On the road to his greatest test
Pete McGrath is fully committed to a new cause in Fermanagh, writes Dermot Crowe
The photographs on the wall of Pete McGrath's living room in Rostrevor are of moments to which he is still saddled in the popular mind. They mark the Down championship wins of 1991 and '94, wins that raised his profile to a place alongside some of the best managers the game has ever produced. That was then. There was life after Down. There was even life after the good days with Down, while he was still manager, but not winning All-Irelands.
There are no photographs on his wall of Pearse Park, 2002, for instance, the day it all ended. In the qualifiers they were led outside the championship door by Longford, having shipped a heavy beating from Donegal the previous weekend in Ballybofey. The two years before that were failed harvests with no championship match win. The old players from the prosperous part of the 1990s had moved on save for a few. Mickey Linden was still there at 39. James McCartan, too, fighting a bad back. A couple of others.
The shining up-and-coming star, Liam Doyle, injured himself in Ballybofey in 2002 in the warm-up. Those were the doghouse moments you don't see captured on film, that don't occupy a place on a wall to be doted upon into old age. They don't need to be. He remembers the final whistle in Pearse Park as vividly as if the moment had been framed and was hanging there among the celebration shots. It is preserved in his memory.
Down lost the 1996 Ulster final to Tyrone, the end for many from the successful teams of that decade. They reached another provincial final in 1999, but were well beaten by Armagh. After that the results were dispiriting.
Pearse Park 11 years ago. The whistle blows and Down are out. John Murphy was McGrath's assistant all through those years, a member of the team that won the 1968 All-Ireland. "I just turned to John and I said, 'John, is this the end? Is it over?' And he said: 'Pete, it is'."
In the time since Pete hasn't vanished, just remained a good deal more low-key. He had the Ireland team for a few years, won two Ulster titles with the Down under 21s and was desperately unlucky to lose the All-Ireland final in 2009 to a last-minute goal. The last three years have been spent managing the Down minors. Along the way he has managed An Ríocht and Bryansford in Down and, in his one outside venture, Cooley of Louth.
But now he is to reinvent himself as manager of Fermanagh. Over the years other counties came calling and he resisted the temptation each time. It was either too far away or it didn't feel right. He seemed a home bird. This time, at 60, and out of senior inter-county management 11 years, he couldn't turn it down. What is there left to prove? There's always something to prove.
He had questions to ask himself but he made his mind up in a day. "Do you really want to do this? Do you know what is involved, with the travelling, the issues of going into another county which I have never done before? Working with people I don't know. Getting a panel together. How it impacts on your life at this stage. But it's county football. Senior county football. And you might never get the opportunity to do it at this level again."
He steeples his fingers. "And if life is about doing things, you are better doing it than not doing it. And you could think about it for a month and you wouldn't be any more certain than at the end of a day."
Driving, the journey, doesn't deter him. He retired from teaching at St Colman's in Newry in 2006 so if he returns home at 11.30 at night from Enniskillen there won't be a day's work ahead of him. The trip should take an hour and a half. Management is all about having the time to do what you need to do. And he has plenty of time.
While he has always been in management positions since quitting the Down senior post, this is a return to that big arena. He'll go under the hot lights. That's part of the appeal, he explains. "You can manage club teams and county underage teams and the pressure isn't particularly high. There is pressure but you are not in the public glare. When manager of a county senior team you are at the highest level. I think it is important to challenge yourself, to get the best out of yourself, to push yourself. And, definitely, going into another county is more challenging."
A couple of years ago McGrath was asked by the Fermanagh county executive to be a neutral presence at interviews being conducted for the then vacant senior manager's job. In the lead-up to the interview day there was an outbreak of feverish media speculation that Peter Canavan was the leading contender.
On his way to the scheduled interviews, McGrath got a phone call from one of the interviewees saying he was withdrawing because he felt Canavan was cast-iron. Two other candidates made similar calls to members of the executive and Canavan was the only one left standing.
Canavan's two-year spell brought promotion from Division 4 to 3, but they had some disappointing days in the summer. Fermanagh, while competitive, haven't won an Ulster championship match in four years. His departure left a worrying hole; how could they find a replacement of sufficient renown? McGrath is vastly more experienced in management than his predecessor. But his time out of this level will be a concern to some. "I don't think it is a major hindrance," he says himself. "We all know the serious county teams invest enormous amounts of energy and effort and expertise into what they do. That is the environment which county teams now operate in. I do understand how things have developed. I am not sure that the standard of football is any better. It has become more professional, more thorough, more meticulous."
He will be holding trials on Wednesday and Friday, and is still in the process of finalising his backroom team. He intends meeting the more senior players soon but admits that if the entire panel from last season walked by his door he'd not recognise any of them. The target is to have them training by December and by January to have a panel in place that is the best available. What does he think the players want to hear from him?
He laughs. "I would like to think they would say here is a man who is fully committed. Here is a man who is enthusiastic. Here is a man who knows what he is talking about. Here is a man who is determined to do all in his power to make us be as competitive as we can be against whatever teams we play. Hopefully they'll see a man who has won All-Irelands and succeeded at the highest level. Now, where they want to be, they have to make their mind up on that. They have to buy into it.You can talk all you want, you can make a Churchillian speech, but they need to buy into it."
Where they are is more easily resolved. They face a league campaign in Division 3 with an opening Saturday night fixture in Cavan on February 1. The championship sees them drawn against Antrim in the quarter-finals, with Derry or Donegal awaiting the winners. Promotion and a win over Antrim are the obvious targets.
Fermanagh are the only Ulster county not to have won a senior provincial title. If he managed that, it would stand beside, if not surpass, any of his previous managerial feats. What was his former impression of Fermanagh football? "It's a small county physically, only 24 clubs or whatever. They always appeared to produce good enough footballers. They always seemed to be honest. I suppose you wouldn't have any great fear of going into it; you didn't feel you were walking into a county riddled with factions, they seem united."
He mentions warm relations traditionally between Down and Fermanagh. Their first match after winning the '94 All-Ireland was a league game against Donegal in Newry. Several busloads left Enniskillen for Newry even though Fermanagh were in action the same day. Why? He cites two reasons: the infectious following Down created in the 1960s; because Down supplanted Cavan as the big team in Ulster and Fermanagh didn't have much time for Cavan, neighbours and that.
McGrath has had his own ordeals. He had player unrest between his two All-Ireland wins, which was addressed, and in 2009 he went for an interview for the Down senior post and later expressed dismay at the line of questioning. He felt they weren't taking him seriously. James McCartan was going to get the job.
"Without wishing to drag it all back up, one asked if the team of the '90s underachieved. A county that won five All-Irelands in 100 years and we won two in the '90s! (I was asked) did I still have the energy and the enthusiasm to manage the Down team. Two months after you got a team to an All-Ireland under 21 final and lost it in injury time. I think the (appointment) decisions were already made."
He admits it hurt him badly but says the fact he took the Down minors a year later was evidence he'd moved on. As for his age now, he cites the example of Mickey Harte, just a year younger. "I am looking forward to the day when our panel is settled, we know where we are. And then the whole dynamic will click in. Working with players you want to work with, who you know are committed.
"I honestly do believe that my involvement in football since leaving the Down senior team means something. Footballers are footballers. I think once you get into a dressing room and get to know players and become part of that group dynamic and hopefully get a strong spirit going there is no place like it. Anyone who has played or been involved in management with a group, being in the dressing room is a very strong attraction to them.
"It is not like I am going to another planet. You are dealing with people who live just 50 miles down the road. They are GAA people and all the rest of it. But yes it is different in that it is outside Down. I am sure there is a different mindset to Down, a different outlook. Teams that are nearly culturally different as well. I feel it is a challenge and it will test me."