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30th Mar 2021

McGrath still as energetic as ever even after all these years

Niall McIntyre

Truncated seasons, online training sessions and God forsaken lockdowns – some things change, others remain resolutely the same.

In the middle of the pandemonium you will find Pete McGrath, fresh and lively as the man who guided Down to All-Ireland titles in ’91 and ’94, fighting the good fight and raring to get back on the line.

You’d have to go a long way back, 44 years in fact, to see him starting out this momentous managerial journey with a Rostrevor under-16 team. The seasons change and the clocks move but Pete McGrath doesn’t budge. He’s still with his home club in 2021, priming the good cmen of Rostrevor for a season that seems like it will never come.

“We managed last year and I think managers and players and people generally are very resilient and very adaptive to any particular set of circumstances they find themselves in. Managing a team had to be tailored and we got on with it,” the young 67-year-old says before his Laochra Gael tribute show airs this Thursday night on TG4.

“And whatever shape the season takes this year, 2021, we’ll manage and we’ll get through it. Yeah, it was difficult surely, but like everything else in life you don’t moan about things, you get on with it and make the best of whatever situation you find yourself in.”

Spoken like the boss he is.

Down had gone 22 years without an All-Ireland before him, and they haven’t won an Ulster title since he left so it’s no exaggeration to say that Pete McGrath will always be an immortal in his home county. It’s not shrines or statues this man is looking for, seeing the Anglo Celt Cup in Down would mean a hell of a lot more. Even after all these years, it still pains him to hear that their last provincial win was in 1994.

“It’s a bit of indictment on us all up here,” the disappointment of it all nowhere near lost on him.

“You could nearly hold a public inquiry into that question – why haven’t Down won an Ulster since ’94 – and we all know how expensive public inquiries can be. But I think it would take one to get to the real reason of why that gap is so long since our last Ulster title.”

Still “one is always optimistic,” he says, “Down are still regarded as among the elite of Gaelic football. People would still regard Down teams as teams that play with a certain swashbuckling style, panache and all that type of thing…”

Magical moments live on and this man has a lot to do with the lasting reputation. If you were to critique his 13 year reign as Down manager, you’d probably start off by saying that, just like Mickey Harte in Tyrone, he stayed on for a few years too many. McGrath admits now that it was a mistake not to resign after the 1999 Ulster final loss to Armagh but just like it did for Harte in Tyrone, the lure of his home county kept pulling him back in,

Indeed, with the Down senior team now managed by a Tyrone man in Paddy Tally, McGrath’s stance is that while Tally is as qualified as anyone for the job, that a Down man should be managing the Down senior football team.

“Paddy Tally was with the team in 2010. He was part of the management team that got them to an All-Ireland final – that was a successful year obviously getting to an All-Ireland final. He’s been with Derry, he’s done a spell with Galway – he’s an experienced coach, I don’t doubt that, and if Down are going to go for an outsider, then Paddy Tally is as qualified as any other outsider. But if you were to ask for my own personal opinion, I think that a county that in relatively recent times, has won All-Irelands – then there should be, the county should be able to have enough confidence in coaches that are within the county.

“There’s no reason to suggest that Down don’t have coaches as good as any other county. I feel if a county can stay within its own parameters and get its own people to manage its teams, then it’s ideal. Maybe at a certain point in time, that person or those people aren’t available. Going outside isn’t breaking any of the ten commandments, there’s no law or rule against it so they’re quite entitled to do that. But the reality is that very few outside coaches have won All-Irelands with other counties, when you look at the record books.”

The end of the era didn’t mean the end of the road for McGrath who, after the sun set on his Down days, had a successful stint as Fermanagh manager before taking over various clubs only to return to the inter-county scene as Louth boss. The similarities with Mickey Harte, just a couple of months his junior, are clear but for the Tyrone man McGrath has a few words of warning. Louth didn’t go well for him in 2018 and after just ten months at helm, he was left wondering whether they take inter-county football as seriously as they should.

“Well, when I went to Louth, the team was in Division  2 and, again, I wouldn’t say a wrong thing about the Louth players, some very, very good players and some very, very good fellas and all the rest of it and what I found was – and maybe this was my fault – they just didn’t seem to take inter-county senior football as seriously as they should, maybe.”

“It was difficult to get them to actually commit the way I wanted them to commit and Division 2 was… they were probably punching above their weight anyway. Even though we didn’t win a match in Division 2 but there were matches that we were very competitive in and last 10/15 minutes then we just lost our way. Mickey’s gone in and they’re in Division Four so in one sense you’d say, well, that there’s only one way they can go – they can’t go down, they can come up.

 “Mickey will bring a degree of organisation and there’s no doubt that his reputation goes before him and players I’m sure will buy into the way Mickey sees it and they will see it as an opportunity – those players who do commit – to play under a man who’s won three All-Irelands.”

Two isn’t so bad either. Thursday night’s Laochra Gael will be worth the watch.

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