McGrath house gets ready for special pilgrimage

James McGrath and sons Belcoo/Lisbellaw

By Colm Bradley

A quick call to the photographer to see had he found the McGrath household confirmed he was on the right track.

About a mile out of Belcoo the sign for Boho had been spotted, the turn taken and houses were currently being scanned. It was just a matter of finding the right one.


“There is a house here with football jerseys on the line,” the photographer said.

“That’s it, chat you later” was the reply.

There was no need for any further conversation.

It turns out there was two sets of jerseys on the line at the time.

One was the Belcoo GAA senior team and the other was the Lisbellaw first team. It gives an inkling into life in the McGrath house, where football is sewn into its very fabric. Or as James senior puts it;

“Football is a bit of a religion around here.”

Well, if that is case the May bank holiday weekend will be something of a pilgrimage. On Saturday James McGrath junior will take to Windsor Park with Glenavon in the Irish Cup final against Ballymena while two days later James senior and Paul will try to secure a Junior Cup for Lisbellaw for the first time since 1978.


James senior was part of that ’78 team. For Lisbellaw over recent times the holy grail of Junior football has been something of a crusade. James senior managed a team to the final in 1997 while he was also in charge as semi finals were reached in 2008 and 2011.

His sons Paul and James played in those teams. And both believe that it is the quest for junior glory that has kept their dad coming back for the past few years.

“This is the big one for dad. I don’t think he would be back if he didn’t want to have one more crack at the Junior Cup,” Paul explained with James agreeing; “The Junior Cup has always been special for Lisbellaw and for Dad too.”

For the younger James watching the Junior final will be a strange feeling. At the start of the season if you told him he would be playing in a big final he would have been sure it would have been for Lisbellaw.

After all he was their hero in the last 16 game against Forde saving two penalties and scoring one in a penalty shoot out to guide his side into the last eight. It wasn’t until the following Wednesday that he received a call from Gary Hamilton, the Glenavon boss.

The Lurgan Blues were experiencing a goalkeeping crisis and their midfield maestro and fellow Belcoo man, Shane McCabe, recommended McGrath.

His first game was at Ferney Park against Ballinamallard where he had spent a number of seasons and he admits to being ‘a bag of nerves in the first half’.

But Glenavon won 2-1 and from there things have been on the up for McGrath and Glenavon and they have a fantastic chance to capture the Irish Cup.

“I am not thinking too much about the game to be honest. Just trying to keep the head down and I suppose closer to the time I will think about it,” was the laid back response of James junior when asked was he excited about the big day.

His answer doesn’t surprise his brother Paul.

“Sure Fudge (James) takes all this in his stride. Not too much fazes him and I knew he would do a good job down there.”

His dad echoes those views;

“He is a cocky sort of boy,” James says of his son laughing, “but to be serious he is a bully keeper and it is great the way things have worked out for him. Sometimes you get the breaks and I think he deserves it and he has taken the chance and fair play to him.”

Looking back to the Forde game James may have been the hero in the penalty shoot out but it was Paul who scored the equaliser in the last five minutes of normal time. One of the Fermanagh and Western’s top players for the past six seasons he has been a real leader on the Lisbellaw team this time around.

“I’m not just saying this because he is my brother but I don’t think there is better in the league at the moment and I think he is well fit for a higher standard if someone were to take a chance on him,” his brother said while dad is just delighted that he has the versatile talents of Paul at his disposal;

“He is playing up front for me at the minute even though his best position is on the right wing. But he has been playing great stuff for us and doing a super job up top.”
In terms of the match itself James senior believes his side are up against it playing last years beaten finalists Harryville Homers;

“We have done a bit of homework on them and they are a good side. They were shocked when they didn’t win it last year and have added to the team since then so it will be a tough challenge but we are not going up there to lie down. We are going to go and play.”

So what does the future hold for James senior? Football being such an integral part of his family’s life, both with Lisbellaw and Belcoo. His wife Bernie is the washer of those kits that fly on the line, while she also makes tea and sandwiches at Lisbellaw.

Son Marty is kit man with Lisbellaw, ‘and knows everything going on,’ as James explains. Yet for all this both Paul and James junior thinks this might be the last stand for their dad on the sideline.

“I think this might be his last game and I know all the players would love for him to sign off with a win,” Paul explained, with James adding;

“He is worshipped down in Lisbellaw and the club is like an extended part of the family but this could be his last game. It would be brilliant for the club to win it and great for dad too.”

But then letting go might be a little hard for the head of the McGrath household.

“Ah, I have tried to leave before. It could be my last but then again you never know, it would be hard to leave too,” James says.

That’s the thing about religion. It is not something you just stop. Even if you happen to capture the Holy Grail.

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