'I still love the game but at times it can be hard to look at'
McGrath’s ‘second coming’ as inter-county manager with Fermanagh brings challenges that have forced him to make adjustments
Published 24/04/2015 | 02:30
Peter McGrath is not down long off the mountain that looms up behind his house in the picturesque south Down town of Rostrevor.
Three mornings a week he will run up through the trails that lace Slieve Martin on the southern edge of the Mournes, sometimes covering seven miles over elevated terrain in a little over an hour.
On two other mornings he will make his way to a nearby gym and push weights. Nothing elaborate, just a routine diet of bench-presses and curls that keep him right.
McGrath will be 62 in June but the years have been very kind to him. His simple philosophy decrees that a healthy body is commensurate with a healthy mind.
The mountains, overlooking Carlingford Lough, are therapeutic to him, a place to think.
"You can throw a lot of things around in your mind up there and see things from a different angle," he says.
Right now inter-county football is preoccupying him again. After a break of more than 11 years during which he said 'no' on countless occasions to counties that had come calling, he relented to the lure of a 'second coming'.
Fermanagh just felt like the right fit, far enough away from Down not to cause a stir, near enough at hand to be relatively convenient.
He had helped to put Peter Canavan in place in 2011 but found himself drawn to the challenge once more.
Tomorrow evening in Croke Park Fermanagh will square up to Armagh in a Division 3 final, their promotion back to the second tier of the Allianz League secured with a game in hand.
Of all the teams that took a step forward in the League, Fermanagh's stride has perhaps been the longest.
"I had a track record of talking to counties and then not taking jobs," recalls McGrath, listing Louth, Antrim and Meath among his previous suitors.
Detaching from Down was something he never felt comfortable with. In those 11 years, six were spent managing the U-21 and minor teams, with another two devoted to International Rules service.
But something stirred in him to return. Even before he met Fermanagh officials he found felt a strange certainty that, this time, he would say 'yes' if the offer came.
"I said to myself 'this could be your last opportunity to manage an inter-county team', that I would do this for no other reason but to challenge myself again at inter-county level," he explains.
The game he left behind on an emotional evening in 2002 when Longford beat Down in a qualifier to bring his 13 years with the Mourne men to an end has changed irrevocably.
When he reflects now with the benefit of hindsight, he spent three years too long in the job. The team that had delivered an All-Ireland title in 1991 and then followed up with another three years later had long broken up.
"If I was to do it again and had all that information available then maybe '99 (Down lost an Ulster final to Armagh) was the time to go. After that it was definitely a struggle and you just felt that you were losing a grip on the thing. You were trying to cobble together a team."
In the background the voices of discontent with his continued stewardship of the team were growing more audible. The narrative was that the innovative and enthusiastic 38-year-old of 1991 had lost his edge for a more modern game 11 years later.
To return he has had to overhaul his modus operandi. In Down he performed "95pc of the training/coaching functions, a lone operator on that front.
In Fermanagh his 'hands-on' approach amounts to taking charge of games and blowing his whistle to halt proceedings when an issue needs to be addressed. Everything else, from a practical point of view, is left to the team he has built around him.
"We discuss what needs to be done, what has to be improved and we plan, but it's different," he says. "You don't fear it but you can worry about not having your fingerprints on everything. Maybe it's an unfounded worry, if you have got the people who you trust.
"You have to embrace change. If you ignore it you will pay a price."
The adjustment to the 'modern way' has manifested in other ways. He admits agreeing to the establishment of a code of conduct, nothing draconian, just a set of guidelines that groups in all walks of life, he says, adhere to.
It is founded on principles of "common sense, good manners, honesty and people behaving with integrity."
He wonders if the modern game has a place for the type of training he believes inspired Down's '94 success.
On Wednesday nights between Championship games that summer Pat O'Hare, who had joined his backroom team by then, would lead on torturous mountain runs.
"That would be regarded today as obsolete. It would be frowned on by a lot of gurus and maybe they are right. But it will come back, somewhere down the line it will come back," says McGrath.
His unease for the direction Gaelic football has taken is palpable too. As much as he is willing to embrace 'modern' ways, he understands the impact it is having on the game as a spectacle.
"I still love the game and will always defend it but it's just going through a phase at the moment that isn't as exciting or as colourful as what we may have been used to," he says.
"Players are now looking for game-plans, defensive systems and protecting the goal.
"What the game has lost through this approach is the classic one-on-one encounters which I think is the greatest appeal of Gaelic football, whether it was Paidi O Se marking Kieran Duff, Jack O'Shea and Brian Mullins, Henry Downey against Greg Blaney, 'Let's see who is going to come out on top'.
"There is now anonymity. Players can. . . maybe hide is too strong a word. . . but everyone is depending on everyone else and if you are not doing well you can point the finger at what is happening down there and over here.
"Those great duels of the past that were so attractive are less apparent. Of course the game has evolved but does that make it a better spectacle? Not in my view.
"At times it can be very hard to look at. I would like to think it is not going to get any worse; I would like to think that , sooner rather than later, we will get a bit more adventure."
With Fermanagh, geography and history aren't allowed to be barriers in the way of ambition.
"The fact that Fermanagh haven't won a great deal over all the years? I say fellas that's not your fault, you weren't playing 50 or 70 years ago. This is your time now," says McGrath.
"I ask them 'why do you think you are not as good as Tyrone or Donegal, tell me why?' And they can't. So let's work and be the best we can be and see how far it takes it."