Paddy McGrath doesn’t remember 1992, Donegal’s first and only All-Ireland triumph. He was only three at the time, far too young to recall anything about the great occasion.
But growing up in Ardara, the home town of All-Ireland winning captain Anthony Molloy and the team’s teak tough centre half-back Martin ‘Rambo’ Gavigan, he was soon to discover the significance and importance of the ’92 and what it meant to the club and the people of Ardara and the county as he moved up through the years.
“I don’t recall ’92, but it was obviously a great time in Ardara and around the county too. I was up in a neighbour’s house recently, and they had the photo album out and there were some great pictures of ’92 and the day the Sam Maguire Cup came to Ardara. It was obviously a fantastic time.
“Anthony and Martin were my childhood heroes. I looked up to them. Running around the house as young boy I always was either Anthony or Rambo,” says Paddy, who laughs when it is suggested to him that he is more Rambo than Molloy. “I wouldn’t have the height for Anthony,” quips Paddy.
Twenty years on Paddy is the centre of attention in the club and every time he walks down the street the only topic of conversation is about football and Donegal’s great run and their prospects in the final.
“Everybody is very good to me and very supportive and wishing me well. There are flags and bunting up everywhere and there isn’t a house in the parish that hasn’t the Donegal colours up.
“The people up in Glengesh, they have written Sam is for the Hills in white up in the hill, and there is a fantastic buzz around Ardara and the whole area.
“I’m very grateful to the club and all the club people that got me to where I am today. But for a lot of effort by a lot of people I would not be on the county team and looking forward to an All-Ireland. There are too many of them to mention but they know who they are. I’ve had a number of great coaches and managers down the years and I am very grateful to them all for what they have done for me and what they have taught me about the game.
“I know they are delighted for me and even to this day they keep on encouraging me and I’m sure they are as proud to have a man on the team as I am of being on the team,” says Paddy.
“I watched him come up through under age and it was James McHugh that first brought him into the senior team. I think that was around 2007. The first senior game I saw him playing was against Dungloe in a league semi-final in Glenties. He was still a minor at the time and he stood out as special that day and by the time I took over from James in 2009, he had established himself in the team,” says former Ardara manager, Patrick Gallagher predecessor to current boss Adrian Brennan, who took on the role at the start of this season.
“He is a model player and a manager’s dream. He is a brilliant trainer and was always willing to listen and learn more about the game and how to prepare and build up his fitness and always put in a huge effort.
“The tenacity of his game was always something that impressed me and I think impressed Jim McGuinness too. He really has come on in leaps and bounds over the last two years under Jim.
“Jim’s set-up would really impress him because he is a true professional in the way he approaches and prepares for games and we are very proud of him and the fact that we have a man on the county team contesting an All-Ireland final,” says Patrick
Next Sunday Paddy is hoping to walk in the footsteps of his childhood heroes and two of Ardara’s most famous GAA sons Big Anthony Molloy and Martin Rambo Gallagher.
“It is something I always dreamed of and has been a boyhood dream from when I was running around the house with a ball,” says Paddy.
He was a slow burner at underage and did not play county U-16 or minor, his first county experience was at U-21. He had been in minor squads and U-16 squads but never made the team until Sean Clerkin gave him his big break at U-21. And as the case in all good and happy ending stories, he hasn’t looked back since.
Jim McGuinness took over the U-21 reins from Clerkin and placed his faith in the young man from down the road in Ardara. A neighbour’s child!
And really it has been onwards and upwards ever since for the tenacious Paddy. An All-Ireland U-21 final appearance in 2010 may have ended in defeat at the hands of the Dubs but by that stage Paddy had attracted the attention of then county boss John Joe Doherty, and received a call up to the senior squad once the U-21 campaign was over.
He made his senior debut against Armagh in the by now infamous All-Ireland qualifier, in St. Patrick’s Park in Crossmaglen, a mere two seasons ago in July 2010.
Paddy was thrown to the Lions that day against the Orchard County when given the job of marking local favourite and danger man Jamie Clarke. Clarke netted two goals in six minutes as Armagh went on to trounce Donegal 2-14 to 0-11.
Paddy had long been pulled ashore before the final whistle that brought down the curtain on Donegal’s 2010 and championship ambitions and also John Joe Doherty’s reign.
“That game didn’t go well at all. We were well beaten that day and it was not a great experience for me personally. But it is a game of football at the end of the day and nobody had died. I went home and the next day the club had a challenge and I played in it and it didn’t bother me after that. I put it behind me fairly quickly and moved on.
“At the time the U-21 final too was massive to us; unfortunately for us we did not win that day, we were beaten by Dublin. But we came back from that. Jim took the senior job the following year and we went on to win Ulster last year, and we put Ulster’s back to back this year, and we have made it through to the All-Ireland final. It is where we want to be.
“It is unbelievable. When the final whistle went against Cork there was a split second when my mind when blank and then all of sudden it hit me that we had won the game and were in an All-Ireland final.
“It is always something I thought would happen. Maybe not as quickly as it has, but I always felt it would happen some day.
“As a young boy I always dreamed of playing in an All-Ireland final and now to realise that I had made it was looking forward to an All-Ireland final as an unbelievable feeling.
“It has been a learning curve for me over the last two years. It has been very professional. It is a set up you want to be part of. It is enjoyable and there is a great bond between all the players and it has improved me as a player. I feel I have come on as a player in leaps and bounds and I’m far more confident in my own ability and my own game. You have to take on board what Jim says and it is the same for every player and everybody can see how we have improved and how far we have come over the last two years.
“The aim now is to get over the line against Mayo. They are a good side as we seen in their semi-final; they hit 19 scores and are playing well. It is going to come down to who wants it the most and hopefully we can get over the line.
“It is going to be the biggest game of my life and I’m just gearing towards it now and looking forward to it. It is a matter now for the next few days keeping the head down and ignoring the hype. It is another game of football and another game of football to be won.”
And to think it all began the day Eamon McNelis called to the McGrath house in Loughros Point, when Paddy was just was a wee boys and asked his mum if Paddy would like to try his hand at Gaelic football.
That was a good day for Paddy McGrath. It was a good day for Ardara and most of all a good day for Donegal.