Tuesday 22 August 2017

Down revel in drama of big stage -- McGrath

Newry, Co Down, Monday, Sept 16, 1991

Thousands of deliriously happy Down fans crowded into the wee town that was fit to burst with the numbers thronging its streets for the welcome home of the newly crowned All-Ireland champions.

Paddy O'Rourke raised the Sam Maguire Cup aloft for what must have been the hundredth time since the final whistle blew at Croke Park the previous afternoon signalling that Down had beaten Meath 1-16 to 1-14.

The famine was over. Twenty-three years had passed since the last team from the Mourne County brought Sam home and manager Pete McGrath, the mastermind of the victory, uttered the immortal words: "They said that Meath were the team that couldn't be beaten. We were the team that beat the team that couldn't be beaten."

Cue another round of ringing cheers and whoops. And in those remarks, McGrath identified a fascinating characteristic of Down football teams.

Hardwood

They don't appear at Croke Park in All-Ireland semi-finals or finals very often but when they do, they tend to topple the biggest hardwood trees in the forest as if they were lumberjacks on a chainsaw spree.

Kerry in the 1960 final; a powerful Offaly side in the 1961 decider and the Kingdom again in 1968. Mighty Meath took the fall in 1991 and three years later it was the turn of the Dubs to crash to earth.

Hard to believe that it's 19 years since that epic night in Newry and that 16 years have elapsed without an Ulster or All-Ireland title for the county. McGrath, whose manager's role was central to those All-Ireland victories of 1991 and '94, shakes his head at that statistic.

"In those days teams that got to an All-Ireland semi-final had come through and won their provincial championships, so they knew they already had something in the bank," he said. "In our case, in '91 it had been 10 years since Down had won a provincial title, so we knew there was something to show for the efforts of the season.

"Having said that, it's the old thing about any Down team -- when they go into the All-Ireland series there's a belief and a confidence there and there will never be any suggestion of an inferiority complex.

"That always stands Down teams in good stead when they get on to the big stage and that's the way it was in '91."

The former teacher and coach of the famed Down nursery St Colman's, Newry, was a young senior inter-county manager back then, having only taken over in 1989, but he was always progressive.

McGrath was also learning his trade as a team boss, and observed: "Managers are like players, in the sense that when games are won, players get more confidence, more belief, they learn about themselves, and I think team managers are the same.

"There's no doubt that when you start off a championship campaign, and if you get to an Ulster final or provincial final and you win it, you're probably a more confident manager than you were at the start of it. Now, you mightn't like to admit that.

"You might say, 'I'm always confident,' but deep down inside there's more substantial grounds there for believing in yourself when you win and I think that reflects itself in how you handle the team, how you make decisions and how you approach the thing generally."

One major element of Down's 1991 success was their awareness of the mental requirements for that year's final after they defeated Kerry, managed by Mickey Ned O'Sullivan, in the semi-final.

"I remember telling the players the night after we beat Kerry that we would have to improve and I also said, 'We're in an All-Ireland final for the first time in 23 years and there's going to be expectation and people will be getting excited.'

"I said, 'we can't afford to do that. Let the supporters do that. Let them indulge in that, but we have to remain focused, we have to remain aloof from all that.'

"And the players responded. They didn't fall for the hype."

After '91, Down hit speed bumps -- and that meant more lessons to be learned.

"In '92 and '93, Derry beat us, but in those years Donegal won the All-Ireland in '92 and Derry won it in '93, so even though we were losing out on provincial championships we were aware that we were in very good company and that the standard we were competing at in Ulster was very high.

"We had a good approach in the '94 campaign, particularly after beating Derry at Celtic Park and then going on to win the Ulster championship. I felt we were more ready for the semi-final and the final that year.

"But yes, you do grow with the job and you get wiser. You learn about yourself, you learn about the players and I think it means you're able to make more measured decisions and maybe look at the thing in a calmer, more objective way.

"I certainly would be very definitive and say that I was a wiser manager in '94 than I was in '91 and I think the players were wiser as well."

McGrath is well versed in the current trend of back-room teams and meticulous planning but I wondered if all this is inhibiting the natural talent of players.

McGrath replied: "You hear a lot now about game plans and tactics and sweepers and all that sort of thing but I still feel, even looking at games this year and looking at games generally, that there's still scope there for players to express themselves individually. There is still flexibility and room for people to play to their potential and if they've got flair or whatever gifts they have, they can express those."

It will be interesting to see how that aspect pans out on Sunday in what he thinks is a game that is too close to call.

"Put it this way, I don't think you'd have a lot of people rushing off to put large sums of money with great confidence on either Down or Kildare. It's that close.

"I must say, I'm very impressed with Kildare. Physically they're strong but they're also very mobile and they've got a pace and intensity about their game. They're highly competitive.

"For a number of years they would have been regarded as being a bit sterile in their approach to the game but I think they have evolved a very good system of play."

However, it's certainly not all bad news for Down, he believes. "Defensively, Down have improved. I also think that in the midfield area, the arrival of Kalum King into the county squad this year has given them an added dimension. He's a big strong midfielder, he's given them a lot of stability in that area, particularly defensively.

"I still think the strength of the Down team is their forward line. All Down teams that have done well through the years have had forwards that are capable of conjuring up scores and getting goals at critical times."

Irish Independent

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