Down legend McGrath hopes to write new chapter with Fermanagh
PETE McGrath is describing the moment he knew his tenure as Down manager had ended.
June 8, 2002, Pearse Park. Down had just lost to Longford by five points and he turned to his assistant John Murphy – the same John Murphy who scored the goal in the 1968 All-Ireland final – and asked "John, is that it?"
Even recalling it now is painful. His speech stops. The bottom lip sticks out. His eyes moisten.
Thirteen years Pete McGrath spent as Down's manager. Two All-Irelands. A world of memories. All over.
"It was my decision," he recalls. "And I told the county chairman that night. The county board accepted the decision.
"They were very gratified. The last three years had been very difficult."
If ever there was a man defined by the job, it was McGrath as Down manager. And he was fine with that.
"It was an integral part of my life, it was what I was about," he admits.
"When that ends – and these things typically end in disappointing and fairly traumatic circumstances – then it was going to be difficult, leave a void and a realignment of my life, living in a different way."
It's only lunchtime, but the day is well on for McGrath. That morning he had been to the gym for one of his thrice-weekly 90-minute workouts.
The other days, the 60-year-old starts with a 90-minute run up Kilbroney Park to the Cloughmore Stone, retracing the path of the 1994 Down side who had a slavish devotion to that mountain.
"We invested great faith in the mountain, in toughening people's minds as well as their bodies," says McGrath. "I think the players would substantiate that it stood to them in their moments of trial and tribulation.
"Pat (O'Hare, team trainer) would have been on the front, and I would have been at the back, so there was no escape. Once you get up, you had to get down, so there was no easy way out for them."
This is his manor, but there's nothing but the outward signs of humility from him as he sits in the house where he was born and bred.
His father was Peter McGrath of Glasgow. Irish connections were hazy. Maybe. Probably. Who knows?
Peter was keen to join the RAF as a young man, but his own mother wouldn't have it. Sent him away to Ireland to knock some sense into him. He and a friend found lodgings in Warrenpoint and gained employment in the spectacular-looking, but long since blown-up Great Northern Hotel, where he met a local girl, Eileen.
This rest is GAA folklore. They raised five children in St Colman's Gardens and one of those played for Down before being discarded for his lack of size.
Still, that only made him more determined. By the time he was a mere 37-years-of age, young Pete brought Sam Maguire back to the square in Rostrevor as an All-Ireland winning manager, connecting history back to the '60s.
Sitting in this same living room the following evening with Pete's mother Eileen, was future President Mary McAleese. The two walked up the square to welcome home the local hero.
Twelve years later the local club St Bronagh's held a tribute night to one of their favourites sons.
"Sean O'Neill was one of the guests," McGrath recalls. "Sean said that night :'One chapter has ended, another will begin'."
What did Pete do next? Plenty, as it happens. He managed Cooley Kickhams in Louth and Bryansford and An Riocht in Down. He took the Down U-21s for three season, winning two Ulster titles and coming within a last-minute goal from Cork to an All-Ireland. When that was over, he took the minors for a couple of years.
Oh yeah, there was a spell looking after the International Rules team in 2004 and 2005. Turns out, the second chapter was just as rewarding as the first, certainly more varied.
Now, he is into his third chapter, as Fermanagh manager.
He had been asked before by other counties. Louth came knocking twice. Meath made keen enquiries.
He came close to accepting an offer from Monaghan in late 2010.
But the chemistry wasn't right.
"I thought a lot about it, but then you have to ask yourself 'let's be honest here. Do you want to manage a team other than Down?'
"When I posed the question to myself, the answer was no. I got on the phone and explained to the chairman. It wasn't for me."
So, what's changed?
It started with a call he took from Fr Brian D'arcy, asking if he would take Fermanagh. He already knew some of the county board from two years previous when he was part of the interview panel that appointed Peter Canavan.
He went with his gut, he says: "At the end of it all, something sways you one way or the other. I said to myself 'this here maybe the last time you get a chance to manage an inter-county senior team'.
"As well as that, it's not Armagh. Fermanagh wouldn't have been a hardened rival of Down. Geographically, people might say it is hard to manage Fermanagh, because it is so far away, but in another sense that makes it easier.
"I am retired from teaching, the time factor isn't a big, big feature now, so in life you either do things or you don't do things. Maybe now was the right time to do it."
The league campaign was rough and uneven. He had to handle player walkouts, but was able to get Sean Quigley back on board. Overall, they held their position of third in Division 3 and look forward to a plum home tie against Antrim on Sunday; a massive chance to grab their first Ulster win in four seasons. This game has been characterised as two bald men fighting over a comb, but McGrath sees more in Fermanagh.
"I think there is the potential, in the next year or two, for a really, really good team – a team that in my experience, could go toe-to-toe with any team in Ulster. I am convinced about that."
And who would have the credentials to argue with him?