Wednesday 26 July 2017

McGrath faces biggest test as champion of the underdogs

Fermanagh boss Pete McGrath will be hoping for a repeat of 1994 when his team face Dublin on Sunday
Fermanagh boss Pete McGrath will be hoping for a repeat of 1994 when his team face Dublin on Sunday
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

If a nationwide sweep were run before the start of the All-Ireland football championships to predict the eight quarter-finalists, Fermanagh would not have attracted many backers.

Topping Division 3 was encouraging, but with Monaghan always likely to despatch Fermanagh into Round 2 of the qualifiers, it was difficult to envisage the Erne men safely negotiating the three rounds necessary to reach the quarter-finals.

However, after beating Antrim for the second time in five weeks, they recovered superbly late on to oust higher-ranked Roscommon, before outclassing Westmeath last Saturday.

So, irrespective of how they fare against Dublin on Sunday, their qualifier success represents massive progress for the squad and their ever-resilient manager Peter McGrath, who returns to where he enjoyed his best achievements.

Blizzard

Indeed, he may well experience a touch of nostalgia when he spots the blizzard of blue jerseys warming up in front of Hill 16.

And while not allowing his mind to wander too far from the important business ahead, he will surely reflect briefly on 21 years ago when he led Down to an All-Ireland final win over Dublin.

It was Down's second triumph in four seasons (they beat Meath in dramatic circumstances in 1991), completing a memorable two-timer that ensured McGrath's entry into an exclusive club as a double All-Ireland winner.

Beating the odds has always been a McGrath trait, right from the time he had to convince the Down players that he was the man to guide them into the 1990s. Leading Down minors to an All-Ireland title in 1987 raised his profile as a talented coach, although not sufficiently to draw unquestioned support from all the senior players when he was proposed as manager in September 1989.

Indeed, at least six were considering quitting the panel, believing that McGrath lacked the necessary experience for the senior job.

A meeting was called, where McGrath, who later described the exchanges as 'frank and sometimes brutal', dealt with the issues raised by the players. He impressed them with his knowledge and passion and the rebellion was quelled.

Five years later, most of them had won two All-Ireland medals, the second gained by beating Dublin in 1994. It was the day that Dublin redeployed Paul Curran from wing-back to left corner-back to mark Mickey Linden, a move that backfired badly.

Dublin found themselves six points down after 20 minutes and while they rallied in the final ten minutes, a missed penalty by Charlie Redmond enabled Down to win by two points.

Remarkably, Down have won neither an Ulster nor All-Ireland title since then. McGrath remained as manager until 2002 and later took charge of the Down U-21s and minors. He also coached the Irish International Rules team for two seasons.

However, it looked as if his senior inter-county managerial days were over. He was an outside adviser to Fermanagh when they appointed Peter Canavan as manager in late 2011 for a term that lasted two years.

Canavan's departure in 2013 sparked tensions between players and the county board, making the appointment of his successor very important.

Fermanagh turned to McGrath and, less than two years on, promotion to Division 2 and a place in the All-Ireland quarter-final have been secured. Once again, he has beaten the odds.

However, he has never faced such mountainous ones as those he will encounter against Dublin on Sunday. Jim Gavin's men are 1/200 to clinch a semi-final slot, with Fermanagh on 20/1.

Even by McGrath's high standards, that's some challenge .

Irish Independent

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