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Waterford legend, Ken McGrath revisits the 2004 AIB Munster Club Hurling Championship Final where his Mount Sion side lost out to Tipperary Champions, Toomevara. Ken won Man of The Match that afternoon after an incredible individual scoring display.

I was playing some of the best hurling of my life in 2004. I was Waterford captain, playing centre back, and going well in midfield for Mount Sion.

Unfortunately, thinking back on that season, I only think about what could have been.

Playing for Waterford was a special honour, but the club was everything.

We grew up in Hillview, about two hundred yards from the club. I went to school in Mount Sion, my father hurled for the club his whole life. There were four boys in our house, and it was all hurling.

There were no computers or phones back then, so all we knew was going out on the road and playing a bit of hurling. When we were old enough, we came around to the club, and it was always a nice safe place for us to play.

My dad won seven senior county titles with Mount Sion back in the 70s and 80s. I won six. He’d remind me of that from time to time. Myself and my brothers used to go to every match he played. We would learn from him by watching him and then try to emulate his moves. He was our hero growing up. That’s where our love of hurling came from.

It was all about going out and enjoying ourselves. Learning the skills and making friends were the priorities. It didn’t make much difference to our coaches if we won the league or picked up trophies.

At our club, coaches just wanted to pass on the love of the game. Winning came later.

In the senior ranks at Mount Sion, there was a winning tradition. When the club won a senior county championship, it lifted the community. The cup would come to the school on the Monday, that meant we got a half-day and no homework.

In 1994, I was asked to join the panel for the senior county final. I was only 16 at the time, and my dad was strongly against the idea. He said I was too young and there would be plenty of time to make my mark in the club.

I wouldn’t have been physically up to standard either, senior hurling was a different game 25 years ago. A young lad like myself might get the better of a cornerback once, but if you did it twice, he’d let you know he was there, and you wouldn’t try it again.

The following year, in 1995, I got my first taste of senior club hurling. We got as far as the county final only to lose out to Ballygunner. I was devastated after the final whistle.

Mount Sion were in transition. The management were trying to build a new senior team for the decade to come, so we had to watch one of our closest rivals win the county championship for three consecutive years. It was tough to take, but we knew there were bigger days ahead for us.

County finals drew huge crowds, so as a 17-year-old I gained such great experience playing in front of thousands of passionate supporters.

Ken McGrath play for Waterford U21s against Cork, 1995 @Inpho

Ken McGrath playing for Waterford U21s against Cork, 1995 @INPHO

The team were only getting stronger as the years went on. We were continuing the winning tradition that was instilled in us from a young age and were constantly moving in the right direction as a group. I won my first county championship in 1998. I had a great year with Waterford as well, so that really kickstarted a lot of our careers.

Coming into the Munster Club Final in 2004 we felt that if we could come through that, then we’d have a right cut off the All-Ireland series. We were up against Tipperary champions, Toomevara. We were two of the strongest teams in Munster – maybe even the country – so the game could have gone either way.

There was great hype around the match. It was a cold but sunny day in Thurles, and there must have been 10 or 12 thousand people in the stands.

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We were in a comfortable place both physically and mentally – we had momentum.

Jim Greene was an amazing motivator; he was a great player and a great manager as well, and he’s not shy in telling you that. He always mentions how he once scored 2-3 from three balls which is impossible, he was that sort of a character and that was brilliant for us. There were plenty of big characters in that dressing room, and Jim was well able to deal with them. That year he brought Padraic Fanning in as a trainer and our level of hurling increased again.

We were hyped up on that pitch in Thurles, you had to be!

If you can’t get hyped up for a Munster Club Final, then there is something wrong with you.

Mount Sion before the AIB Munster Club Hurling Final 2004 ©INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

Mount Sion before the AIB Munster Club Hurling Final 2004 ©INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

I loved the buzz you get out of coming out of the dressing room before a big match being ready to go.

Hurling was different in 2004 than to what it is now. Those games were real battles. There were no sweeper systems then. It was 15 on 15, and you went to war with them. I was up against Eoin Brislane, and I remember seeing the size of him. He must have been six foot four. He had a reputation for being a tough competitor, so I tore into him from the very start.

Things were going well. Coming up to half time, I got a free just outside the 21. I decided to have a crack at it and stuck it in the top corner. I was feeling great that day and connected with it nicely, on another day that might have gone wide. That was the kind of game I was having.

There was no breeze, so at half time we were happy with our lead. We were fired up coming out of the dressing room after half time, maybe a bit too fired up, that can work against you sometimes.

Ken McGrath's penalty hits the back of the Toomevara net ©INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

Ken McGrath’s penalty hits the back of the Toomevara net ©INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

We built on our lead, and with about 12 minutes left, we were seven points clear. Then the game shifted. Toomevara started bombarding us.

In the closing minutes, we were still three points up – hanging in there. They got a sideline, and our goalie Ian O’Regan (Iggy) caught it in the square. Nine times out of 10 Iggy steps to the side and handpasses the ball to Jamie O’Meara, our cornerback who would have worked the ball out of defence.  Under pressure from Willie Ryan, he turned and tried to puck the ball clear. Willie got his hurl in and flicked the ball into the net.

Nobody blamed Iggy, it was a very opportunistic goal from Willie Ryan. Iggy wasn’t the reason we lost the game, we stopped playing after the goal. We froze. They took off like a juggernaut. We couldn’t get the ball up the pitch. It was just wave, after wave, of attack.

Momentum is huge, we went from a stage of being seven points up and in control of the match to suddenly being completely on the back foot. In that critical last 10 minutes, they just got a run on us. That was a killer.

Then we got a lifeline. One point down in the dying moments of the game and we were awarded a free in the middle of the park. Following some verbals from the Toomevara lads, the ref brought it forward ten yards.

Any time I was in that position, I always really enjoyed it. I didn’t think too much about it, obviously it was a huge free, but I was playing the best I have ever played for the club, so I was confident that I’d stick it over.

Ken McGrath during AIB Munster Club Hurling Semi-Final 2004 ©INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

Ken McGrath in action during the AIB Munster Club Hurling Semi-Final 2004 ©INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

It wasn’t a ‘gimme’ by any means, but standing over the free, I knew I was in a position to force a replay and bring Toomevara to Walsh Park which had been a great place for us in those few years.  I rose it well and nine times out of 10 when I rise it well, I stick it over, but on this occasion it just slipped wide. If there was hawk-eye in use back then, I would be looking to the umpire to go check it. It was that close. An inch or two in it.

The chance was gone. Final whistle blew, and we were left wondering, “What just happened?”

I was absolutely devastated; it was a free I should have put over, and I blamed myself for a few weeks and probably a few months after the game. That miss has to go down as one of the big regrets in my career.

Two years before, in the Munster final, there were tears of joy, having beaten Sixmilebridge. There is no better feeling than winning a Munster title with your club. To have such a contrasting feeling on the same pitch two years later, it was very, very hard. Ian O’Regan probably blamed himself, I blamed myself, it was just devastating.

You mourn the loss. Looking back now, you can say, “It’s only a hurling match” but it doesn’t feel like that at the time.

Only a few minutes before, we had been in control of the game. Drive on and see the game out. Then here we were on the ground, our season over, everything we had worked for was gone, and we had come up short when it mattered most.

You can get an unbelievable buzz off the club games; winning the county championship, winning big games in Munster, but the losses with the club are as hard as any game you’ll play in your career.

The team were sitting in the clubhouse the following day reading the match report in the Examiner. I remember reading “Ken McGrath won Man of The Match, but how ironic is it that he missed the free to force the replay.” I didn’t even remember getting the award.

It’s not just on the pitch where you understand what the club means. You’re born into it, and it’s your club for life. In challenging times, you get to truly understand what it’s all about.

In 2014, I hadn’t been feeling well for a while and was just trying to get to the bottom of what was going on. It was discovered that I was born with a bicuspid valve that was starting to swell up, and I needed open heart surgery to get that fixed. It was a tough few months, but we had to deal with it. It was easy for me, I was the one in the hospital, it was my wife and kids at home that I was concerned for.

The operation was the day after my daughter Ali’s birthday. It was three months from the start until I got back from The Beacon. It was tough going, but I was very positive, “Let’s get it done.”

The club were unbelievable. I wanted to keep things quiet and get through it. Rumours were going around about what happened, and teammates heard I was in the hospital for so long. They came down to see me, and I would be chatting away for hours, getting antibiotics. The club lads were brilliant. The day before the op, every single one of the players on the senior panel text me to say good luck, even the younger lads who I wouldn’t have played with a lot. That meant a lot to me.

An organising committee set up an All-Star challenge game for me that June. Mount Sion backed this as well and hosted the after match function. It was like a festival. We had one of the best nights ever up at the club, and that was a testament to the people who put a huge amount of work into making it happen.

Mount Sion's Ken McGrath celebrates with Brian Flannery after Munster Club Hurling Final 2002 ©INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

Mount Sion’s Ken McGrath celebrates with Brian Flannery after the AIB Munster Club Hurling Final 2002 ©INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

We last won a county championship in 2006 which is 13 years ago, that is by far our longest spell, but there’s great spirit up here. There’s something starting to happen again. We’re a city club, but it feels at times like we are a rural club, that’s how close we are. We won’t be a million miles away from another county championship, and we’ll be back where we once were in another couple of years.

I know nothing else but Mount Sion. All my friends are from the club, some of the best craic I have ever had is in that bar in the club.

I’ve gotten everything from the club, and now I’m trying to put back into it. I’ve been coaching the U14s and U15s the last few years, and I’ll be doing minor next year.

I’ve had some of the best days of my life out on that pitch on a sunny afternoon. I have three girls and a young lad who is one and a half, so I hope they will someday get to experience some of those great days. We’ll see!

 

Ken,

December 2019

If you enjoyed Ken’s piece you might like to read Eoin Larkin’s – “The Village Man”.

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