’t say a whole lot but he was there – we were never going to be beaten that night and nobody was going to beat us in Tipperary that year after that.

I’ll tell you about Eddie. He was finished his treatment and he was told he could go back doing some exercise, so he was looking for a programme. I still have that on my computer.”

O’Connor logged the programme on 8 March, 2014, a week-long training routine to ease Connolly back into physical activity.

First, O’Connor referred Connolly to Stephanie Tarrant, a Bansha-based physiotherapist with experience in oncology rehabilitation.

“Stephanie said what he could do and I tailored the programme to what would suit Eddie,” O’Connor explains.

Mark Sugrue and Eddie Connolly Eddie Connolly (right) in action for the Tipperary intermediate hurlers against Cork in 2012. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“I didn’t want to load him up after what he’d been through. A couple of hours after finishing his chemo, he was onto me looking for a gym programme. That’s just awesome stuff.

“I’m a better man for meeting Eddie Connolly. That’s the best thing I could say – but I’m a better man for meeting anyone from Loughmore.”

Connolly tried everything in an attempt to beat cancer, even travelling to Spain for specialist treatment, but this was one battle that even a man of his immense courage could not win.

The Loughmore-Castleiney club moved quickly. Club members, including many of Eddie’s team-mates, dug his grave and directed traffic as people flocked near and far to pay their respects. Ultimately, Minuses were turned into positives.

“Eddie’s sickness, his recovery, recurrence and ultimately his loss, has been turned into a huge positive,” says Tom McGrath.

“Not just within the walls of the parish – it’s been used and will continue to be used by others, as an example, and that’s probably not even a strong enough word, about how you can overcome adversity but you can’t rest on your laurels either. You have to stay strong – you don’t know when there’s another twist around the corner.

“In 2013, there was Eddie’s diagnosis but we finished the year with two county championships, in 2014 there were two more county final experiences, and for Eddie to come in and almost get a score against Mullinahone. That’s Roy of the Rovers stuff.”

***

Alan O’Connor had worked with the Tipperary minor hurlers and footballers before linking up with Loughmore-Castleiney.

He was a key member of David Power’s backroom staff when the minor footballers stormed to All-Ireland glory in 2011.

Playing for Dublin that day were now established senior players Eric Lowndes, John Small, Jack McCaffrey, Cormac Costello, Ciaran Kilkenny and Paul Mannion.

But Tipp, captained by Tom McGrath’s son Liam, won with an incredible late goal from Colman Kennedy. The Loughmore-Castleiney influence was one of the key factors in Tipp’s success.

John Meagher played at full-back and in attack, cousins John and Liam McGrath starred.

Liam McGrath raises the Minor trophy Liam McGrath captained Tipperary to All-Ireland minor football glory in 2011. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

You might recall a perfectly-timed pass from John to Liam that led to an early goal for Tipp, a move straight from the back garden.

Fast forward five years and Noel McGrath supplies the pass for John to score an All-Ireland senior hurling final goal. Roy of the Rovers stuff, indeed.

What O’Connor loves about Loughmore-Castleiney is the humility of the men he works with, “from the last man on the junior squad to the best player on the senior, they’re all treated the same.”

There are no airs and graces, no egos, and when O’Connor arrived in February 2013, he was made feel welcome right from the start.

“In 2013, we were lucky enough to win the double,” says O’Connor, a native of Cahir.

“They probably trusted me after that, and gave me fair licence up there then.

“I had worked with John (McGrath), Liam and John Meagher in 2011 and I’ve actually worked with John McGrath in every year, bar one, since 2010.

John Meagher and Bill Maher celebrate John Meagher (3) celebrates All-Ireland minor football glory in 2011 with Bill Maher. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“John was only 16 when I was with he minor hurlers in 2010. That was my first county gig, Mark O’Leary was the manager.

“What I do is not complicated, it’s common sense but they work hard.

“I just love how humble they are, Noel McGrath and these lads, superstars of the GAA, John too.

“But when they come to the pitch in Loughmore, they’re just Noel and John McGrath from Loughmore, nobody else. They’re not superstars and they don’t expect to be treated that way either.

“I really like working with Declan Laffan and Pat McGrath – two very humble men but it works down from the committee – Eugene Stapleton, Tom McGrath, Dick Egan, Jim Nolan, Pat Healy.

John McGrath John McGrath of Loughmore-Castleiney and Tipperary. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“Even how they made my wife Christine feel welcome after we won the county football title this year…she couldn’t believe how cool they were.

“She said another crowd would be going ballistic but they were having their few pints, a chat and a bit of a slag. Happy out.”

It’s not always happy families in Loughmore-Castleiney, though.

As a bunch of players that demand high standards individually and collectively, there’s occasional friction.

“They don’t always get on,” O’Connor notes, before explaining that if there’s an incident at training, it’s quickly sorted out and forgotten about after the session.

“If you hit one Loughmore man, you hit the village,” O’Connor smiles.

Loughmore won the county double in 2013 but they were defeated in both mid-divisional finals, hammered by Drom & Inch in the hurling and suffering a four-point loss to Colin O’Riordan-inspired JK Brackens in the football.

Laffan needed a spark in the dressing-room after the Brackens defeat and, feeling that O’Connor could provide it, he gambled.

“I did something that day and thought ‘this will make me or finish me.’

“I knew it wouldn’t go down well with other players but sometimes you need to send a message. I took off Liam McGrath with five minutes to go – we weren’t going to catch them.

Declan Laffan Former player Declan Laffan manages Loughmore-Castleiney's senior football and hurling teams. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“A few of the players turned around and said ‘what the f**k are you doing?’

“I was walking in off the field and I said to Alan, ‘I need you to cut the bollix out of these lads.’

“I had my cut first, the door was locked, and then Alan started.”

O’Connor takes up the story.

“I told them that the fear factor of playing Loughmore was gone.

“It definitely resonated with them and the following (training) session was one of the best sessions I ever did.

“They listened because, as Declan said, when you’re outside, you hear things outside whereas the lads were in the bubble in Loughmore.

“I wasn’t living in the area and had no hang-ups about anyone up there, not that you could anyway.”

O’Connor’s words had the desired effect. Here, effectively, was an outsider telling the Loughmore-Castleiney players that teams from the West, South and North weren’t afraid of them.

“He cut the ground from under them,” Laffan recalls. “I needed him to do that.

“And he has huge respect from the players, they love him, adore him, he has a real knowledge of his job.”

Loughmore-Castleiney would finish the 2013 season as county senior football and hurling champions. Minuses to positives.

***

Alan O’Connor found out about Noel McGrath’s cancer diagnosis on a Wednesday morning radio bulletin.

He thumbed a text message to McGrath, wishing him well and expressing his hope that everything would work out ok.

He also texted Noel’s parents, Pat and Mary, conscious that “you have to think of the family too.”

Eddie Connolly was also battling cancer and O’Connor wondered what might be going through McGrath’s head.

“And now you see the work he’s (McGrath) doing for cancer awareness,” O’Connor says.

“If you ask Noel McGrath to do anything, he’d do anything for you.”

In March of this year, O’Connor was involved with the Cahir intermediate camogie team that won the All-Ireland title at Croke Park.

The Cahir team celebrate winning Cahir's intermediate camogie team celebrate All-Ireland club glory. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

He asked McGrath to speak to the girls in the build-up to the final and was blown away by what he said.

“I’ve played in Croke Park with Tipperary but I’d do anything to be in your position, to go to Croke Park with my club, to represent my club in an All-Ireland final.”

That was McGrath’s message, just the trick, and Cahir won.

That’s the Noel McGrath O’Connor knows, selfless and willing to help out whenever and wherever he can.

And it wasn’t long after the All-Ireland final victory over Kilkenny in September when a text flashed through on O’Connor’s phone, thanking him for some one-on-one work earlier in the year when McGrath was searching for peak fitness.

“He (O’Connor) couldn’t have picked a better word (humble) to describe the lads,” says Laffan.

“You’d think John McGrath was asleep half the time, he’s so laid back, lovely fella, so easy going but then you see him on the field.

John McGrath celebrates scoring his goal against Kilkenny in September's All-Ireland senior final win. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“I remember his father telling me five years ago that they’d be at home watching matches on a Sunday, inter-county stuff, and Pat was saying that John couldn’t understand why a lad would take a handy point from 30 yards if there was even the slightest chance of a goal on. That’s the way he thinks on the field.”

In 2016, McGrath scored a hat-trick of goals in the Munster final victory over Waterford, another in the All-Ireland semi-final win against Galway, and another when Tipp beat Kilkenny in the final.

But when John McGrath’s back in Loughmore, he’s just another cog in the wheel.

Laffan recalls a piece written by Tipperary Star reporter Noel Dundon this year, when the club was described as “small in numbers, but high in quality.”

Sadly, Eddie Connolly is no longer with them but during his years with the club, he left an indelible mark.

“Don’t get me wrong, Eddie could antagonise people better than anybody,” Laffan reflects.

“He’d give it to you straight between the eyes whether you liked it or not – no bullshit with Eddie.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“If you didn’t like what he said, tough shit, he wasn’t going to take it back but he’d have it forgotten about a few minutes later. You knew where you stood with him.”

And there was a time when Laffan, a bit like the case with O’Connor, needed Connolly to help him deliver a message.

“First year I was in charge and I told Eddie, I have to light up this dressing-room and I’m going to give it to you.

“I told him I was going to eat the bollocks out of him and to be fair to him, he said ‘yeah, no bother.’

“He knew they needed it but I touched base with him so he couldn’t come back and devour me.

“I ate the bollocks out of Eddie and a few more and they went out and won handy in the second half. You could do that with a lad like him. Another lad, you mightn’t dream of doing that with.”

In September 2015, Eddie Connolly died. In September 2016, Brian McGrath captained the Tipperary minors to the All-Ireland title, before John and Noel did their stuff with the seniors. Symmetry. Minuses into positives.

“Some achievement with Brian being captain of the minors, that was special,” says Laffan.

“The front page of the Irish Independent on the morning after, that picture is something for them to treasure, the whole lot of them together, father, mother, Trish, the sister, the three boys and the couple of cups.

(l-r): John, Brian and Noel McGrath pictured after Tipperary's Munster SHC final victory over Waterford. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It’s worth anything and you couldn’t write the story, especially after what happened to Noel the previous year.

“I was particularly delighted for Noel – he hurled very well this year and I thought he had an outstanding All-Ireland final.

“I know he might not be getting the scores he used to but he’s still doing a lot of the donkey work. And that goal, he was just going to pop it over the bar and looped it to John – that’s them, they see the passes nobody else would even dream of seeing.

A lot of it is desire, hunger and appetite. Look at what John McGrath has won and our own crop at the minute, John Meagher, Liam McGrath and John McGrath’s age, every club medal under the sun bar U14 and minor football.”

In 2017, Declan Laffan and Loughmore-Castleiney will chase more silverware.

It will be his ninth year involved as he worked with Noel Morris and Ned Ryan in 2010, 2011 and 2012 before assuming control in 2013.

Previously, Laffan had managed the senior footballers in 2009.

County senior football champions in three of the last four seasons, and current holders, Loughmore-Castleiney also won the county senior hurling crown most recently in 2013.

This year alone, they won the Mid double and while losing out to Drom & Inch in the county senior hurling championship cut deep, they regrouped and won the football.

Noel McGrath during the team parade Noel McGrath on club duty. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

In September, Loughmore-Castleiney lost to Drom & Inch in a preliminary county senior hurling quarter-final by a point, vehemently arguing that more added time should have been played at the end of the game.

Loughmore took the matter to the county board CCC but their request for a re-fixture was turned down.

Laffan wondered how the players would react as, historically, when the hurlers are going well, the footballers tend to prosper too. They bounced back, and finished the year as football kingpins again. Minuses into positives.

“When we have absolutely everybody, we have 45 adult players, able to play senior and junior,” says Laffan.

“We lose very few, we’re not like most country clubs. I can only remember three players in the last ten years that we’ve lost to emigration or whatever. That’s unheard of.

“You won’t meet a better bunch to train and when you see what goes on in most clubs, they’re a dream to work with. They want to win, bottom line. People say we’re clannish but I wouldn’t call it clannish. There’s an awful lot of family connections but great camaraderie.

“In Loughmore, you’d find it hard to find lads that don’t play GAA but even the fellas that don’t are still great buddies with the lads that do.

“We know we’re not going to be far away in either (hurling and football), we have a good crop of players that have the capacity, if they get the rub of the green in either code.”

And so they’ll go again, turning minuses into positives. The only way Loughmore-Castleiney know how.

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