Exit can't spoil special day for McGrath after long haul to full fitness
BURTON Albion's FA Cup tie at Leicester City may have been a disappointment but it was a special day for club captain John McGrath.
The popular Irish midfielder made his first start for the Brewers in 11 months, since needing an operation for a serious foot injury.
McGrath came off after 78 minutes of the 2-0 defeat away to eventual League Two champions Swindon Town at the end of February last year.
Initially, it was not thought to be a serious injury but, eventually, it was diagnosed that a ligament in McGrath's foot had become detached and surgery was required.
McGrath, maintaining his cheery demeanour publicly at least, became a familiar sight at the Pirelli Stadium in a surgical boot – not to mention a vocal supporter of the team from the main stand.
Gradually, he worked his way back to fitness and a first appearance of the season from the bench came with five minutes left in the FA Cup first round replay win over Altrincham.
Five more appearances from the bench followed before McGrath got the call he had been waiting for and was named in a five-man midfield for the Leicester tie.
While the Brewers were comfortably beaten by Leicester, McGrath could not hide his personal delight after the game.
"It was brilliant to have my first start in 11 months," he said. "It could have been Fleetwood Town, York City, Leicester City, anybody, as long as I was in the starting 11.
"Of course, the result mattered but, for me, I just enjoyed playing the game and that's what I intend to do now for the rest of the season.
"Hopefully, my first League start is just around the corner."
McGrath, who will be 33 in March, has often said how much he feels at home at Burton and he says it was frustrating watching his team-mates struggle in the second half of last season and then prepare for this season.
"After going through the rigours of my operation, coming back and watching the lads go through pre-season, it's so nice to be back in there," he said.
"When I initially did it, I knew it was sore but it was misdiagnosed for a couple of weeks as bone bruising.
"So you think, OK, it's just bruising, and then you go to London to see a specialist and, suddenly, you're missing a ligament at the top of your foot and it requires a major operation.
"That did set me back but I have my wife and two kids around me and I always knew I was going to get back to fitness.
"I was always there. I've been to every home game and I've asked to travel to away games.
"Even straight after my operation, I was ringing Stanno (Nathan Stanton) to see how we did.
"I've been here six years now and it's a club that's close to my heart.
"Burton Albion have brought the best out of me as a player. My contract's up at the end of the season and I'd love to stay."
McGrath acknowledges that others have stepped up to the plate in his absence, not least new signings Lee Bell and Robbie Weir in midfield, and that might make it difficult for him to get a regular place back.
"The gaffer has said in the papers that it's like having a new player and signing him in January," said McGrath.
"I hope whether it's because I'm pushing Jack Dyer, Lee Bell or Robbie Weir on to better performances or whether it's me playing that we can, hopefully, cement our place in the play-offs.
"I could start a League game now but what I need is a run of games, five, six or seven in the team, to really get back to 100 per cent.
"Whether or not that comes, I don't know. As I've said, Jack Dyer, Lee Bell and Robbie Weir have been doing really well in midfield and it's up to the gaffer.
"In my view, he's got four of the best midfielders in League Two."
McGrath played 62 minutes of the 2-0 defeat to Leicester and admitted that the Championship side's passing and movement was too much for the Brewers.
"I felt good during the first half and I wish I'd have played 90 minutes," he said.
"The gaffer might have thought I was tiring and, in the grand scheme of things, I've played three reserve games and that was my first competitive start.
"You can play a million reserve games but nothing is like Saturday afternoon at three o'clock and getting that competitive edge.
"I don't think we disgraced ourselves. They had beaten a good Huddersfield side 6-1 the week before and, hopefully, we can go on from here and kick on in the League.
"This year, we have added a bit of steel and I think that will stand us in good stead.
"We have strength in depth now and, last year, we didn't quite have that."