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'To go to the very top with your club, nothing tops it' - through the years with Galway's Hopper McGrath

The Galway and Sarsfields great recently steered his beloved club – and his four daughters – to a first All-Ireland senior camogie title, having done it all as a player himself.

YOU WIN ALL-IRELANDS with your county, you win All-Irelands with your club.

Your club always comes first. Let that never leave any of the 29 of ye here for the rest of your careers. Club is number one.

gpa (1) Former Galway and Sarsfields star, and now, All-Ireland winning manager Michael 'Hopper' McGrath. Source: Inpho/RTÉ.

The words of Michael ‘Hopper’ McGrath in the Sarsfields dressing room on the day of the 2020 All-Ireland senior camogie club final. Ultimately it was an injury-time goal from his 19-year-old daughter, Siobhán, that sealed the deal for the Galway outfit, and they returned to that same dressing room with the Bill & Agnes Carroll Cup.

The outpour of emotion at the final whistle said it all. After back-to-back All-Ireland final defeats to Slaughtneil in 2017 and 2018, McGrath’s Sarsfields side — backboned by his four daughters, Siobhán, Orlaith, Niamh and Clodagh — had finally done it. And against those same rivals.

Like most of the best things in life, it didn’t come easy. Hailing from the relatively small catchment area of New Inn and Bullaun, one must remember that Sarsfields are only a senior camogie club since 2011. They won their first county championship at that grade in 2016, with the eldest on the team just 23 at the time.

In one sense, they nearly came too soon for the national stage, McGrath reckons. But when they did fully arrive and climb the steps of the Hogan Stand in early March, it was so worth it.

“Oh look, definitely,” the former Galway star nods. “I’d say for any camogie player, you can’t beat it. Really, it’s the top thing.

Okay, winning with your county is special by all means as well, no doubt about that. But to go to the very top with your club and with the players you went to school with and grew up with, that you played with since you were U8 and U10, nothing tops it.

“Without shouting about it, there’s a real sense of achievement. It’s very satisfying. It’s there and it can’t be taken from you. Look, whatever happens in the rest of their careers — I’m sure they’ll win more but it really would have been a special day, no doubt.”

After doing it himself as a player with his beloved club in 1993 and 1994, this experience was quite different for McGrath.

“That’s a while ago now,” he laughs, casting his mind back to those glory days of the 90s.

michael-mcgrath-celebrates-after-the-game-with-sarah-spellman-and-sinead-cannon Celebrating with Sarah Spellman and Sinead Cannon. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“I suppose the thing is when you’re playing, you’re just worrying about yourself. You’re thinking about your own game and trying to get the best out of yourself, but when you’re involved over a team, you’re worrying about everyone else and trying to get the best out of them.

“There’s more things to be thinking about to get right. You don’t want to leave anything to chance, you’re always wondering have you enough done, have you too much done, or what’s right and what’s wrong — there’s a five-week gap between the semi-final and final, there was a 12-week gap between the county final and the All-Ireland semi-final so it can be hard enough. In time, probably, it would be better if it was fitted in the one calendar year.

“But yeah, that’s the big difference. I suppose nothing beats being a player, but after being involved [as manager] and being together for so long, there’s a great sense of achievement and a great sense of satisfaction when you finally do that.

You could see that with everyone involved; officers with the club, everyone on the management team, players, subs; there was a pure release of emotion: ‘We’ve done it now.’ It was a weight off our shoulders in one sense. It was pure relief and pure delight.

That glimpse back to McGrath’s playing days brings some fond memories.

Some of the earliest are entangled with how he earned his famous nickname. Playing at national school and around the house, a neighbour christened him ‘Hopper’ after then-Wexford hurling great Oliver McGrath.

His friends soon caught onto it, and it just stuck.

A few short years later, ‘Hopper’ certainly lived up to the name and did it more than justice in the maroon of Galway. After knocking at the door for some time, Liam MacCarthy lifts came in 1987 and 1988 and they were followed up with All-Star accolades.

But the most special days came in the green of Sarsfields. Club is number one, after all. And the special group of players he shared those lifelong memories with.

michael-mcgrath-191985 In action for Galway in the 1985 All-Ireland final. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Sarsfields had won one in 1980 but this group won our first senior championship in ’89,” McGrath recalls. “We got beaten by Shamrocks of Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final rather unluckily.

“In 1991 then, we didn’t come out of Galway so in ’92 with the new management team – they were all from the club, Michael Conneely who played in goals for Galway and won an All-Ireland, he took over as manager. He just brought great confidence and great reassurance to all the players. He brought everyone with him.

“That year, we just took one match as it went. We won the All-Ireland for the club, it was unbelievable. It was probably something some of us had in the back of our minds: it would be an unreal thing to achieve, but to actually go out and do it…

“We beat Kilmallock in the first final and then the second year we beat Toomevara, we had to come back from the dead! We were actually the first club to win back-to-back All-Irelands as well.

Ah look, they were unreal times. And it kind of put Sarsfields up on the map. When you talk about Sarsfields, everyone kind of refers back to them days of ’93 and ’94. They were real special, special days, they’ll never leave anyone’s memories around Sarsfields anyway.”

A day he doesn’t look back on quite as fondly was revisited by TG4 last weekend.

The broadcaster showed the 1990 All-Ireland final between Galway and Cork. He laughs when he’s asked the big question of whether he watched or chose to avoid it.

I honestly didn’t. I could never get myself to watch that match again. While ’87 and ’88 were great years… I knew it was on, but ah look, it was one we left behind us, definitely. I didn’t want to go through torture!

“There were some great years. We had a great team at that time, we possibly could have won another one or two but you always think about the ones you don’t win when you look back.”

Looking forward is the name of the game now, and McGrath — who first got involved with the club’s underage hurling teams and school teams when he finished playing — is happy to throw his lot in with his All-Ireland champions for another year alongside Kevin Ward, Olive Costello and John Noone.

Source: AIB Bank/YouTube

There’s a firm nod to the three main club officers who “do a lot of unseen work” – chairman Brian Gallagher, secretary Ciara Ward and treasurer Colette Gormally — as he gives a sense of just how much hurling and camogie means to the people of Sarsfields.

“There’s a great structure in the club. Every team from U8 up, they’re really looked after. There’s four or five people involved with every team up along.

“The way it is, every boy and girls in Sarsfields gets a chance to play hurling. They’re brought so far and put it this way, it isn’t from the lack of effort that’s put in by people to get them and encourage them and that.

Even in the last four or five years, we’ve developed a new playing pitch as well in 12-acres of land. it’s top-class and the camogie have equal use of it as the hurling. It’s an example of a club where everyone is one; camogie or hurling, there’s just as much support as regards matches and that’s going back seven or eight years, that’s the way it is.”

Involved in the camogie side of the club in some shape or form since his eldest daughter, Niamh, first rocked up to U10s back in 2001, ‘Hopper’ has been the watchful eye over the seniors since she broke through there.

“Look, everyone in a small area gets a job to do,” he grins. “It’s easier do it than say you won’t do it! You get sucked in then when you get involved in something. You get a bit of energy from the players and you just get caught up in the whole thing. That’s the way it goes.”

He’s well accustomed to managing his quartet of daughters ranging from the ages of 19 to 27 — there’s also 14-year-old Ciara and Laoise, who is 12 — so the dynamic of coaching and then coming home together afterwards isn’t exactly odd.

“Ah, I’m so used to it now at this stage. Whatever is said in a team set-up is said the same as it’s said to everyone else. Okay, you just have to kind of get over that but we’re well used to it at this stage.

Screenshot 2020-04-07 at 14.07.20 McGrath with his four daughters. Source: AIB/The Toughest video.

“They know that as well. When you’re training or when you’re playing, they’re a member of the Sarsfields panel. When you’re at home, it’s different. Look, you can’t be bringing it home all the time, but in saying that, a bit of it does be brought home, no doubt!”

With the current Covid-19 crisis, the house is fairly crowded and there’s significantly less camogie and hurling being talked about. Niamh is working from home, Orlaith and Clodagh are both teachers, Siobhán is at home from college and Ciara and Laoise are home from school.

The mother of the house, Geraldine, a former Irish hockey international and talented runner herself, is also holding the fort down while Michael works away, and the McGrath family, like everyone else, dream of more days in the sun. 

“Look, it’s tough times, really strange,” ‘Hopper’ concludes. “Hopefully, in a few weeks it might settle.. if this month was gone itself, you’d be hoping it might settle down a bit.”

Hoping, we all are.

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Emma Duffy

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