Writing about Liverpool over the years, I’ve repeatedly returned to the theme of the mercenary nature of footballers and how no matter how low you set the bar, they never fail to disappoint you. The gap between the expectation of what we want them to be and the clay-footed reality seems to grow ever wider. Only last night I was reading an article which noted how “they are distant silhouettes behind tinted windows, the other side of the velvet ropes”. So it is bittersweet to be able to dwell on someone who only ever gave to his followers, but that dwelling is because he has handed in his gun. Ken McGrath has retired from inter-county hurling.
To someone whose interest in Waterford hurling is a product of the revival in the county’s fortunes in the 1990’s and had little interaction with the club scene, Ken had a singular significance because he was the first great player that you could see coming. Other big beasts in the jungle like Paul Flynn, Fergal Hartley or Tony Browne had been part of that Under-21/Minor combo in 1992 that hit my near-comatose affection for Waterford GAA like the paddles of a defibrillator. They seemed to spring into life fully formed. The renewed interest in Waterford that sprung from those teams meant that you could see Ken coming from afar.
And what a sight he was, a giant striding purposefully towards a brighter future. Seeing the 17 year-old boy looking every inch the man against Tipperary in the 1995 Munster semi-final was to really believe that we could dare to dream. As late as 1999 he was carrying the Under-21 team against Tipperary, hammering in two goals from long distance frees and seeing a third deflected over the bar to prevent a ludicrous comeback from nine points down with minutes to go. This typified his explosive ability and explained why so many of us were so desperate to get him back into the team in recent years – you always felt we’d have a chance with him around. And now, all we will have are the memories.
But the memories! A flick-up-and-strike against Cork in 2000 which sailed over the bar. His tantalising early tormenting of Philip Maher at full-forward that same year leaving wistful thoughts of what might have been. A decisive cameo against Cork in 2002 just when he was needed. A seven-point haul as the Munster title was finally landed. That catch and salute against Cork in 2004. Countless examples of spontaneity and vitality that just took the breath away. It is often said of some sportsmen, faintly disparagingly, that you don’t know what they are going to do next. With him, it was never an insult because it was usually something no one would even conceive, let alone execute with such elan.
Few players are fortunate enough to be able to choose the time and manner of their departure, and sadly Ken was no exception. He was determined to give it one last lash after the injury-ravaged end to the Noughties. But when even a rose-tinted spectator like myself could see something was wrong last Sunday, it was probably just as well that he wasn’t under illusions. The shine on the game of hurling will be slightly dimmer for his departure. mochuda put it well in his tribute on AFR: “Very few players could make me say this but watching Ken McGrath always made me wish hurling was our first game in Kerry”. It has been our great honour and privilege in Waterford that his and our county were one and the same. Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís.