The ultimate compliment for Paddy McGrath arrived from Jim McGuinness in his autobiography, ‘Until Victory Always’.
McGuinness writes that McGrath came ‘to embody everything the team was about’.
It was some commendation for McGrath, who was one of McGuinness’s key lieutenants during his four years as Donegal manager.
McGrath – whose next appearance for Donegal will be his 100th – won an All-Ireland in 2012 and lifted three Ulster SFCs under McGuinness, starting every Championship game in that fabled period.
“Paddy had come to embody everything the team was about: pace and strength and directness and intensity,” was how McGuinness described the Ardara man.
McGrath is poised to become the latest man to enter Donegal’s ‘100 Club’ and that may well be on Sunday when Donegal open their Division 2 campaign against Clare in Ennis.
McGrath made his first Donegal appearance as a sub in an Ulster Championship loss to Down in 2010, while his first start arrived in Donegal’s next game, an infamous qualifier loss to Armagh in Crossmaglen.
Hooked by John Joe Doherty, the then Donegal manager, in the first half after a roasting from Jamie Clarke, who scored 2-2, McGrath’s confidence was hit for six.
McGrath is built from tough granite and the Loughros Point native endeared himself to McGuinness during Donegal’s run to the All-Ireland U21 final in 2010.
McGrath broke his jaw in the semi-final win over Tipperary.
McGuinness recounts the trip to Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry in his book: “It’s a common trip for footballers: if you break your jaw in Donegal, you get it wired in Derry…
“‘You’re going to be a huge loss to us but we have to just focus now on getting ready and back to it.’
“Paddy doesn’t blink. ‘I’m playing that game, Jim,’ he says to me. And he is so adamant about it that I start laughing.
“ He’s eyeballing me, daring me to contradict him. ‘Paddy, you have a broken jaw. And I’ve a duty of care to you. We can’t be reckless here. There is more to life than football’.”
The exchange between McGrath and the surgeon that followed is now the stuff of legend, the doctor telling McGrath that it would be ‘dangerous’ to play.
‘Yeah, but what’s the worst that could happen?’
‘Well, obviously, the worst that could happen is that you break it again.’
‘And if I break it again will you fix it again?’
‘Yes I will, Paddy.’
The surgeon took two teeth from McGrath, inserted a steel plate in his jaw and, in the opening moments of the final against Dublin, Donegal’s corner-back roared into a loose ball and ‘threw himself on it head first’.
On the side-line at Breffni Park, McGuinness turned to Peter McGinley: ‘He’s going to be fine’.
Until last year’s win over Cavan in the Ulster SFC, McGrath played 43 successive Championship games.
McGrath had to wait until January 2016 for his first Donegal point – against Down in the Dr McKenna Cup. He scored a goal in Donegal’s Ulster SFC destruction of Antrim in 2017 and had a goal disallowed in last year’s Ulster final win over Fermanagh.
McGrath is known for his competitive edge with McGuinness referencing one training-ground war with Michael Murphy: ‘Michael and Paddy McGrath sparked one night and there is a big disparity in size between the two boys, but Paddy wouldn’t yield an inch.’
It’s just the sort of man Declan Bonner will want to welcome back as he heads for the often-jagged trenches of Division 2.
Paddy McGrath – Stats by Fr Seán
Debut: 30 May 2010 in S.F.C. v An Dún, Bealach Féich (came on as sub).
Full debut: 26 June 2010 in S.F.C. v Ard Mhacha, Crois Mhic Lionnáin.