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Thursday 21 November 2019

Jamie proud of royal heritage

Dundalk star McGrath is breaking new ground

Jamie McGrath in action for Dundalk against Qarabag last week. Photo: Sportsfile
Jamie McGrath in action for Dundalk against Qarabag last week. Photo: Sportsfile

Jamie McGrath is breaking new ground by preparing to play a competitive Champions League qualifier in Azerbaijan.

As a professional footballer from Meath, he's already used to taking unfamiliar journeys. McGrath is from a GAA heartland, with Blackburn's Darragh Lenihan last year becoming the first Irish senior international to hail from the county.

Last week's Festival of Football brought the FAI roadshow to McGrath's locality and it allowed him to reflect on how he's a trailblazer in his own right.

He was invited back to his old club Athboy Celtic last Thursday, with Mick McCarthy and his assistant Terry Connor visiting as part of their Royal tour.

McGrath was given a special mention from the stage and got to chat with McCarthy about his trip to Oriel Park the previous night. "He said it's all to play for," smiles McGrath, who gained belated international recognition at U-21 level last year.

"It was a proud moment for me to be there. I got a shout-out from the chairman. To see all the local kids and to be an idol for them, it was a proud moment for me."

McGrath wasn't exactly spoiled for choice when it came to local role models in his chosen sport when he was a child. Indeed, the only example that springs to mind is his current team-mate Gary Rogers, Dundalk's 37-year-old netminder. The duo now travel to training together.

"There's a picture of me and Gary when I won at U-11 level and Gary was there posing with us," smiles McGrath. "I still slag him over that."

The highly-rated McGrath is out of contract at the end of the season and some there are observers within the game who reckon that he has the ability to graduate to a higher level.

He has grown into an important player for Dundalk since joining from St Patrick's Athletic ahead of the 2017, with his technical ability never in doubt. McGrath had to work on his physicality and he's getting there.

There was evidence of his new status in last Wednesday's first leg with Qarabag when Vinny Perth opted to replace Patrick McEleney with 20 minutes to go and decided to bring McGrath in from the right side to take central responsibility for the conclusion. He played an important role in the turnaround, winning the corner that led to Patrick Hoban's equaliser.

"They are a quality side," says McGrath, who arrived in Azerbaijan last night on Dundalk's charter flight which had a refuelling stopover in the Romanian city of Timisoara.

"Patrick's goal was big for us. They were dominant in the first half and we needed half-time to recuperate and get our bearings. In the second half, we kept the ball better than in the first and we were a bit more dominant."

We probably should have had another goal, so we will take positives from it."

Qarabag are clear favourites to progress, having participated in group stage football in the past five seasons. McGrath believes the League of Ireland champions are capable of surprising their hosts when it comes to the playing surface.

"I think the big grass pitch will suit them, but it will suit as well," he asserts.

Dundalk have travelled without McGrath's luckless midfield colleague Robbie Benson due to a rib injury he sustained in the first meeting. Seán Murray is set for a starting role in his absence.

Meanwhile, Dundalk first team coach John Gill has admitted that he can understand the frustration of clubs whose fixtures have been called off to accommodate their European journey.

Welfare issue

But he believes that it would have been a 'player welfare' issue if Dundalk took on Sligo Rovers this Saturday just 48 hours after their return from Azerbaijan. They League of Ireland champions were due to play Sligo in the league Saturday and then lock horns with Bohemians on Monday in the EA Sports Cup semi-final.

One of the games was always likely to go once Dundalk were assured of another European tie next week, but both of the matches are off after a request was made to the FAI. Dundalk are expected back from Azerbaijan early on Thursday and do not know where they will be playing next week as it is based on the outcome of their tie and two other matches.

That has caused a bit of consternation around the league due to Dundalk's squad depth and the fact they were able to defeat St Patrick's Athletic last Saturday despite having made eight changes to their starting team.

"I think if it hadn't been Azerbaijan, we'd probably have played," said Gill. "We're due to get back at 8am on Thursday and I don't think we'll be back by that time myself.

"How would you expect us to play (on Saturday)? There's player welfare to consider."

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