Cork forward Paul McGrath talks to Éamonn Murphy about the joy of the Double in 1990 and the highs and lows of his career at every level
THE steel and resolve that drove Cork to All-Ireland glory in 1989 and ‘90 was forged in the crucible of their training matches.
Paul McGrath learned the hard way that when you were being man-marked by Niall Cahalane in a bruising A versus or backs and forwards battle, that you shouldn’t wear your favourite jersey.
“At training, we all wore different jerseys, ones we’d swapped after games, and you stopped wearing the ones you wanted to keep because they’d literally be ripped!
“Cahalane marked me a lot, as a corner-forward, and he’d get a hold of the jersey and that would be that! Sometimes Tony Davis, Tony Nation or Denis Walsh, but Cahalane most of the time, no one easy to be marked by anyway.”
Iconic players such as Larry Tompkins, Dave Barry, Teddy McCarthy, Shea Fahy and Danny Culloty all featured in the front six, as well as midfield, for Cork in those halcyon days, with Dinny Allen the captain in ‘89. Competition for places was intense.
“The late Mick Mac, Colm O’Neill, Eoin O’Mahony was an excellent player, John Cleary was a great corner-forward, John O’Driscoll, as well. A lot of good forwards!”
The Bishopstown club man featured in four All-Ireland finals from 1988 to ‘90, where the Rebels turned the disappointment of Croke Park to defeats into consecutive All-Irelands.
“I possibly over-trained in 1988. I wanted to first in every sprint and every drill, trying to prove I was good enough for senior inter-county. So it ended up a disappointment because I didn’t play well in the All-Ireland after.
“I felt a lot stronger and more confident in ‘89 and ‘90. I had been light but I’d bulked up. We used to train once a week in Dunmanway, twice up here, and one of the drills was firing medicine balls off your stomach. Billy used to say ‘they say Cork don’t have the stomach for it, well ye will have the stomach for it’.
“A bit of psychology but it was core work too and we were stronger in the middle, so instead of shying away you were bouncing through tackles.”
McGrath’s father Con, had lined out once for his native Galway before work brought him to Leeside, where he’d star for Cork and Munster in 1950s and land a senior football county with a Gardaí selection. Football was in his blood, especially with a mother from Kerry. The McGraths went to the All-Ireland final regularly and Kerry’s Mikey Sheehy was a childhood hero.
His brothers Martin and John were fine footballers too. Bishopstown had a booming underage and Paul went from the fun of street leagues to Bord na nÓg competitions.
“We won the U14 A county for the first time, beat Skibb in the final. We’d a production line from Spoarid Naomh. We also won the U15 city, but we were beaten by the Barrs at U16 and they beat us again in the minor final. We really left that one behind us. The likes of Anthony O’Sullivan, Donal Dunne, Brian Keane, Declan O’Sullivan, all excellent players. Matt Cooper played in goal up to minor.”
With a Corn Uí Mhuirí collected along the way in 1983, McGrath was hopeful of making the ‘84 Cork minor team but insead he was omitted from the panel altogether. The Leaving Cert offered a distraction from that disappointment and joining the Sigerson Cup squad when he headed to UCC was criticial to his subsequent progress.
“Mick O’Dwyer was the trainer. We trained like dogs. His son John O’Dwyer was involved as well, and a very good Sigerson player, he’d tear the head off you. Barry Coffey and Colm O’Neill, John Murphy, a Cork U21 from Passage, Charlie Gilmartin, who played with Mayo, lots of fellas I didn’t know beforehand but super players.
“We used to do 32 laps for an hour as our ‘pre-season’. Then when we’d go down to the Farm you’d be training on a pitch with water up to your ankles when it rained!”
Then came a brief flirtation with the Kerry set-up which put him back on the radar for Cork.
“After Christmas I’d been training along and going grand, holding my own. Micko came up to me, this is spring 1985 and Kerry are All-Ireland champions, and said ‘your mother is from Kerry, you’d never come down training with us’.
“I thought this was a wind-up like. I said, ‘sure how would I get down to Kerry for training?’ Ger Lynch was working at the time in Cork so Micko suggested I could go down with him! I still thought it was mad.
“Word started getting out though, so all of a sudden I was getting trials for the Cork U21s, and I couldn’t get on the minor panel the year before. So really it all took off from there.
“Bob Honohan was with the Cork U21s so, looking after the Bishopstown team as well, he probably did me a few favours.
“When I did get to play I was the free-taker, even though I was only 19. That was my break. I’d have to give Bob credit for pushing me.”
His stint with the U21s was hugely successful, scoring 0-5 in the 1985 All-Ireland victory over Derry and shining again when they blitzed Offaly in ‘86.
“The likes of Tony Davis, Slocum, Con O’Connell was a very good player on that team, got two goals in the All-Ireland in ‘86, Teddy Mac, Denis Walsh and more [Paddy Hayes, Mick McCarthy, John O’Driscoll, Colm O’Neill and Michael Maguire among them].”
It was the most dominant era of Cork underage football, topped off when Tompkins and Fahy made the switch from Kildare.
“Larry and Shea brought a lot but we had a conveyor belt of underage talent. I mean we’d beaten Kerry between 1980 and ‘82 and ‘84. That was six Munster and five All-Irelands in seven years. And we were excited last year about the talent after winning one All-Ireland, so it shows we were really coming.”
He was on the extended Cork senior panel in ‘87, a campaign where Billy Morgan crossed over as Sigerson coach as well. A broken jaw in an interfirm game ruled McGrath out, which is where Morgan’s man-management came to the fore.
“I was wired up for six weeks, drinking through a straw. This was in early August but Billy insisted on me coming to the All-Ireland with the team.”
Before he’d make his official senior bow in Rebel red, there was another Sigerson campaign with the Skull and Crossbones. This time the College had a secret weapon, a rising star from the Kingdom.
“In 1988 Bob Honohan came in. We’d better teams the previous three years but we’d a Fresher nobody knew about in ‘88. Sigerson was hand-to-hand fighting then really, very aggressive stuff. This fella was above that though.
“Maurice Fitzgerald came in and he made some impression. He took over the frees from me but sure he was class, the best pure footballer I ever played with.
“We’d Jordanstown in the first round and they were the team and had beaten us the previous two years. Here we go again but we owed them and they didn’t know about Maurice at all. He got a hatful of scores and we beat them by a point.”
That UCC connection kicked in during the 1990 collision with Meath too. Colm O’Neill, shown red in the first half, was a good friend of McGrath’s.
“I’d been in college with Colm, he was a gentle giant, and he was going to do to Meath what he’d done to Kerry in the Munster final. When he was put off there was no way we were going to let Colm take the fall for losing to Meath again. Personally I knew I’d to up my level.
“Mick Lyons was a very effective full-back, not dirty, very tough, but you could run him. Terry Ferguson was on me but I tried running across him and Mick Mac was doing the same from the other corner. It kept Mick Lyons busy.”
After a decade of silverware across every grade, Cork hit a few speed bumps and working life took over.
“In ‘91, having massacred Kerry the year before, they caught us and then the same in ‘92. I felt like I’d been on the road a while after that. I wasn’t involved in ‘93, I’d needed a time-out, in ‘94 and ‘95 I was involved but I was working away. By ‘96 I’d another run at it but the hunger was gone I suppose.
“Not managing three-in-a-row was a bit of a regret but look mentally it takes so much to be in All-Ireland finals for four years.”
Retiring from club football in 1999, two senior semi-finals were as close as it got for Town.
“Nemo beat us one year and Duhallow another year.
“We’d a very good team but the standard was very high.
“Still, we promised more than we delivered. You’d Castlehaven, Cleary, Tompkins, Cahalane, the divisional teams, Barrs and Nemo... seriously competitive. Still, it’s a bit of a regret because we had a very strong underage section and a lot of talent ourselves. We lost an U21 county to Skibb too that we were cruising in and threw it away.”
He's still involved in the club, with Bishopstown's U15s. They'd an enjoyable season in 2019, picking up a trophy along the way and he's confident there's more to come from the group.